Posted on January 5, 2012, Jim Sterling Viva la Vita, or Why I Hope the PSV Isn’t the Next PSP
(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.)
If there’s one thing I’m excited for more than anything else in the early goings of 2012, it’s the imminent launch of the PlayStation Vita. I am a slave to handheld gaming devices, as portable games have been a passion of mine ever since the mere idea of a Game Boy blew my the mind as a young, lower class child who was far too poor to actually afford a Game Boy. Be it from Nintendo, Sony or Apple, a handheld device that can play games is a thing I need, and the PlayStation Vita is absolutely no different. However, this is a new handheld from a company that has, in the past, demonstrated that it still isn’t quite sure what a handheld gaming system should be, and while I am excited for the prospects, I am nonetheless nervous about the potential for failure.
When I say failure, I am not talking commercially. The Vita has every chance of succeeding, despite the slow early sales in Japan, and it’s highly probable that the Sony’s new contraption will come into its own and eventually secure a comfortable position as the PSP had done. In fact, I’m fairly confident that the PS Vita is going to resemble the PSP remarkably in terms of market impact. Like the PSP, I think it will be unable to definitively beat Nintendo’s offerings, while still succeeding on its own terms as a popular secondary choice among customers. However, I fear the Vita is also capable of replicating the PSP’s failures, because while the PlayStation Portable remains a financial success, I will take to the grave my belief that it is a creative failure.
Positioned as “The Walkman of the 21st century” from the get-go, the PSP’s first major failing was a lack of identity. Dedicated gamers knew it was for playing games, but Sony was so keen on pushing its multimedia capabilities that the system failed to deliver a definite message of intent. Was it a games console? A movie or music player? This wasn’t helped by the fact that, for everything the PSP could do, there wasn’t a single thing it could do better than the competition. Games were sold on the awful (and already obsolete) UMD format, which made them slow to load and even less convenient to use than the DS’ cartridge-based games. Digital movies were restricted to a single file type, and getting them onto the system was far more trouble than it was worth, while the sound quality and bulky size made the PSP a wholly inadequate rival to more elegant MP3 players.
The sheer inconvenience of the PSP was a major issue. It was as slow as a brick of shit on a hedgehog’s back, using consistently old Wi-Fi technology even in its newer models. It was large, but fragile, and punctuated by constant firmware updates that would often require a fully charged battery and would be shipped onto game discs. When you’re dealing with a handheld system, where the idea is to play in short bursts or away from home at your own convenience, having a system so reliant on wired power sources and updates that could last an entire bus journey is just utterly, utterly stupid. Over the years, Sony has steadily increased the time it takes between a gamer buying a game and a gamer being able to play that game, and the PSP was a horrific offender.
All of this was punctuated by the system’s most grievous issue — a lackluster game library. Now, I know what you’re going to say — the PSP has good games. I totally agree, it does. However, when you look at the games truly worth buying for the machine, then realize that those games have been spread thin over the course of six years, it becomes unsurprising that it has been able to so consistently keep up the myth of having no games. Many developers would blame piracy for the dearth of content, which would lead me to a single question: Why all the fucking firmware updates then? You can’t justify firmware updates by saying they stop piracy and then excuse the PSP’s lack of developer support by blaming it on the proliferation of the very thing that was apparently stopped.
Now, this article isn’t intended to simply attack the PSP, although that’s been a rather satisfying side effect. You may find it hard to believe after the past few paragraphs, but I love the PSP. It is because of this love that I am actually so harsh on the PSP (and the 3DS, and pretty much every other handheld console I’ve constantly complained about). I think the PSP is a beautiful machine at heart, but it was a machine that constantly had its legs cut out from under it by terrible decisions and poorly implemented features. I hated that a system so brilliant was buried under piles of metaphorical shit, and that is what I am hoping doesn’t happen to the PS Vita.
Some steps have definitely been taken to avoid similar issues. The PS Vita launched without the crappy UMD format, has secured an amazingly strong launch library (including an Uncharted game) and has promised to make better use of firmware updates. The sheer acknowledgement that firmware updates have always been a pain in the ass is a most encouraging step. However, a number of compelling similarities to the PSP fill my childish, handheld-loving heart with dread.
First of all, Sony is already confusing and alienating people. As well issuing conflicting statements over whether or not you can have multiple PSN IDs on one system, the launch of two SKUs — one with 3G capabilities and one that’s Wi-Fi only — has already tossed two unnecessary choices in front of gamers right off the bat. I believe that, when launching a new product, marketing has to be refined and choices have to be as easy as possible. These things are expensive already, and consumers don’t like being made to think too hard. Most new SKUs come later in a machine’s life cycle, because you want to get the early adopters on board as quickly as possible and then pursue niche customers looking for a particular feature. The fact that the 3G version is reportedly selling far worse than the Wi-Fi one seems to enforce the pointlessness of a second SKU, and I fear that starting the Vita off with two systems is indicative of Sony’s long-running problem with maintaining a unified, simple, compelling identity for its products.
Although it’s ditched the UMD format, the Vita’s disconcerting reliance on proprietary memory sticks presents a similar, but potentially more infuriating problem. Although not as expensive as first feared, the Vita’s memory sticks — essential to play certain games and save data — are still quite costly and yet again demonstrate that Sony refuses to get with the times and make gaming convenient for consumers used to all-inclusive mobile devices, streaming content, and other technological advances that have made the enjoyment of entertainment more hassle-free than ever. As entertainment technology moves toward consolidation and fast, instant gratification, there is much about the Vita that remains tied to old fashioned, frustrating, obtuse features.
All told, the PS Vita is looking to be in a far better position than the PSP was. There is at least no doubt that its central focus is on gaming, and with two analog sticks, a beautiful screen, and jaw-dropping graphics, it is looking set to be an utterly astounding little box of fun. I remain highly hopeful, but I find myself wanting to plead with Sony to not repeat the mistakes of the past. I want to have full confidence that, when I obtain a PS Vita, I will do so knowing that it’ll be a staple of my gaming lifestyle for the next few years. I don’t want to worry about it being too annoying to take with me on a trip, or too lacking in content to bother switching on. Gaming, especially mobile gaming, is about speed, convenience, and a pleasant user experience — three things that Sony doesn’t seem to quite grasp. It is my sincere hope that the PS Vita bucks these trends, and that it becomes creatively successful, not just commercially successful.
I think that’s pretty fair.