Turn the Vita ‘Round

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“Shadow dancing, baby you do it right…”

In addition to being a renowned orator, statesman, writer, army officer, artist, and historian, it’s a scarcely known fact that Winston Churchill also invented disco. Sure, it took a few years to catch on, but the British Bulldog was the first to open his shirt to the fourth button, pull on the white polyester slacks, slip into some gold chains, and Hustle his way into obscure historical lore; most people think it was Thomas Jefferson who invented disco, but that’s just revisionist twaddle; Thomas Jefferson invented Velveeta, which, unlike disco, contains almost no cheese at all.

It was August, 1940, and Mr C. was addressing the House of Commons with a speech now known as “The Few,” in which he said, more or less, “Lotta shit can happen in a year.” Of course I’m paraphrasing; what he actually uttered was closer along the lines of “Almost a year has passed since the war began, and it is natural for us, I think, to pause on our journey at this milestone and survey the dark, wide field.” Whereupon he sloughed off the frump that was his daily raiment, and stepped into his boogie shoes for a night on the town. This just goes to prove that even though he may have looked like Kuato’s bitchy twin, WC had it going on.

Take Your Time (Do It Right)

While not quite on the scale of Churchill’s raison de parler, February 15th marked the official one-year anniversary of the PS Vita’s release in North America, and if there was ever a company that had a reason to pause on its journey and survey the dark, wide whatever, it’s Sony. With their dog’s-ass handling of the Vita, and the miasma of mismanagement that surrounds the company in general, you’ve got to wonder whether the Vita might be Sony’s final foray into the arena of portable plaforms.

What do I mean by Sony’s “dog’s-ass handling” of the Vita? That’s simple; while the hardware is absolutely first-rate (with the admittedly petty exception of slightly short battery life), the Vita’s system software is the worst that I’ve seen on any handheld. Allow me to reverse-engineer my beef, if you will:

The next generation of handheld will have a steep learning curve for developers.

Sony’s next-generation handheld. Note the UMD slot.

First, every action on the Vita requires an extra input. Want to launch an app? Touch the app icon, then touch the start button in the launch window. Why not simply touch the app icon and get right to it? A similar process must be used when closing an app; press the PS button, then swipe the application window closed on the touch screen. This places an unnecessary layer of interaction between the user and the software, rendering the experience of doing anything on the Vita much more cumbersome than it needs to be. At first this might not seem like a big deal, but magnify the process by every single time that you use the Vita, and what might have seemed like a quirky little annoyance for five minutes turns into a cumulative pain in the ass until the end of time.

Second, every application  in the LiveArea (Sony’s name for the Vita’s GUI) is scattered about as though flung by uninhibited orangutans with poor coordination and unfettered access to the Milk of Magnesia. While both the PSP’s and the PS3’s GUIs (the XMB, or XrossMediaBar, and no, I don’t understand it either) are organized into categories, that is, according to the function of each particular application, the Vita’s GUI simply slings shit everywhere;  users can rearrange the icons to suit their personal preferences, but there is no option for the creation of folders, which are a conceptual approach to information storage and retrieval.

Let’s say you need three things from the supermarket; a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a wad of imitation butter-flavored hydrogenated vegetable oil product. Let’s also say for a moment that, like the LiveArea, the products in this supermarket are not organized conceptually. The bread isn’t in the aisle with the baked goods, sharing shelf space with various kinds of bread, it’s tucked beside a can of beans, which sits next to a jar of grape jelly, which in turn is hobnobbing with the bacon. The milk is in a cooler with some lightbulbs, and the imitation butter-flavored hydrogenated vegetable oil product can be found near some hot dogs. And the hot dogs, well, the hot dogs are rogues. They go where they please. Don’t turn your back on them.

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“I can’t survive, can’t stay alive, without your love…”

Instead of organizing the store in a manner that people can instinctively understand — canned goods > canned vegetables > canned beans > canned black beans > canned black beans with low sodium — this supermarket eschews conceptual organization in favor of range-of-the-moment perceptual chaos; sure, the customers can organize the shelves as they shop, just as Mr. and Mr. Loyal PS Vita Owners can organize their Vita’s icons to fit their needs, but what good will that do when as soon as a new item comes in, it’s going to be shunted off to the end of the shelf and require the complete reorganization of everything in the store? Would you shop in such a place, even if it had a great OLED screen and a second analog stick?

Forget for a moment that the selection of Vita games is thinner than a bowl of question marks; the Vita itself is just too damned expensive, and those few games that are worth playing simply do not justify the cost of admission. You might not mind paying $40 for something like Persona 4 Golden or Silent Hill: Book of Memories, and those games could very likely be worth the price, but mobile gaming (specifically, the cost structure) has changed dramatically over the last four years. The Vita’s most robust competition comes not from Nintendo’s 3DS, but from iOS and Android devices, where a premium, fully realized, high-definition, smooth-as-butta game experience can be had for as little as 99 cents, and in some cases, for free. The fact that someone, anyone, would ask $40 at the time of release for something as offal as Dungeon Hunter: Alliance (with said offal being available on the PS3 for $15), is especially laughable.

More, More, More

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Also available in Cosmic Red, Sapphire Blue, and Fingerprint Black.

It’s perfectly reasonable for a publisher or a hardware manufacturer to price its products at whatever the market will bear, but after a year of admittedly disappointing sales, it’s obvious that the market will not bear the cost of the Vita, or its games, for very much longer. Here are a few changes which might help Sony achieve better penetration sales with the Vita:

1. A price drop of almost ¥4000 was announced today in Japan. This is a good start, but it’s not going to be enough to see significant sales increases; a deeper price drop across all markets would go a long way towards doing for the Vita what Nintendo’s $80 cut did for the 3DS in 2011.

2. Provided Sony wants to compete with the likes of the iPhone, iPad, and Android devices, people need to be able to find good games for the Vita that don’t cost as much as the GDP of several South Pacific nations. If they don’t want to compete with those platforms, well, they might as well pull the plug right now; the competition isn’t the device that’s closest in price to the Vita, it’s whatever people are buying instead of the Vita. If that’s the iPad and the Nexus 7, Sony needs to address that issue in order to become competitive with those platforms. Changing the development process so that it’s irresistible to make games for the Vita would at once expand the Vita’s library and sell more systems (see “expand the Vita’s library”). One way to accomplish this would be through discounts on the royalty rates that publishers pay Sony for every game sold. 

3. Stop undercutting the value of inexpensive Vita games by relegating them to the “Minis” section of the PlayStation Store. Anything that can be played on a Vita should be displayed proudly beside the $30 and $40 monstrosities like Dungeon Hunter: Alliance and ModNation Racers: Road Trip. I guarantee that this segregation isn’t hurting the sales of games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss, but I’ll bet it’s killing some otherwise worthwhile titles like A Space Shooter for Two Bucks! And no, Sony, the latter is not going to cannibalize sales of the former if they’re displayed in the same category. You’ll simply sell more of what you otherwise wouldn’t sell at all.

Not as much of a pack-in as it was a fuck up.

Not as much of a pack-in as it was a fuck-up.

4. More games. For a game system, you’d think this would be kind of important. I don’t care if it’ll play movies, surf the web, and comb the cat; if there aren’t enough games, you’ve got yourself a paperweight. Where are all the downloadable PS2 games for the Vita? Where are the first-rate, Sony-published titles like War of the Monsters, Primal, Dark Clouds 1 and 2, Gran Turismos 3 and 4, Shadow of the Colossus, and the Ratchet and Clank series? Would it be prohibitively expensive to get all or some of these games working on the Vita, and make them available for purchase by people who wouldn’t mind revisiting some of these classics? (Okay, maybe not Primal.) Why do they think that people will pony up for fifteen-year-old PlayStation games like Medal of Honor (which holds up quite well, I must say), but not for God of War or Rogue Galaxy? More games. And then…more games.

Last Dance

It isn’t going to be an easy climb for Sony, regardless of how well the Vita performs from here on out. The essence of their trouble lies in their inability to balance sales volume with quality; that is, to put as many systems and games into as many hands as possible, without sacrificing the top-tier hardware experience that once was a hallmark of their brand. We first saw this suicidal disintegration in the PlayStation 3, which was priced at $599 at a time when that amount of money might have fed a family of three for a month — as such, PS3 sales suffered. (As a former firsthand witness to Sony’s ineptitude, I can attest that during 2007, Sony and the PlayStation 3’s astronomical admission price were responsible for more Xbox 360 sales than was Microsoft.) By contrast, one year after its release, and with a little help from Rockstar, the PlayStation 2 practically sold itself; not since then has a Sony product been in such high demand.

His mad improvisational skills on the dance floor notwithstanding, Winston Churchill is better remembered for yet another quote, one that is vastly applicable to Sony’s current status, which they’ll heed to their benefit, and ignore at their peril:

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

It is time for Sony to survey the dark, wide field.

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Filed under Commentary, Hardware, PS3

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