Okay, let’s get it out in the open straightaway: there’s a distinct possibility people don’t actually want dedicated handheld games machines anymore.
Well, that’s the prevailing wisdom anyway. Hey, I mean, if you can play Tiny Tower on your phone, why would you ever want to play, say, Uncharted: Golden Abyss on a five-inch OLED display with twin analogue sticks and a rousing cinematic feel that compares favourably to… hang on, that actually does sound pretty good.
And that’s the thing. Vita is pretty good. But we all look at it and think, oh God, Sony, what have you done? Should we? Are we right? Now that the 3DS has got off its behind and started selling in real numbers, could it be that there is still a market for custom-built portable gaming contraptions?
There is. And there are ways Sony can get to it. I think these are the six key issues.
Market it properly
Okay, this is easier said than done, and it certainly isn’t a case of posting millions of dollars through the letterbox of some hip Amsterdam ad agency and hoping for the best.
Look at the Nintendo DS. It wasn’t Shigeru Miyamoto that drew such an enormous new audience to that machine, it was Patrick Stewart. Remember those aggravating Brain Training adverts? They were brilliantly pitched because they combined several mainstream interests into one 30-second assault. They had famous people, which are popular, and they had the notion that something fun could ultimately be good for you – that is the intrinsic message of all advertising.
Sony once had the hang of all this with its brilliant Double Life and Mental Wealth ads, which zeroed in on the tastes and concerns of youngsters in the same way as Nintendo zeroed in on their parents. Those ads were weird and esoteric, but yet easy to discuss and disseminate. Sony needs to re-capture that magic with Vita – the company needs to roll up its sleeves and thrust an arm into the zeitgeist and have a good swish around. It needs to make Vita a talking point.
Realise the promise of real-world gaming
A while ago, you couldn’t stroll through a Tokyo park without seeing excitable groups of teenagers playing Monster Hunter together. That game truly realised and exploited the value of ad-hoc multiplayer gaming like nothing else before or since. Vita just needs to take that concept and make it appeal to a larger demographic than Japanese schoolboys.
Certainly, with its combination of Wi-Fi/3G, GPS, social networking apps and movement controllers, this thing could take the StreetPass concept into intriguing, potentially epoch-shattering new areas. Start combining modern games with services like FourSquare or Google Latitude and you get something like the old location-based games on Java mobile phones, but actually fun and accessible. There’s a location-based iOS and Android RPG named Parallel Kingdom that sort of explores this territory, but there are more robust, imaginative and extensive implementations out there.
Also, when I interviewed Ricky Haggett of indie developer HoneySlug earlier this week, he talked about the Vita becoming a tool in a completely new range of local multiplayer experiences – like how the Move controller has become a tool in Johann Sebastian Joust.
It could all be an impractical blind alley in practise, but Sony should be experimenting anyway.
Embrace the indies
Not actually embrace them, that would be weird and uncomfortable. But, you know, support them. Sony has a habit of picking out one or two underground superstars and really grooming them – see Media Molecule, thatgamecompany and Q-Games. That was fine in the olden days of closed, walled technologies, but now smartphones are here and everyone can make games. Consequently, the intrinsic relationships of the industry have changed and hardware manufacturers have to change too.
Lesson one: it’s not about aggregation anymore, it’s about facilitation. Sony needs to be talking to the likes of Andreas Illiger and Simogo and telling them, ‘don’t put your next game on the App Store, put it on Vita’. It also needs to be chatting to the groovy young things of the US and Euro indie scenes, grabbing their attention away from that sorceress, Steam, if only for a few minutes. SCE chief Shuhei Yoshida admitted as much to Develop last year, and Sony has been hanging about at indie events like Fantastic Arcade, charming the pants off bedroom coders (wait, reverse, not a good image). It is also set to make its PlayStation Suite SDK available to small studios so they can more easily and cheapily develop downloadable Vita titles, in much the same way they might create Android apps – it would be smart to get this onto university courses too. It could be the Net Yaroze of the moment. This all seems to be working – I mean, we’ve just heard that Brian Provinciano is bringing Retro City Rampage to Vita – a great start, guys. Now we need Spy Party, Spelunky and The Witness and we’re on our way…
Actually get Remote Play working
Modern life is all about eco-systems. We want products that communicate with each other for our convenience; we live in a world of seamless info-emotional networks, we demand to be synced. Google+ is essentially contemporary human existence broken down into a social application, with its groups, its discussion points and its way of allowing us to secretly categorise everyone we know. Vita needs to get a piece of this action; it needs to form a symbiotic bond with its home console brother, so that we can actually, really, play PS3 games on the move, or use Vita as a ‘second screen’ in the home. There are some fascinating possibilities here, but it’s got to be easy and it’s got to work.
Make developers love it
This is really important, yet it’s possibly the least ‘customer-facing’ of all the potential benefits of the platform. The PS3 is, by all accounts, an absolute pig to program on; the PS2 wasn’t particularly easy either, and according to some studios, the support they received on the platform left a lot to be desired. Already, I’m hearing from devs that Vita has great libraries, great APIs and great support from Sony’s technical staff. This stuff is important – the difference between a major triple A title getting a Vita conversion or not, could well come down to a coder sitting in a room with a producer saying, ‘hey, this machine is a delight to work with, we could knock up a prototype in a matter of months, and add all sorts of lovely extras.’ Certainly, publishers are driven by consumer demand (and there are dark rumours from Japan that some are already leaving the platform), but they also need to take technical leads from their staff.
Bring back the golden age of platform exclusives
Vita needs games that aren’t available anywhere else – you don’t need to be Werner Heisenberg to figure that one out. The phrase ‘games that aren’t available anywhere else’ can mean original titles like Escape Plan, Sound Shapes and Gravity Rush, but it can also mean one-off tie-ins with major brands. PSP had Final Fantasy Tactics: The War Of The Lions, God of War: Chains of Olympus and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Vita needs more of that – it needs brilliant original interpretations of Batman, Bioshock and Call of Duty. It needs Sony’s in-house studios to be developing stuff that really tests the platform. LittleBigPlanet and ModNation Racers look to be making a decent start, but let’s have some cool things from Team Ico, Polyphony and Naughty Dog. No, not HD remixes of old games, NEW cool things. New cool things are what will decide the fate of Vita in the end.