It must be hard being a Sony handheld. The PSP, whilst doing well when viewed separately from the DS and GBA, never really got that strong of a foothold outside of Japan. This was due to a number of issues on Sony's end, including a high price-point, a confusing advertising campaign and a long gap between must-have titles, to name a few. Coming into a new console generation, one would believe (and hope) that Sony had learnt from their mistakes, and that the Vita could flourish. Unfortunately, if early signs are anything to go by, this isn't the case.
The Vita has managed to sell 1million units in Japan now. That may seem impressive, but it took the Vita a massive 43 weeks to reach this milestone on the market. Compare this to its predecessor, the PSP, which took only 14 weeks. As far as other modern handhelds go, the 3DS took 12, and the DS hit a million within a month. It doesn't seem quite so impressive when put in that context…
Sadly, the issue runs much deeper than it may seem. The Wii, whose successor is just around the corner and has next to no advertisement and no real exclusives at all coming out for it, is still managing to outsell the Vita, reliably, week after week. And then you remember that the current 3DS-Vita gap is 18 million. Assuming that the Vita can outsell the 3DS starting from today (which won't happen, because it's selling more than 130k less, and the gap is increasing), the Vita will have to outsell the 3DS nearly 50k every week on average to simply match it within 6 years. It’s barely managing to sell 40k each week in total, so it's fairly safe to assume that the 3DS has 'won' this generation before it's really begun. So, the question is, to what extent can the Vita make up some of this lost ground?
Sony can do a few things to help the situation, so let’s have a look at these things in a bit more detail to see how Sony can attempt to turn the tables:
The most important would have to be securing the latest in the ridiculously-big-in-Japan Monster Hunter title, Monster Hunter 4. This game alone should keep the 3DS afloat for a good 12 months in Japan, and if the Vita could get an exclusive game in the series, even a spin-off or port, then it could revitalize sales in Japan. However, after TGS, and with the recent reveal of a Monster Hunter game being made for the Wii U, it’s looking less and less likely that the Vita will get a game of this popularity in Japan for a good while yet.
A new game in the Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest series, or something similar, could also help boost sales. But this suffers from the same problem that will plague the Vita after its poor start: 3rd party insecurity. If the system isn’t selling, then it isn’t going to be selling many copies of games either. Developers are unlikely to produce an exclusive game for it due to the higher chance of not getting that money back. And so they’ll either produce a multiplatform game or just skip the console altogether. This means fewer people buy the system… which leads to a vicious cycle of poor sales and poor support which, without a big move from Sony, is unlikely to be broken.
In the west, a Gran Turismo or quality Call of Duty game could help to sustain sales, amongst other things. An exclusive Assassin’s Creed game has just released, and a version of the new CoD game will also be greeting the Vita shortly. But although these will help towards bolstering the position of the Vita, it’s unlikely to stop the rot the system has been going through lately, or persuade the more casual consumer to pay £200 (and that's for the most basic bundle, which doesn't include a memory card) for the system.
What is really needed is a steady stream of high-quality games, like the HD consoles have been receiving the past few years. Almost every month there’s a new big hitter, be it Resident Evil, Dishonored, Borderlands, or even simply FIFA, so there’s unlikely to be a situation where you look at the release schedule and see nothing which interests you. Sadly, this is not the case for the Vita and Sony need to change that. Fast.
The easiest way for that to happen is for Sony to really get behind their new system. Drop all support for the PSP and really get some heavy hitters out there. A Ratchet and Clank game, a Gran Turismo game, a Sly Cooper game, and other exclusives could help. There's Gravity Rush and LittleBigPlanet, but these high-quality exclusives are few and far between. Other titles, like the latest Resistance entry, have been poorly received both by reviewers and by consumers, and should act as a lesson that if you try and sell the system as the console experience then you need to make quality titles which reflect that.
What about a price cut? After making such a heavy loss, it may be hard to envisage Sony pumping too much money into the Vita early on. But it’s not enough for Sony to be content with the system. You can’t carry a system by yourself, you need the support from your developers and from your consumers. A price cut could easily solve many of the Vita's problems, even if it would hurt Sony's bottom line. A short-term financial loss is sometimes a long-term financial gain, after all.
Perhaps cutting the price of the memory cards would be the best idea, or simply including them with each system. A lot of the criticism thrown in the Vita's direction has been related to the memory cards, after all. Suddenly the system cost doesn’t seem quite as high when you haven’t got the cost of a memory card included as well. I’m not saying it’s a fool-proof plan, but it’s certainly a possibility which should be explored (and one which I’m sure will be explored over the Christmas period).
In the end, though, Sony have said many times that they’re happy with the sales of the Vita, and only they can decide what they'll do. But it is a shame to see such a capable system, with so much potential, being so poorly handled by the company behind it and struggling to take off.
Is the Vita in trouble? I think it is. But Sony can rescue the situation if they really want to. The question is, will they bother?