Monday, June 13, 2011

Thoughts on the PlayStation Vita

Due to the lull in exciting technology news lately, I decided to revisit a gadget that first appeared during this year's E3 Expo: the PlayStation Vita. Originally the intention was to post thoughts on both the PS Vita and the newly-announced Nintendo U. I guess we'll save the Nintendo U for the next lull in interesting news.

For all those who have missed the news, Sony announced the next generation of its portable gaming device (formerly codename "NGP"). The device packs a 5-inch OLED (organic light emitting diode) screen, two analog sticks along with the standard PlayStation D-pad, dual cameras, and state-of-the-art sensors like proximity and accelerometer. It also comes uniquely with a touchpad in the back of the device. But arguably the biggest surprise was the price: the PlayStation Vita will be offered at $249 retail for the Wi-Fi version, and $50 more (at $299) for the 3G version. This makes it directly competitive with the Nintendo 3DS.

At first glance, the PlayStation Vita seems to be destined for market success. It is competitively priced against the rival Nintendo 3DS, but packs much more features. Sony seems to have finally created a device that can dominate Nintendo's growing iterations of the original GameBoy -- a process it embarked on beginning in 2005, with the release of the PlayStation Portable. The price of $249 definitely makes the Vita very attractive for potential buyers. Commenters and self-proclaimed market experts alike have proclaimed the demise of the Nintendo 3DS thanks to the Vita.

But I would be more cautious in jumping to any conclusions so early. For one, recent history indicates that we should never count out Nintendo from the video gaming market -- even when they seemingly offer a mediocre product. For example, I remember both the Wii and the DS being mocked when announced: it was obvious the Xbox 360, PS3 and the PSP all offered superior hardware. Yet superior hardware alone is not enough (just ask the creators of the first Xbox). We all know the Wii and the DS have dominated sales charts until more recently. As underpowered and battery-sapping as the Nintendo 3DS is, I need to see some sales figures before announcing the Vita's victory.

I also think tech enthusiasts are also forgetting a critical transformation that has swept through the mobile video gaming market. Whereas the PSP and DS competed directly against each other, their successors must now compete against cell phones and tablets alike. And competition sure looks fierce! Both cell phones and tablets alike are becoming exponentially more powerful (e.g. upcoming quad-core tablets and the Samsung Galaxy S II phone), in terms of both speed and graphical prowess. Therefore, I think the PlayStation Vita will be competing more with these devices than with, say, the Nintendo 3DS.

More specifically, Sony has to convince potential customers that the PlayStation Vita cannot be replaced by the versatility of a new dual-core cell phone. Or by the bigger screen size of a tablet. This is becoming more and more difficult due to the myriad of game developers flocking to develop for mobile operating systems like the OSX and Android. One way for Sony to win is to release appealing games (like the announced Uncharted: Golden Abyss), which has been a bread-and-butter strategy of Nintendo's. But Sony's gaming franchises are arguably much less cemented than Nintendo's Mario, Zelda, Star Fox, and many more. On the bright side, as Halo's impact on the sales of Xbox evidence, it sometimes just takes one game to change the fortunes for a device.

In sum, I am excited to see what the PlayStation Vita has to offer -- and how it sells against the competition. It certainly has ingredients for success.

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