Sony’s PlayStation Vita hopes to carve a niche for itself

February 21, 2012

It’s the question that’s been hanging over the PlayStation Vita since Sony announced the device: How will this $250 gaming device ever compete with the all-in-one convenience of a cellphone?

Shuhei Yoshida, head of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Worldwide Studios, has clearly answered about one million times in the past year.

“The Vita gives you a game experience you can’t have on other devices,” Yoshida said when I asked him my version of the question in an interview. “It’s a unified experience that’s only possible on the PlayStation Vita. There are no other portable devices that you can play with two analog sticks. You do not feel like you’re compromising on this portable.”

Then, a beat later. “That’s our answer and we are betting on that theory,” he said, before laughing.

It’s a big bet. The Vita will be on sale in the U.S. starting tomorrow, Feb. 22, in a market where games on mobile phones have been eating into the portable handheld market that’s been dominated by Sony’s PlayStation Portable and Nintendo’s DS line for years. While most mobile games don’t have the hours of storylines that portable titles do, consumers have been turning to the quick puzzles and short spurts of gameplay for those moments they spend standing in line, on the train or waiting for a ride.

With the Vita, Sony is trying to reverse that trend by upping the quality of its portable play. Not only has the company packed the Vita with features — a rear touchpad, two analog sticks, great graphics and a beautiful screen — it’s also made an effort to support the company’s back catalog of games while developing around the Vita’s new features. There are lots of bells and whistles — a gyroscope and a standard pack of augmented reality (AR) cards to name a couple — but Yoshida said that he hopes it’s clear that Sony worked hard to make this handheld a pleasure for dedicated players.

The company’s also working on porting titles between the Vita and the PlayStation 3. “We really kept portability in mind,” Yoshida said.

One way this all comes together, Yoshida demonstrated, is that the long-awaited right analog stick can act as the D-pad or stand-in for the PlayStation buttons. That makes it easier to play older games, such as first-person shooters, that always called out for another analog stick.

This push to better integrate the hardware and software is the result of better communication between the teams, Yoshida said. Sony is working on breaking down the barriers between its teams, an edict from Sony Computer Entertainment head and soon-to-be chief executive Kazuo Hirai.

“Kaz instructed us to join the hardware team to put out the Vita,” Yoshida said, adding that he believes it made it much better for developers working on software for the system.

He apologized that gamers will have to re-download their PSP games onto the new devices as well, since the new system doesn’t use the same format for games — Sony’s proprietary universal media disc — as the previous handheld.

That’s the sort of hiccup Sony will work to eliminate in the future, he said. From here, Yoshida said that the company will be working more on providing Vita support for games from the first PlayStation, and also on getting different Sony services to interact more closely with each other.

“We’ll get there,” he said. “You have to start from somewhere.”

Related stories:

Review: Sony PlayStation Vita handheld gaming system

In age of ‘Angry Birds,’ Sony looks to reclaim handheld gaming with PlayStation Vita

PlayStation Vita’s Japanese launch is a mixed bag

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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