Sony has finally thrown in the towel with the PlayStation Vita: no more first-party titles are in development and the company will now rely completely on third-party developers to keep the system going. That’s all, folks. Wrap it up. It’s over.
But here’s the part about the news that bugs me: Sony still doesn’t understand why the system failed.
In an interview with 4Gamer, Sony Computer Entertainment Senior Vice President Masayasu Ito attributed the system’s lack of popularity to three factors: it didn’t resonate with the under-20 demographic, it got outpaced in graphical power by smartphones and Capcom’s popular Monster Hunter series moved exclusively to Nintendo’s competing 3DS handheld.
Now, I’m not going to dispute any of those three reasons — they’re all absolutely correct — but Ito never demonstrated that he understood why each of those reasons exist or the even more pressing issues that still plague the system today.
Let’s get it out of the way now: the Vita’s biggest problem, one Ito completely ignores, is and has always been that it is way too expensive. The initial $249 asking price sounded perfectly reasonable until we all watched Nintendo’s 3DS crash and burn at the same price a full year earlier. The only way Nintendo was able to pull the 3DS out of free fall was a dramatic price cut to $169 just five months after launch. And if the follow-up to Nintendo’s most profitable handheld to date couldn’t successfully hold a $249 launch price, there was no reason to believe the Vita would be able to. Yet while Nintendo saw a huge, sustained sales uptick at its new price point, Sony refused to budge on price for a full year and a half before finally cutting the Vita down to $199 in August 2013, which is exactly where it sits now, over two years later. That’s right — a Vita will still set you back $199 today.
Two hundred dollars for an abandoned platform.
For perspective, the most expensive version of Nintendo’s 2015 follow-up to the 3DS, the New 3DS XL, costs the same amount and has a massive library of quality games with more on the way. And keep in mind that with that two hundred dollar Vita you’ll still need to factor in the cost of one of Sony’s infamous proprietary memory cards. Rather than using standard SD or even micro SD storage, Sony chose to make its own memory card format for the Vita and gouge consumers with ridiculous prices. The most expensive was the 32GB card at $99, effectively turning the Vita into a $349 handheld before you’ve even bought a single game for it. Like the system itself, the Vita’s memory cards have only seen a single price drop in over three years, bringing those 32GB cards to a still-far-too-expensive $79. For additional perspective, you can get a 32GB SD card right now for $12 on Amazon.
Did the Vita appeal to the under-20 demographic? No, of course it didn’t. It cost two hundred and fifty dollars at launch plus the cost of a memory card with little more to offer kids than Little Deviants. Did the Vita get outpaced by modern smartphones? Yes, of course it did, but that’s a weak excuse; the 3DS is decidedly less powerful than the Vita but has done extremely well for itself — once Nintendo dropped the price. Did the Vita suffer when Monster Hunter ditched the system? No doubt, but given the system’s slow sales and Sony’s languishing support, you can’t blame Capcom for jumping ship.
From the ground up, the Vita was a misguided device. Sony wanted to deliver “console-quality experiences” on a handheld that doesn’t have all the same console inputs. It essentially needed to create a Wii U GamePad with a smaller screen, but instead threw random, costly ideas at the wall to compete with smartphones: you’ve got a touch screen, both front- and rear-facing cameras, a microphone, a gyroscope and accelerometer, apps like Twitter, email and Skype, an optional 3G mobile network connection, and most baffling of all, a touch panel on the back of the system. Yes, Sony somehow managed to justify a rear touch panel, but not comfortable analog sticks that can click or a second set of shoulder buttons.
When you’re trying to figure out why the Vita failed, look no further than the outrageous cost of the system — a cost that still haunts it today, even after a redesign made the system cheaper to manufacture but ditched the gorgeous OLED display for a more standard LCD screen. Sure, you can point to any number of factors that certainly didn’t help the Vita on its way into its place on the pile of dead handhelds sandwiched between the PlayStation Portable and the Nokia N-Gage, but the price of the system is absolutely the reason it never took off.
The Vita failed because Sony failed: to read its audience, to price the system attractively, to avoid relying on gimmicks and to react to market realities. To blame the Vita’s problems on kids for not getting it, on smartphones for outpacing it and on Capcom for abandoning it is completely missing the point.