Is the PS Vita a device ahead of its time or behind it?

Brian Crecente

With its big, bright screen, ability to sense touch
and motion, and controls that mimic a home game console’s, Sony’s
Playstation Vita delivers the sort of gaming that approaches what you
might expect to experience in your den. But is that what gamers still

I’ve spent the past week with a PS Vita, enjoying its
smart design, its cleverly crafted games, its luxurious screen and two
thumb sticks. I also spent the week wondering whether this was a gaming
machine that’s come too late.

The growing ubiquity of gaming, the ability to play
games on laptops, tablets, digital books and smartphones, undermines the
value of carrying around a device that can only game. That doesn’t mean
that there’s no market for dedicated portable gaming machines, just
that they face new challenges.

Where portable gaming once had to deliver an
experience simply better than not gaming on the go at all, now it has to
overcome the advent of micro and casual games, time-killers like “Angry
Birds,” “Words With Friends” and “Bejeweled.” These smaller, bite-sized
experiences can be purchased anywhere, anytime with a short download
for little money. But more importantly, they’re playable on devices that
people may be carrying around to read a book, to do some work, to make a
phone call.

The PS Vita is a delightful gaming machine, but its
dedication to the experience of gaming brings with it the requirement
that gamers plan ahead. Its over-sized screen, multitude of inputs and
controls means that this isn’t a device you can simply slip into your
pocket and forget about. When planning a trip to Manhattan last week, I
had to decide if I wanted to bring a bag simply to carry the Vita with
me. I decided against it, opting instead to rely on my phone to help
kill the 1 1/2-hour trip ahead of me.

Having said that, I found myself regretting that
decision on the return trip. Why? Because the Vita’s experience is so
robust that it can outweigh its inconvenience. The trick will be for
Sony to convince people of that.

The Vita is shaped a bit like an over-sized, fatter
Playstation Portable. Players can use the touch-sensitive 5-inch OLED
screen to interact with games or trace their fingers along the device’s
back to play games that way. The Vita also has two cameras, one facing
forward and the other back, and can sense motion. There are also buttons
on the top corners of the Vita. The device’s lush screen is bookended
by controls including a directional pad, four buttons and two
thumbsticks. It may not sound like much, but adding a second thumbstick
to the already vast array of controls is in many ways a game changer for
portables. That second stick means that the Vita’s controls are close
approximations to what players have in their hands when gaming on the
Vita’s big brother, the Playstation 3. So the experience of gaming on
the go can now feel like the experience of gaming at home. That’s a big

Another big deal is how cleverly the games I sampled
played with the Vita’s array of control mechanics. Some games had me
tilting the device to balance my character while using the twin
thumbsticks to move. Others had me tickling the Vita’s underbelly to
virtually push up through the device’s screen. In some cases, the
experience of playing on the Vita was better than the playing at home.

ModNation Racers is a Playstation 3 game that allows
you to create your own drivers, karts and tracks and then race with
friends. But the process of crafting can be tedious when done with
thumbsticks and buttons. The Vita version of the game, ModNation Racers:
Roadtrip has players using the touch screen and back panel to draw
creations with their fingers. It’s not just easier, it’s much more fun.

The Playstation Vita launched in Japan with a bang
last month, but the second week of sales for the device saw a
significant drop. The device is set for a $250, Feb. 22 release in the
United States. Sony has one last opportunity, with this month’s Consumer
Electronic Show in Las Vegas, to prove to a broad audience in North
America why they should buy something built to do one thing, but do it
very well.

Some pundits have suggested the best way to do that
is to drop the price. I’m sure that would help, but I think the better
option is to prove that the experience of gaming on the Vita outweighs
the inconvenience of owning an over-sized dedicated portable gaming

It’s doubtful that the Vita will become a system that
redefines who games, but redefining how one games on the go should be
enough to allow it some success.


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