No doubt about it, Gamescom 2012 has been great for PlayStation Vita. The unveiling of new games, especially Media Molecule’s Tearaway, finally put some weight behind Sony’s promise to “increase the content” available for the beleaguered handheld. A rash of other announcements — PlayStation Plus support, the PlayStation Mobile initiative, the Cross Buy program — conspired to make it look like Sony is, at long last, serious about turning things around for Vita.
It could have been a slam dunk. Vita could have come out of Gamescom with more momentum than it’s had since launch, potentially turning around months and months of stagnant sales and widespread developer indifference, but a crucial piece of the puzzle is missing: a lower price. Vita did not receive a price cut during Gamescom. Instead, Sony Worldwide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida flatly stated that there will be no Vita price cut anytime this year.
Though it released just days before Christmas 2011 in Japan, this will be the first holiday season at retail for PlayStation Vita in the rest of the world. The importance of the holiday shopping season to the games industry is impossible to overstate, and Vita is frankly ill-equipped for the coming battle. A price cut could have helped immeasurably.
The cheapest Vita system is $249.99 — the same price, it must be pointed out, as a 160 GB PlayStation 3. Xbox 360 and Wii consoles can both be had for substantially less, as can Nintendo’s more popular 3DS and its XL variant. Then there is the launch of Wii U to contend with, which — regardless of how it plays out — is sure to generate an enormous amount of excitement at retail. When Wii U arrives, Vita will lose the distinction of being the newest system available, one of very few selling points it can currently lay claim to.
Yoshida is not unaware of the situation. Speaking with Eurogamer during Gamescom, Yoshida acknowledges Vita’s “pricing issue,” and describes Sony’s efforts to address it.
“Of course, cost reduction is one area our engineering team is working on. But we just launched the platform earlier this year. It takes time to do so.”
“At a certain point in the future we would like to address the pricing issue for some of the people who are waiting. But this year we are trying to add value by creating different types of bundles. We announced we will provide LittleBigPlanet PS Vita bundle pack. That’s affordable for people who are looking for a good deal.”
It’s worth remembering that Sony makes a profit on each and every Vita sold. Estimates from the system’s launch placed the component cost of a 3G Vita at about $160. Granted, there are other factors to take into account (marketing, packaging, shipping), but considering that new hardware is routinely sold at a loss, it certainly appears as if Sony has some room to move on Vita’s price. What Sony doesn’t have is time.
To date, Sony has only been able to sell an estimated 2.5 million PlayStation Vitas worldwide — a number Sony Computer Entertainment President Jack Tretton finds “acceptable.” Nintendo’s 3DS, which launched in Japan roughly ten months before Vita, currently stands at about 19 millions systems sold worldwide. If you were a game developer, which system would you support?
Whether Sony cares to admit it or not, this holiday season is the company’s last chance to get Vita systems into the hands of a substantial number of players. By refusing to cut the system’s price, Sony has squandered the one tactic that could have helped achieve that goal. It’s a classic Catch-22: developers won’t make games for a system no one owns, and no one wants to buy a system without any games. Vita does have some games, but, as Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto points out, it just doesn’t achieve “the combination of software and hardware that really makes a very strong product.” Consumers appear to agree.
Sony believes that games like Tearaway and Killzone: Mercenary will help attract new customers to Vita. They might, but neither one will be available this year, and by the time they arrive, it may well be too late for Vita to stage any kind of comeback. During the crucial holiday shopping season, Vita owners (prospective and otherwise) will be left with almost nothing but hand-me-down versions of genuinely anticipated console games, like Call of Duty Black Ops: Declassified and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. Why would any Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed fan choose the Vita games over the proper console titles? They wouldn’t, and they won’t — and that Sony fails to recognize that simple fact may well be the real problem.
PlayStation Vita is an undeniably attractive piece of technology; I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise. But there is a limited window for the success of any hardware, and it’s closing fast for Vita. It’s as simple as this: at $249.99 (299.99 for the 3G model) and with its current library, no one is interested in buying PlayStation Vita — and none of the games due this year are going to change that. By refusing to cut the system’s price before the start of the holiday shopping rush, Sony may well have doomed Vita to failure.
Think about it: at this time next year, Wii U should be well established, and with any luck, we’ll all be counting the days until Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4 launch. Where will Vita be then?
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