Eyes on Sony: They Can Do It All

This past week, Sony released the Playstation Vita, the successor to its successful, but often gunned down handheld gaming device. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising, since Sony decided not to launch its marketing campaign until the day the system launched.

With the Vita, Sony is, for better or worse, continuing its video game legacy on the same path it has stormed for nearly two decades. Producing systems with cutting edge graphics at high cost; sacrificing sanity for quality. As a long time Sony customer, and gamer, I like this kind of strategy, but I am also realistic. Sony is in deep waters along the ocean it has chosen to set sail on, and its time for a course correction. Sony insists that the iPhone and Android phones are not the Vita’s competition, instead focusing on Nintendo and its 3DS, which is now the fastest selling system of all time (To 5 million units).

While Nintendo is the king of handheld gaming, and weathered the storm its stockbrokers rained, demanding they make iPhone games, Sony does not have three decades of loyal fans to fall back on. Nintendo survived on the selling power of its first party name brands. Brands like Mario and Zelda that people buy just because of what they are. Sony has no long lasting brand names in its title library. Its first party games have almost always been trilogies, with some getting 4th installments years later on newer consoles. Most of its Playstation One brands did not make it deep into the Playstation 2 era, let alone into the 3, or the Vita. So while the Vita may offer bleeding edge portable power for home console quality, it lacks a lot of the brand appeal Nintendo feasts on.

So, what can Sony do? With the PSP, they did something no one else had ever done before; stood up to Nintendo. While Nintendo purists will still insist that the PSP was a failure and ask “Where are the games?”, the PSP has sold 71 million units world wide to the DS’s 151 million. About half, yes, but no other hand held had ever come so close, or lasted so long. With that, Sony has kept the same focus with the Vita. Offer more power, and keep the guns aimed at Nintendo, but Nintendo is no longer its biggest threat.

Like Microsoft and Blackberry, Sony was late to the smartphone 2.0 party started by the iPhone. So late, I wonder why they even bothered. Not only did they not learn from this lesson by releasing their Tablets super late, but they didn’t seem to think it would have any effect on the Vita. The message should have come in loud and clear that consumers love their smart phones, and find it sufficient to not have the need for a dedicated portable gaming device like the Vita. Again, the 3DS can survive on the strength of its brand name titles. The children love them, and the 3DS is priced for that market. Speaking of price, I forgot to mention that the Vita is 250-300 dollars, and you can’t get a cellular contract discount.

So Sony has managed to plunge itself into a very grim battle with two powerful forces. On one side, there are the young gamers that sucker their parents into getting them a portable. Faced with that choice, most parents will opt for the 170 dollar 3DS, with its colorful box and friendly cartoon character art. A 250 dollar box with guns and explosions isn’t going to sell to a parent. On the other side, is the ever growing smart phone market, and its plague like app stores filled with dollar games. Nest to that, who wants to spend $40 on a single portable game, even if it is home console quality?

The Vita and smart phones are rarely being used to play the exact same games, and in the cases they are, the Vita is playing phone ports. Right now, the only existing example is Plants vs Zombies, which is a steep $15. If you were to make a game for both systems now, and best utilize their resources, the difference would truly be shocking, but I doubt we’ll ever see such a thing, which is why Sony can’t leverage on the Vita’s power.

I think for the Vita to remain relevant, it will have to sleep with the enemy, and build an app store within the Playstation Network (PSN). The second step would be to make that PSN app store usable on some phones, and Sony has its own phone making division for that. The reason being is the Vita is a toy that looks like a toy. Smart phones are widely called expensive toys, but they are at least incognito. They allow us to be kids without appearing truly kiddy. An adult playing Plants Vs Zombies on the Vita is going to look silly next to someone doing the same on an iPhone. For all we know, they could just be texting or browsing the net. Sony could even create that same disguise by making Sony Vita phones, like they did with the Playstation Phone. A full blown PSV phone is out of the question, but a line of phones named Vita running on the system’s OS could help expand the app store, and even play the PSP titles offered on the PSN. They may be late, but they can finish strong.

Sony has a very big opportunity to make the Vita something great. It can offer all of the cheap phone games that have become so popular with just a fraction of its power, and then its big gun library. I just hope Sony is smart enough to adopt a two prong strategy, because I want something like the Vita to be successful.

While I’m not into portable gaming anymore, a device like the Vita that allows me to take home console quality games anywhere I travel in my pocket is very attractive. The fact that the Vita has been so slow to start with what is arguably the strongest launch line-up ever raises concerns that Sony must adjust to. All told, I don’t view the Vita as a failure in technology or intent. It simply is not properly positioned in the market, and needs a new strategy. It can do it all, Sony. Don’t keep it on the one way street.

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