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Call of Duty can’t save the Vita

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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.

The PlayStation Vita’s failure to capitalize on its opportunity to offer home console quality games is disappointing, and with an abysmal user base is unlikely to be able to provide more in the future.  The games on 3DS are having a hard time differentiating themselves from the quality of games on phones and tablets.  Tell me Pokémon wouldn’t be better on an iPad or that most DS games wouldn’t be better served on the larger screens of the current phones and tablets on the market.

Phones and tablets are the only possible future of mobile gaming.  Amazon’s Kindle Fire is already geared toward children and more versatile than consoles at a similar cost.  The screens on most current phones are significantly larger than either of the screens on the 3DS and many of the current phones and tablets now feature dual and quad core processors.  The only problem is that Nintendo as of yet refuses to bring their IPs to other platforms.  However, if the Wii U isn’t successful don’t be surprised if Nintendo has to follow Sega’s exit from hardware.

The objection many developers and publishers have to embracing mobile devices is what they perceive as an undervalued marketplace. Why would they spend a couple of millions of dollars making a game that they either have to give away or sell for a dollar particularly when they’ve been selling those games for $40 and $50?  Part of that is their fault though.  In the move to digital downloads, publishers have been intent on maintaining the physical game price points.  That is unrealistic and needs to give.  If I can’t hold it, put it on my shelf, or let my friend borrow it, it’s not worth the same amount of money.

Most games available on Apple or Google’s market are worth a dollar.  They’re time wasters and the equivalent of dollar store toys.  But, if you offer something better, you can charge more for it.  The studies all show that everyone uses tablets most at home on the couch.  A couple of well known publishers are starting to dabble with mobile but, haven’t yet really taken the plunge. 

As a lifelong console gamer, it took me awhile to come around to the following realization (it’s not really that profound but, like many gamers, it took me awhile to let go).  The bottom line is that I want better games to play without monopolizing the TV in the living room. That is why I’ve recently gotten involved with Crash Dummies: Escape Velocity, an indie project currently on indiegogo to bring a console quality game to mobile platforms.  You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, right?

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About Lance Roth

Lance Roth has over 10 years experience in the video game industry. He has worked in a number of capacities within the industry and currently provides development and strategy consulting. He participated in all of the major console launches since the Dreamcast. This videogame resume goes all of the way back to when they were written in DOS. You can contact Lance at RPGameX.com or rpgamex@gmail.com.
  • SteelFlying

    Until a tablet with physical button controls shows up, a dedicated Handheld will always grant a richer gaming experience. A more established device that WILL last for a number of years without the need to constantly upgrade to the next iteration also helps. But I’ll admit that I am not a Technophile, just a gamer. The quality of the game is more important to me than the raw power or social status symbol of the machine it is on.

    @Matty C
    Sony messed up it’s own relationship with Capcom’s Monster Hunter series. It’s unwillingness to update Adhoc on the PS3 and insistence on trophies prevented the release of Portable 3rd and it’s HD equivalent. Nintendo on the other hand is being very helpful, even publishing 3U’s release in some regions.

  • @Matty C The problem is that developers won’t make games for handheld consoles because the install base is so low and won’t make games for tablets because everyone is used to buy games for $1. The new tablets and phones can do plenty they just need a developer to put the resources into developing good games. Better, more expensive games can sell on mobile devices. They just have to be made. The data is there to support it.

  • Matty C

    I’m so torn on the Vita. It’s a seriously beautiful piece of kit and as someone who never owned a PS3 or a PSP there’s plenty for me to play on it that I haven’t played before. So all in all, I’m happy with my Vita purchase and especially with LittleBigPlanet now and Super Monkey Ball I’d say it’s crossed that threshold where I have enough games for it that it’s justified the purchase for me.

    Yet here’s the thing. Nearly EVERY WEEK there’ll be a cool new, interesting game coming out for the iPad or iPhone that only costs a few bucks at the most. I think that is what’s driving the “Vita has hardly any games” perception. There’s such a long time between games, relatively speaking and that’s a big issue.

    Sure, those iPad games might be $4-$5 and have only that amouont of throwaway gameplay, but when there’s something new and shiny always just around the corner, that doesn’t feel like much of an issue.

    NOW what will be interesting is that as these tablets get more powerful, will the requisite budget and time required for developing on them increase accordingly? The time and effort a developer needs to put into creating good looking assets for the platform is only increasing.

    The other thing is that phones and tablets are generationally advancing so quickly. In real terms I think you’ll see the iPad in two years time vastly overpowering what the Vita can do today. Now imagine that with Razr’s idea of having the control bars down the side of the tablet with real physical controls. THAT would kill the Vita.

    On a somewhat related note, how in the hell did Sony let Nintendo grab Monster Hunter as an exclusive? WHAT THE FLYING S**T went on there, SERIOUSLY?!?! Someone must have been asleep on that one.

  • Nintendork

    I don’t really understand all of the “Nintendo is doomed, no Nintendo IP on smartphones&tablets”.

    3DS is doing better than DS, it has it’s own identity with nice quality games(most from japan developers).

    Maybe it’s related to the recent brainwash made in apple/samsung/google about dedicated devices.

    Nintendo has more than 30years in portable entertainment, they know that part of the business.

    If Nintendo started selling their IP’s on another platform the image of Nintendo itself would be damaged.

    Let Nintendo be Nintendo please. We don’t need another guy telling them to follow the current bubble of cheapo games, make cash as soon as possible on the “profitable mobile market”.

    We saw facebook stock plummeting, zynga going the way of dodo and so on.