The Sony PlayStation Vita has finally arrived in the UK. And it's an amazing piece of gaming technology. A quad-core processor and quad-core graphics chip give this handheld graphics comparable with the current generation of home consoles. However, look beyond impressive tech specs and its future isn't so rosy.
The hardware: history repeating itself
Sony calls the Vita a "handheld gaming revolution", but it's more accurate to call it an evolution of the original PSP. The Vita's approach is fundamentally very similar. It outclasses all portable rivals technologically, capable of greater graphical feats than the iPhone 4S and Nintendo 3DS. As its look, specs, ~£40 games and launch line-up suggest, it's for the hardcore gamer.
A revolution? Sure thing, Sony...
Its additional controls are also a clear reaction to the deficiencies of Sony's earlier PSP handhelds, and a way to future-proof the Vita against recurring criticisms this time around. The PSP had a single analogue stick, making it somewhat poorly suited to the reams of console action ports released for the platform. The Vita has dual analogue sticks, plus touch surfaces on both its front and back. Eat that, iPhone. Right?
The changing face of portable gaming
The "kitchen sink" approach Sony has taken with the Vita will excite gamers, opening-up a truck-load of exciting possibilities. However, its brand of gadget convergence is thoroughly out-of-sync with today's portable gaming climate.
Apple's iPhone and iPod touch have revolutionised mobile gaming in the past four years, but it hasn't happened because these devices covered all bases in the way the Vita conspicuously has. Quite the opposite.
We perhaps shouldn't give Apple all the credit for this. As Time magazine wrote in an editorial following the former Apple CEO's death, Steve Jobs was "not a gamer, but a game-changer". The iOS platform and its App Store were not designed as gaming-centric spaces, but they proved fertile ground for what has become the most fertile ecosystem in gaming.
Apple gets plenty of knocks from the open source brigade for making closed systems, but the dev process is remarkably accessible on iOS. And has encouraged sterling work from thousands of indie devs, from beginner developers and those who cut their teeth at the big studios.
Aside from the relative ease of coding, this accessibility is down to the low entry fee. Developers have to pay $99 (annual fee) to enter the Developer Program, while the dev kit for the Vita is €1,900. This is considered affordable - the PS3 initial dev kit cost was €20,000 - but may be enough to stifle grass roots indie development. There are also other potential costs to consider later down the line too, involved in PSN certification. The low cost of entry to the iOS Developer Program is one of the things that enables free and low-cost games of high quality, like Halfbrick's Jetpack Joyride.
Conversely, Vita's approach to games and developers is traditional. The Vita slots into the PSN framework online, and the proprietary cards it uses at retail already feel archaic - and act as a huge financial barrier for smaller publishers looking to produce a retail game. There's nothing dynamic about the Vita's approach to games delivery, and when so many early Vita owners are likely to own a smartphone, this is problem. For example, Popcap's Plants Vs Zombies for Vita costs $14.99 in the US. On iPhone it is $2.99.
What is an impulse buy price on one platform is something to muse over on the other, and buyer expectations in this field have radically changed since the App Store opened in 2008.
Greater development costs, a smaller userbase and a games culture that's rooted in console traditions rather than the App Store approach that now defines mobile gaming mean the Vita will not get ultra-cheap games of the quality seen on iOS. Not over the next 12 months, possibly not ever.
The Vita online offering - where lower cost games live - is therefore unlikely to be all that compelling. Just like the 3DS and PSP. Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton counters suggestions of competition with these more fluid gaming cultures, saying "if you’re a gamer, you’re never going to confuse a smartphone or a tablet with a gaming device" in an interview with Canadian website Macleans.
However, hundreds of thousands of sales of relatively hardcore games like Grand Theft Auto III on iOS - while not flattening his words entirely - suggest a desire to break down such barriers.