Wednesday, December 4, 2013

How Sony Can Improve the Vita

I’ve always had an affinity for handheld gaming, probably because my first real gaming experience came from playing Link’s Awakening on the original brick GameBoy. The first game I ever beat to completion was Pokemon Yellow on my purple see-through GameBoy Color. Even as I get older, I still tend to game on my handhelds as much (if not more) than my consoles. I love my Vita. It has great graphics, awesome experiences and I can play it pretty much anywhere. Having said that, it’s not a perfect system. There is a reason why it’s being outsold (by huge margins) to the 3DS in every available market, including Japan. So what can Sony do to match its competitor in the handheld market?

At launch the standard, Wi-Fi only model of the Vita cost $250. Despite the common consensus, that is an extremely fair price point, especially when you take into account what it is the Vita can do graphically and game play-wise. However, fair doesn’t mean that people will buy it. The economy has been terrible for years and no one wants to spend more money than they have to, especially for something that is technically extraneous.

I know this. You know this. Sony knows this. So it’s time forthem to bite the bullet here and drop the price again. The recent drop to $200 has helped sales of the handheld, but it’s not enough. The 3DS is $30 cheaper, comes in many colors and sizes and offers extremely memorable and well known franchises like Mario and Pokemon. For any parent or non-gamer out there, the 3DS is going to be what they go to buy for someone. What needs to happen is Sony needs to match the 3DS in price. A $50 price drop down to $150 would be far more effective, this is reality. With a $30 price drop, Sony can at least set the Vita on a more level playing field with the 3DS.

The Vita has a massive library. From launch it has had a strong showing, despite a few small dry spells here and there. With the recent push for Sony to have smaller indie games on all its consoles, the Vita library has exploded. There are so many games that most people do have time to play all of them. This is awesome, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement.

What the Vita lacks more than anything are large, system specific gamesSony franchises like Killzone and Uncharted have made their transition to the console with large success, but we are now in a void. Let’s hear some more about another Uncharted, or LittleBigPlanet, or (a good) Resistance. Where’s God of War for Vita? The PSP titles from Ready at Dawn were amazing (so good in fact, they were ported to the PS3) and there is a distinct lack of 3D action games on Vita. How aboutinFamous for Vita? I’d love to zip through a brand new city as a brand new conduit with powers that could rival Cole.

Aside from the established console franchises, there are also thefew Vita specific franchises. Gravity Rush was an amazing game, and we’ve been teased on the sequel, but how about some real information? Or maybe something entirely new, but fills in the void of some of what other consoles have to offer. I lovedLittleBigPlanet Karting, and a fully established cart racer would be so fun on Vita.

As I said before, the Vita has a large library of great games, but the future is where it falls apart. We want to know what’s coming next, and by showing what’s coming could also help sell some consoles.

Younger Audience Games
This is a huge Achilles heel for the Vita. 3DS is successful for many reasons, but one of the major reasons is that it aims for a younger audience and succeeds. I don’t want this for the Vita, strictly. I like splattering blood with sword strikes in NinjaGaiden and sacrificing friends in Soul Sacrifice, but having a good balance can only help the Vita.

Aside from the Lego games and a few first party games, likeLittleBigPlanet and Tearaway, there are not a whole lot of kid-friendly alternatives to play on the Vita, which means alienating an entire audience automatically. Nintendo has Mario, Zelda,Pokemon and even Nintendogs, all of which appeal to younger audiences and are played by all ages. That’s what Sony needs!

There is some hope, as games like the pet centric PlayStation Vita Pets is coming to the handheld, and it’s a start, but Sony will need more franchises out there to come to Vita. Even if the company doesn’t want to make the games themselves, it would be easy for Sony to pay to have famous franchises likeSkylanders or Disney Infinity to come to the Vita. Any of this would help make the decision on which handheld a parent should buy their young child harder to make and make Sony more competitive.

Near sucks. No one knows how to properly use it and in almost every game it’s in the functionality is menial. On the other hand, 3DS has Street Pass, and it’s awesome. It’s engaging and social and more than just seeing what other people are playing in the area. Sony doesn’t need to copy Nintendo here, but making Nearmore relevant would be so awesome.

I travel for at least an hour a day to get to work and back, and I travel hundreds of miles a month to see family and friends, and I would love Near to do something while I am carrying my Vita. I’d love to collect things from other players, such as pieces of Avatars for my PS ID that once completed I could use with my profile. Or maybe pass along ghosts of myself to strangers to beat my high score in gamesOr maybe something completelydifferent. 

Regardless, the Vita is a unique system, and having a real social experience with other players around me would be a lot of fun, but in its current state, Near is useless.

The Vita launched with two models: Wi-Fi only and 3G. Why Sony did this to the Vita I will never know, but it only hurts the system. Without 3G on all systems, most developers aim for the lowest common denominator (in this case, the Wi-Fi models) so it never gets utilized. Add on the cost of an additional data plan for the Vita through only one carrier in the United States, and it’s no wonder why the 3G model is slowly being phased out (try and find any of the new bundles with a 3G model).

If the 3G was subsidized though, it could be amazing. Amazon does it for their Kindle tablets, so this is not unheard of. Sony could suck it up and pay for the 3G for every Vita, controlling what the 3G could be used for to compensate for the costs while opening up new functionality that can be used without having to find a hotspot. Downloads would be out, but what about small automatic updates for my installed games? Imagine being able to throw your save file in the PS Plus cloud while waiting for your significant other at the mall. Sync your trophies while waiting in traffic on the drive home.

This added openness could also be infused in to other apps, such as Near (once it’s actually good) and be used for simple things that don’t involve gaming, such as web surfing, checking your email or using social media. This would actually make carrying your Vita around more feasible than it is now and could even open up to some new game features if put in the right developers hands.

Tightening Things Up
Personally, I really like the UI of the Vita, but there are a few smaller things that would really improve the Vita experience over all. The PS4 allows for automatic downloads when you’re not at home. Simply go online, purchase a game and select download to PS4. It’s awesome and so convenient so why not have something similar for Vita. Obviously battery life is a big issue, so you don’t want it just automatically downloading all the time, but wouldn’t it be great to have a setting to automatically download when it’s connected to this specific Wi-Fi connection, so you can set it to your home connection and have it download whenever it’s at home? Or maybe regulate it by geo-location if the specific Wi-Fi connection thing is not possible.

This could easily be tied into system and game updates. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve turned on my Vita to play a game, only to have to install a game update. Just do it for me Sony! All kidding aside, that would be awesome. 

Aside from automatic download and updates, my only other major problem with the Vita software is the messaging system. Whenever I get a message from a friend I have to go to the Home Screen, open up the Messages app, find the message and then read it. Why not just have the message appear at the top of the screen, like texts do on my iPhone? Obviously screen space is an issue with handheld gaming, but I don’t need the whole message if it’s too long, just who sent it and the first line or two, or hell, even just the topic would make the system more streamlined.

I want to reiterate what I said before: I love my Vita. It’s because of this love I want it to succeed. I want it to catch up to 3DS and be a welcome addition to many households across the globe. In its current state, that’s not possible, but if Sony listens and does some tweaking, it could be amazing. As always, post your comments and questions below. I love talking with anyone who is willing.

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