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Why the Vita might fail

5:55 PM, Feb 19, 2012   |    comments
Sony's PlayStation Vita
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Early last year, Nintendo released its newest handheld, the Nintendo 3DS, which didn't exactly light the world on fire. A lackluster launch line-up, a high price, and a lukewarm reception for the 3D effect sent Nintendo scrambling to increase sales, but after some panicked retooling and a price drop, sales are on the up and up. Now Sony is trying to do the same with their successor to the PlayStation Portable, the highly-powerful PlayStation Vita. The system's success is far from guaranteed, however; here are a few reasons why the Vita might have less life in it than Sony is hoping for.

Poor backward compatibility

Right now, anything you can do on a Nintendo DS, you can do on a Nintendo 3DS, with the exception of playing Game Boy Advance or earlier cartridges. The two game formats are extremely similar, and you can take any DS cartridge and pop it into the 3DS with no problems; this means that right off the bat, there are hundreds of games you can buy and play on your 3DS, many of them spectacular and discounted. On top of that, all of the downloadable content from the online Nintendo DSi Shop is available in the 3DS's eShop, and any games you have downloaded from the past generation can be transferred to your new system for free. Basically, once you have your 3DS, there's no need to keep your old system around, battery life concerns aside.

Sony has greater difficulties, to say the least. The disc-based format of the PSP has been cast aside in favor of cartridges, which means you won't be putting any of your old games into your new Vita. To that end, Sony thought up the UMD Passport program, where players can register their old PSP games and download them again on the Vita... if you're in Japan, that is. American gamers are out of luck. If you've bought a lot of UMD discs, you'll need to keep your old system around to play them, and most people prefer not to hold onto two handhelds if they can help it.

Downloaded items can be transferred over, though, including any of the PSP games you've bought from the PS Store. Of course, storing them on the Vita is another matter...

Expensive peripherals

With the last generation of systems, Nintendo abandoned any thoughts of proprietary memory, and they've stuck with simple SD cards ever since. When you buy a 3DS, you get a 2GB card with it, memory enough to download dozens upon dozens of games, and there's still onboard memory on top of that. The Vita comes with... nothing.

The Vita already costs $250 or $300, depending on what model you get, but if you want to save your games, or download anything, you'll need to pick up a memory card, and anyone familiar enough with Sony will know that SD cards aren't going to cut it. The Vita uses its own proprietary memory format, and the minimum you'll be spending on it is $20 for a 4GB card; a 32GB card will run you a mighty $100. Add in the cost of games, and you're looking at over $300 minimum, nearly a hundred dollars more than their competitor. There are a number of people who will shell out cash for the newest technology, to be sure, but if you can't convince enough people of your value as a system, you're sunk.

Developers not happy?

You can't get customers on your side, though, if developers aren't on yours. Sony systems are historically not as easy to develop for as are Nintendo systems, but this generally doesn't make a difference, as game developers are happy to overcome challenges to deliver better games to more people. However, recent events seem to indicate relations are more chilly than usual.

The sales figures for the Vita in Japan are fairly low, especially compared with similar system launches. The 3DS outsells it nearly every week, as does the original PSP - remember earlier when we mentioned no backwards compatibility? On top of that, an anonymous quote to the Japanese Nikkei newspaper stated that "major Japanese companies are canceling all projects intended for the Vita and are changing development to the 3DS." The validity of this quote is being rightly questioned, but game developers will follow the money. Right now that lies with Nintendo and not Sony.

This is especially important in today's world of smartphones. If you already have an iPhone or an Android in your pocket, you're not buying the Vita because it has Netflix and Google Maps; you're looking for a dedicated game device, with great games that can compete with the variety of free and $1 titles smartphones have. If Sony can't gain momentum with some top-tier games, the Vita might, depressingly, never take off.

Nintendo's game to lose

At the end of the day, the fact remains that nobody has ever threatened Nintendo's dominance in the handheld arena. The Game Boy and Game Boy Advance lines saw huge success and never had many strong competitors. The Nintendo DS faced off against the PSP and managed to sell more than twice as many systems, nearly making itself the most-purchased video game system of all time. The 3DS had a bit of a rough start, but in nine months it managed to sell more units than the original DS. This is Nintendo's arena, and if you enter into it, you need to be prepared to fight a war.

Sony sold a very impressive 70 million PSP systems around the world, but the Vita so far is hardly showing the momentum of its predecessor; Sony no longer has the powerful Monster Hunter and Dragon Quest franchises that make Japanese gamers salivate, which will make competition in that region difficult, thereby exacerbating any existing "developer creep" that may exist. Sony still has a number of exclusive, high-quality American franchises like Uncharted, but nothing they have will ever compare to Mario. The Vita isn't going to die right out of the gate, but without a strong game lineup, it will never stand out next to its better-known and better-priced competitor.

On the other hand, the Vita does have a number of features that could end up making all the difference, if Sony plays its cards right.

Thing aren't all doom-and-gloom for the Vita, though.  Tune in tomorrow to see a few reasons why Sony's new gaming platform could end up being a success.

- by Jim Avery for news10.net's Game Guys

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