The Highs and Lows of PlayStation Vita

By Keza MacDonald and Laura Kate Dale on at

Released five and a half years ago, the story of the PlayStation Vita’s life is one of optimistic hopes and tragic shortfalls. Initially pitched as an ultra-powerful next-gen handheld, for many owners it ended its life as an indie-game machine, with the odd Japanese visual novel thrown in. Initial attempts to bring PlayStation's heavy hitters like Uncharted, Killzone and Wipeout to the system resulted in some great and innovative games, but over the years, support for Sony’s powerful little handheld dwindled to almost nothing. According to best estimates (Sony stopped releasing specific sales figures for the Vita in 2012) from EEDAR and other agencies, the Vita never passed 10 million sales. Its predecessor, the PlayStation Portable, reached around 80 million.

It’s easy to blame the encroachment of mobile games on the handheld gaming market for this unimpressive showing. Nintendo’s handhelds, too, saw a significant sales drop-off from 2011 onwards; the 3DS has sold around half what the original DS sold (around 70 million to the first DS’s 155 million) - but it still did dramatically better than the Vita, and was supported better by Nintendo’s internal studios. The Vita was the wrong console at the wrong time: a powerful, expensive handheld that came out right when most people started carrying equally expensive supercomputers in their pockets.

Uncharted: Golden Abyss

At Tokyo Game Show last week, PlayStation boss Andrew House indicated that Sony had little interest in pursuing a successor to the Vita: “We have not seen that as being a huge market opportunity,” he told Bloomberg. This is the latest in a series of comments from senior Sony figures that cast doubt on the prospect that the company will ever make another handheld. Indeed, now that Nintendo is pursuing a hybrid home-handheld strategy with the Switch, the Vita may be one of the last dedicated handheld games consoles ever.

First released back in December 2011 in Japan, and in Europe and North America in February 2012, the Vita set its sights on the high-end, core-gamer market. With an OLED screen, expensive proprietary memory cards aimed at curbing piracy, 3G internet support, and a slew of major name releases, the Vita felt extraordinarily slick by comparison to the cheaper, lower-spec, more family-oriented 3DS. When you hold one of those heavy, shiny early models in your hands now, it’s easy to forget that this thing came out over five years ago.

The Vita’s worldwide launch was decent, if unexceptional, in terms of sales - but in terms of games, it was a great time for the console. Possibly even the best. In the first few months, Vita had Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Wipeout 2048, Gravity Rush as a Vita-exclusive series, and third-party support in the form of Dynasty Warriors, FIFA, Blazblue, Ultimate Marvel Vs Capcom 3, Touch My Katamari and Rayman Origins. From Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, if there was a big game series on a home console, there was a Vita instalment too. The Vita initially looked like something that people had long hoped for: a home console that could be taken on the go.

Touch My Katamari

The strongest Vita games were always those made specifically for the console. Unfortunately, porting games to Vita was significantly harder, which limited which games appeared on Vita after that first rush. There were significant limitations that needed to be worked around on the hardware, limitations that both first and third-party developers had to contend with.

Ryota Niitsuma, director for the Vita port of Marvel Vs Capcom 3, described porting the game from PS3 to Vita as “definitely not easy”, citing the graphical specs of the handheld as a factor in getting a port running. Blazblue: Continum Shift Extend director Osamu Sugiyama stated that the biggest issue was getting their port to run at 60fps: “Although the Vita has very high specs, it is still not as powerful as the PS3. It was difficult to optimise the graphics (GPU) so that we could achieve the framerate we wanted without losing picture quality. At the early stages of development, when we had just ported the PS3 version on the PS Vita, the FPS was more than 10 times slower than the current retail version.”

It wasn’t long before bigger developers stopped making things for the Vita, as it became clear that the economics didn’t really work. The Vita was nowhere near the company’s initial target of 16 million units by March of 2013; it sold around four million in the first 10 months. By the end of two years it had only pushed that number up to six million units. From then on, the games lineup started looking rather more anaemic.

Soul Sacrifice

Sales tapered off so fast that by the end of 2012, Sony stopped releasing dedicated sales numbers for the Vita, instead reporting combined Vita and PSP numbers - ostensibly to try and hide underperformance on the part of the Vita. The console’s story from then on was something of a vicious circle: without any big games, the Vita’s sales dwindled even further. Soon, the almost total absence of Vita support became an in-joke at Sony press conferences. In May 2014, the Vita saw its most disappointing port: a legendarily terrible version Borderlands 2.

So: what went wrong? A big blow for the Vita, particularly in Japan, was Capcom’s decision to move the Monster Hunter series from Sony handhelds to Nintendo’s. Monster Hunter games - especially Freedom Unite, which was omnipresent in Japan at the end of the ‘00s - sold a combined 10 million copies on PSP. But Monster Hunter Tri came out on the Wii not long after the Vita launched and on 3DS a few years later. Monster Hunter 4 on 3DS was a mega success. The Vita had plenty of Monster Hunter-inspired games, including some weird and interesting ones like Keiji Inafune’s Soul Sacrifice. But without the real thing, the PlayStation Vita never really had a system-seller.

The Vita was still doing better in Japan than it did anywhere else. Much of what kept the Vita alive during this time was Japanese releases - while the Vita consistently undersold compared to the 3DS, it did still frequently outsell competing home consoles, and stayed quietly alive despite the absence of visible releases in the west. As late as 2015, there were still pretty big Vita sections in Japanese game stores - mostly filled with visual novels. Some of those, like Danganronpa, made it into English, but most never would. The Vita quite possibly had the largest number of Japan-only games of any modern system.

Danganronpa Another Episode: Ultra Despair Girls

A redesigned PlayStation Vita at a lower price point came out in 2013. It was slightly smaller and the battery lasted longer, but it also traded in that glorious, expensive OLED screen for an LCD one. When you look at the two next to each other, it’s impossible not to notice the quality difference. (Interestingly, around this time, UK customers who ordered the older WiFi enabled model from Amazon were frequently sent the more-expensive 3G OLED model instead; evidently, the retailer had stock to clear.) But the new model did not herald in a new wave of games for the system.

According to PlayStation’s European boss, Jim Ryan, and Shawn Layden, the company’s former head of development, the console just never hit critical mass — though it would be a few years before Sony’s executives would admit this. In the meantime, the Vita improbably revitalised itself as a home for indie games.

From about 2013 onwards, with an empty release schedule, indie developers found that they had a captive audience on Sony’s handheld. Capitalising on the gaps left by Microsoft and Sony’s variable support for independent developers, Sony swooped in and began to bend over backwards in order to bring the biggest PC indie games to their platform, keeping devs happy along the way to attract further support.

Thomas Was Alone

“What I decided to do was pitch to executive management a plan to bring a whole bunch of independent developers to Vita, and the answer, surprisingly, was yes." Shahid Ahmad, Sony's director of strategic content and the driving force behind indies on Vita, said in an interview with Polygon back in 2015.  “The way I put it to the team was really rather dramatic. I said, 'The patient's having a heart attack. We need to do open heart surgery now. We don't have time to sit around and discuss this for months on end.”

The strategy demonstrably worked. Between 2013 and 2015, in particular, it seemed like any notable indie game ultimately got a Vita port, and for many it became the preferred place to play these games. 2013 had Thomas Was Alone, Spelunky, Lone Survivor, and Guacameelee. 2014 brought Luftrausers, Fez, Nidhogg and Don’t Starve. 2015 saw games like Bastion, Hatoful Boyfriend, Octodad: Dadliest Catch and Titan Souls. Even as recently as last year, notable indie titles like Va-11 HALL-A were releasing on the Vita rather than other platforms. None of these ports felt in any way held back by the hardware. It was a competent indie portable machine, and all the biggest indies seemed to want a slice.

There were two things that made the Vita an attractive prospect for indies, according to developers: the lack of competition, and the passion of Vita’s fans. “Most mainstream game news sites don't even have a Vita section anymore, but it's still a great platform for a small independent developer,” Luc Bernard of Arcade Distillery told Rolling Stone. “It's not making us rich, but if you make a decent game that's targeted for the device, you can make a predictable number of sales, be profitable, and continue to employ people. In this day and age, that's huge.”

Octodad: Dadliest Catch

The Vita’s support for indie developers has endured to the extent that we still get several emails per month from indie devs porting their new games to the system. This swell of support, particularly while the 3DS was still struggling to find its digital feet and couldn’t natively support many indie ports, was one of the saving graces of the system. For many owners, the Vita became a good-looking indie box that you could play on the go, and that had its own sort of appeal.

The release of the PlayStation 4 was the start of the Vita’s final transformation: after Sony stopped making specific games for the Vita, the company started to pitch it as a kind of PS4 accessory. “It's not about individual Vita games any more. It's more about how Vita can have multiple uses - with PS4 remote play, PS3 games with PS Now, and the dedicated games. The whole ecosystem with PS4 at the centre, the Vita's a part of that,” said Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida back in July 2014.

Remote Play, which lets you stream games from the PS4 to the Vita, was a sparingly-used feature in the days of the PS3 and PSP - but in June 2013, Sony announced that all PS4 games would work with Remote Play. It’s an undersung feature of the system: with a little fiddling and a home PS4 wired up to a stable Internet connection, you can essentially play any PS4 game anywhere with the Vita, which is pretty incredible when you think about it.

Tearaway

With some smart marketing, it might have been incredible enough to sell quite a few more Vitas. It did actually lead to an increase in Vita sales, according to Shawn Layden - though nobody ever gave any actual figures to prove it. But it was clear that Sony had left the Vita behind in its strategy some years previously. It took until October 2015 for Sony to confirm that there were no more games in development for the machine, but to anybody who’d been paying attention, that had been clear for a long time.

The PlayStation Vita is a bit of a Dreamcast: it might not have sold too well, but it’s made some good memories, and it’s been a home for an eclectic selection of games that you just can’t find anywhere else - at least, not all in the same place. It’s the hours with Persona 4 Golden and Danganronpa, Tearaway and Velocity, Muramasa and Dragon’s Crown, Fez, Hotline Miami and Spelunky, that we’ll remember more than Uncharted, Killzone or FIFA.

The economics of handheld gaming have changed so much since the Vita’s launch that we may never see another Sony handheld. We can hope, instead, that some of the Vita’s philosophies - its games’ high quality, variety, and creativity - carries over into whatever the future of Sony’s mobile gaming looks like.