Why Sony Handhelds Have No Games, Even When They Do
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
The PlayStation Vita arrived in North America on February 22, 2012. As we fast approach September, I can safely — and unhappily — say that I’ve had few true reasons to take the system out of my desk drawer and power it on in the months since launch. When asked for recommendations, I’ve been able to rattle off a mere handful of games I’d consider must-have software. Rayman: Origins, Lumines: Electronic Symphony, and maybe Uncharted: Golden Abyss. I thought I had more when I started writing that last sentence, then struggled to name three. That’s not to say there aren’t more forgettable games that might still be worth playing — Mutant Blobs Attack, Unit 13, and Touch My Katamari are decent, and there’s a port of Marvel vs. Capcom 3 if you love fighters. Still, there’s barely anything worth keeping around.
There are interesting titles on the horizon, but they’ve been spread laughably thin. Between the release of the awful Resistance: Burning Skies in May and the solid Sound Shapes in August, there was fuck-all worth getting. Nothing. Nada. Zip. There are some promising titles on the horizon, such as Killzone: Mercenary, Sly Cooper, and PlayStation All-Stars, but they’re spread wide and far, with many titles now due out in 2013. For a system that proudly launched with 25 games, there’s very little worth playing, and only small blips on a very large radar to look forward to in future.
Now, some of you are reading this and thinking that it really isn’t so bad. After all, there are some very promising games coming out for Vita, and regardless of quality, 25 games at launch is a pretty big choice. And why is the PS Vita getting so much shit for this, when home consoles aren’t exactly rolling in titles at the moment? Why was the PSP also famous for not having any games, when it actually had a pretty robust library of the things? There’s a reason why Sony’s handheld efforts have been lambasted for “having no games,” even though they clearly have, and it’s something Sony needs to be very mindful of — handheld systems need games more than home consoles do, because of the way they’re played.
The way most people play handheld games is different from the way we play games on PC and console. When you play a console/PC game, typically you’re looking for lengthy experiences, things you can absorb several hours into, whether it’s a long-running RPG, multiplayer time-sink, or something with an absorbing story that’s worth playing again and again. The pressure for a system to have a dozen titles at any given time is not as huge, and the occasional dry spell is forgivable. If there’s a month or two with nothing exciting coming out, most players will have a backlog of stuff to do in the interim, and I’ve seen many gamers actually thankful for the time to go back and finish games they’ve barely started or are yet to try. No such gratitude is reserved for handheld systems, where players demand more, and cry foul when there’s a month or two without a release.
Handheld games are played differently. I think that’s why the demand for new games, and the pressure for a robust library, is more keenly felt. Portable gaming is typically the realm of the bite-sized experience — people use their 3DS or Vita when traveling, and often don’t have a huge amount of time each session to get truly engrossed. Playing a handheld game in a number of different environments isn’t conducive to a mental state of absorbed concentration. As such, I feel we are more easily distracted when handheld gaming, and get bored at a greater pace. Most handheld titles aren’t exactly deep, even those from Sony that aim to produce “console-quality” experiences, and so they grow more readily tiresome than an actual console experience. This is certainly why I never travel with just one game loaded into my system. I need a range of titles that I can constantly cycle, otherwise I feel I’m wasting pocket space by bringing the system along.
This is why the lack of games on the PlayStation Vita is a bigger problem than a lack of games on a non-portable machine. It’s simply not enough to have one good game every few months. The atmosphere of the portable system is different, made up of short and varied experiences as opposed to lengthy sessions playing one single title. For every great game an Xbox 360 or PS3 has, something like the PS Vita needs three. Keeping that rotation of games on a handheld library is crucial, and that is why people have so regularly criticized both the PS Vita and the PSP. After five years, the PSP had a solid library of hits … but it was after five years. In some of those years, up to six months could pass between even vaguely interesting titles, with no guarantee it would even meet the personal tastes of each user. For a portable system, it’s simply not acceptable, and it runs counter to what makes portable systems successful. This is why, no matter how much “core” gamers may hate it, iOS has enjoyed the fastest growth in the handheld gaming market. It has an ever-expanding, intensely varied range of titles, many of which are cheap or free, updated with such regularity that most users have little reason to keep it switched off for even a day. Just one day not checking it out could mean missing a price reduction or fresh new experience. Even if half of them are pure bullshit, the constant state of flux is exciting, and keeps the user invested.
Both Sony and Nintendo proudly claim that they’re not in competition with Apple, but they need to start learning a thing or two from that company. The digital efforts of both the eShop and the PlayStation Network have been woefully inadequate, updating but once a week with threadbare offerings at expensive prices. It’s just not working, and if these companies stick to their old ways, they’ll go the same way other companies have when they refused to change with the market and stuck to what they’re best at — they will fail eventually.
The idea of a portable system is, well, a system that is portable — as in, you take it with you to places. Every day that one feels no desire to take their portable system with them when they leave their home is a day that system has failed them in its primary purpose. When people report that they’ve switched their PS Vita on for the first time in weeks, that’s the mark of a console that’s not doing what it’s supposed to. More than any other type of gaming machine, the handheld gaming system needs games, and that is why the Vita and PSP are getting the flack more than anything else — it’s why the Vita’s existing library is not good enough and it’s why the PSP was accused of having no games even though it did. Yes, it had games — but not enough to keep it switched on, not enough to justify packing it for a plane trip, and not enough to make me fondly remember the half a decade it took to get that library together.
Sony loves resting on its laurels. Its MO for this entire generation has been to make a system, then sit back and promise things will get exciting “in the future.” That doesn’t work for a handheld system. You can’t just launch something like the Vita and confidently assure us that things are coming in the future — things that will be drip-fed to us over the course of six or twelve months. It looks like Sony’s going to do this all over again, just like it did with the PSP — and that is why people are going to keep saying the PS Vita has no games, even when it does. Only Sony can change that attitude, but it’ll have to change its own attitude first.
I hope it does.