Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is out this week for the top home consoles and the PC. A version of the original Black Ops has also been released for Sony’s PlayStation Vita but, as popular as Call of Duty is, it is unlikely to save the handheld console. The writing is already on the wall.
Last month, I went to IndieCade here in Los Angeles to see what was new and fresh in gaming and while there were some really cool new concepts, entertainment behemoth Sony’s tent dwarfed the Indie games showcase. Granted, IndieCade needs sponsors and Sony wasn’t showing off their huge blockbuster games but rather highlighting smaller downloadable games for the PlayStation 3 and the struggling Vita. But, it raises a question — are smaller, simpler indie games really the salvation for the PlayStation Vita or handheld gaming in general?
It is not just Sony’s new PlayStation Vita that’s struggling, though even in Japan the Vita is getting outsold by its seven year-old predecessor three to one. Longtime handheld king Nintendo just lowered its sales forecast for their two year-old 3DS by a million units. Between the fading of the social gaming phenomenon that was the Nintendo Wii, aging of the other home consoles, and declining handheld console sales, the videogame industry as a whole is looking pretty bad. Nintendo does have a new home console, the Wii U coming out this weekend, and that should spark at least some improvement for the category’s overall numbers.
Handheld gaming, however, still has a problem and while it’s pretty much agreed that mobile gaming is severely cutting into the console business, there are other factors. Beyond that, Nintendo’s 3DS performing better than its Sony rival may just be masking a Nintendo problem. Nintendo seems content to ride their 20- and 30-year-old franchises all of the way to the end and their current games are pretty much just better looking versions of their old games. While a hit with lovers of nostalgia, new gamers can’t necessarily differentiate retro from simple and anyone with smart phone “knows” that simple games should be free.
Sony’s PlayStation Vita held quite a bit of promise upon release, but as of yet has failed to deliver. The longer that continues, the more it will become a snowball effect (as has occurred with the 3DS). Though Sony already had a PlayStation Portable, the original PSP, the Vita was supposed to be a PlayStation 3 in your pocket. Sony said you could communicate with your PlayStation 3 and even play those games on your Vita. If that had really been the case, the Vita would have been able differentiate itself from its competitor due to the 3DS’ casual and more simple games. Unfortunately, those games and the promised functionality haven’t yet been realized and instead, the Vita seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis.
This is the deal. I am a gamer and somewhat of a technophile and have been for over 30 years. That makes me a pretty easy sale for console makers but at this moment, I no longer own either a 3DS or a Vita. I did own both and even bought two PlayStation Vitas when they came out but, at present I can’t recommend their purchase. My complaint with Nintendo’s 3DS is that I grew up playing those games and don’t need to keep spending money to continue playing those same games I played as a kid and teenager. The Vita, on the other hand, is a beautiful and powerful piece of hardware with nothing to play on it. Sure, I could download a bunch of older games but wasn’t the point of buying the Vita to be able to play the really cool new games?
I understand that there are quite a few people who will disagree with my generalizations, but the sales results say that something is going on. Both Nintendo and Sony point to their online marketplaces for the handheld consoles but the prices and selection are inferior to their Apple and Google competitors. Mario, Pokémon, and Zelda have a lot of fans and that’s why Nintendo’s decline is slower than Sony’s but fewer and fewer consumers are finding a reason to carry around an electronic device in addition to their phone, iPod, and tablet or laptop.