Yesterday the PlayStation Vita – Sony’s more-than-capable handheld device – was once again pushed to the forefront. The slimmer, thinner, redesigned Vita is heading to the UK market.
Take a look at the box. It’s a signal of intent. Proudly on the front there’s a logo that boasts integration with the PlayStation 4. Turn it around, and the first image that catches your eye on the back, is a picture of Sony’s latest console – the most successful of the ‘next-gen’ platforms. It’s outstripping its direct competitor, Xbox One, by 50% in the UK.
Sales of the Vita, however, were not spectacular upon its release. Sony acknowledges this, even admitting the hardware was really conceived before smart phones and tablets reshaped the gaming landscape. But there’s reason to be moderately hopeful. Vita experienced an uplift in sales in the run up to Christmas – and though the festive period will have played a role, it’s an effect that Sony’s attributing to the release of the PlayStation 4.
There was a 163% uplift in PS Vita sales post PS4 launch.”
So where does Vita stand in the UK? Yesterday I spoke with Fergal Gara, the managing director of Sony Computer Entertainment UK, at the announcement of the refreshed hardware coming to the UK, and the strategy he outlined was confident but more importantly self-aware.
“Does it have huge mass-market potential? Probably not. But it does have a place,” Gara tells me.
A part of Sony’s strategy when it comes to PS Vita is being open and upfront about the platform, who it naturally appeals to, its strengths, limitations and potential reach.
Crucially, Sony isn’t trying to make the device into something it’s not; it’s not trying to take on iOS devices, head-to-head. It wouldn’t win. Its natural place is with a more traditional type of player, the individual who will make room in their bags for a dedicated device.
That’s an aspect of Vita that has only benefitted from the successful launch of PlayStation 4, a console that, from its very first announcement, has actively courted those who were eager for a device devoted primarily to games. According to Gara, the Vita has directly benefitted from the launch Sony’s new console.
Does it have huge mass-market potential? Probably not. But it does have a place.”
“There was a 163% uplift in PS Vita sales post PS4 launch,” he says. “A significant number of PS Vita purchasers in the UK indicated that Remote Play was their reason for purchase, and we are subsequently seeing lots of these new PS Vita users connecting to PS4 with this feature.”
Naturally, Gara is keen to underline the handheld’s kinship with the new console. “There’s a lot of commonality with the PlayStation 4 in that we launched it as a gamer’s device, because first and foremost it is a gamer’s device: you’ve got full controls, you’ve got high-quality visuals.”
Given the recent boost experienced by the Vita, I was interested to know if Sony would capitalise upon the relationship with PS4. Would it extend beyond Remote Play and Cross Buy?
For the time being, Gara is more focussed on strengthening the Vita’s existing compatibility with the PS4, which was purposely underplayed during the recent launch. “What we can do is draw out the message a bit more strongly in our marketing,” he says.
“At this moment in time, that feels worth doing. We can see it in the usage patterns. We can see it – it’s not just us saying there’s a feature there. It’s people using the feature. So that there is something to talk about a little more loudly.
“When you’ve got a huge launch to execute, and you start talking about everything on your list, your feature list, you just bamboozle people. It was there as a message, but it certainly wasn’t a big loud message.”
A significant number of PS Vita purchasers in the UK indicated that Remote Play was their reason for purchase.”
What about a bundle? It’s something that’s been rumoured ever since the console was released, with some retailers even creating bespoke packages. Gara agrees it’s natural pairing, but it’s not really the most important thing.
“We’ll think about that. For me, that’s not the most important thing – that just affects the cardboard you chuck in a bag on the way home. It’s what you do and what you understand it’s going to do, and what you buy into from the PlayStation ecosystem point of view.”
But for PS Vita to really thrive, Gara acknowledges the need for it to connect with a wider audience. “It’s got a niche in the market. But it could have a bigger niche in that market. So we’ve taken it younger and cheaper and broader in terms of content over the last year or so.
“Where we see it now – and it’s going to sound a little bit schizophrenic – but it has a role for each. For the hardcore gamer, there are still high-quality games as standalone games, but there’s also the relationship with the PlayStation 4. So I think that, in very quick summary, might be what PS Vita might mean to a core gamer.
“But for a younger gamer or a more casual gamer, you saw the mega packs – the Disney pack, the first Mega Pack – it had much more of a broader range of titles. Lots more casual, easy-access games.
“So I think there’s something for – I won’t go far as to say everyone – but there’s a broad spectrum of gamers there with Vita.”
With sales of the Vita up following the launch of the PS4, what would be considered a success for the handheld in 2014? As before, there was a modest optimism to Gara’s outlook.
“From a sales point of view it should at least easily be able to maintain sales. It’s premature to say by how much it can grow, but that’s not out of the question.
“But I want it to maintain a strong kind of ‘side-gig’ within our portfolio. I think it enhances our ecosystem. It’s a PlayStation point of difference.
“We’ve done our best to improve the price, the content. To evolve it into an easier to use but also more digital device with more interesting digital content, and now a great role with PS4. So it has a place, therefore we should support that and we will continue to support that.”
I want it to maintain a strong kind of ‘side-gig’ within our portfolio. I think it enhances our ecosystem.”
The idea of a device which has the sole purpose of playing games is certainly one that resonates with me. Games are big enough that they don’t have to be regarded as a secondary feature, a cool centre point. They are important enough to take centre-stage.
I’d like to think that dedicated devices very much still have a place. The Vita, with its unique array of inputs and sensors, is a piece of technology that embraces that notion, but for many it might seem too specialised. More software in the vein of Tearaway – an experience that really showcases the unique power of the platform – would undoubtedly make the case for Vita much harder to ignore, and a price cut certainly wouldn’t hurt.
That might lie ahead, but for the time being, appealing to a younger demographic while also increasing its ties with bonds the PS4, all framed by a more tempered definition of success, is probably the best way for Sony to plot the future of the Vita.