PS Vita – Dead And Loving It

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[Originally printed in games™ 186]

We speak to the key publishers who are still breathing life into Sony’s best kept secret

Ask the average gamer about the current state of Sony’s PlayStation Vita and they’ll most likely confidently reply that the console’s been dead in the water for some time. It’s a valid comment to make, particularly when you consider the number of great Vita games that rarely get covered in today’s mainstream gaming press, but it’s not wholly accurate. In fact, if we’re completely honest, it’s downright wrong.

There were 126 games were released for the PS Vita last year – sure, a large number of them were digital or exist only as weird and exotic delicacies in Japan, but they’re out there and they add further weight to the proof that Sony’s supposedly-dead console is actually doing surprisingly well, particularly when you consider that Sony’s last big physical release for the system was 2014’s Freedom Fighters. So what went wrong for Sony’s second portable, and why does it now have such a vibrant and passionate community, one that’s easily comparable to the Dreamcast, another console that failed to do the business in the eyes of consumers?

PS Vita – Dead And Loving It

It all started off well for the handheld. It was the successor to the PSP, a system that eventually shifted more than 80 million units – in comparison, the six-year-old Vita is struggling to hit the 5 million mark in Japan – and its launch lineup and early period of releases were absolutely stellar, with epic triple-A blockbusters such as Uncharted Golden Abyss, WipEout 2048, Gravity Rush and Killzone Mercenaries all looking like they could have been released on PS3. But support for the system slowly began to dry up, not as quickly as on the Wii U, but at a rapid enough pace to suggest that big hitters such as Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and even Sony, weren’t happy with the direction the console was heading in. “I think triple-A tent pole games are critical to a platform’s mainstream success, and the decline of the system coincided with the decline of those releases,” says Brain Provinciano, the creator of Retro City Rampage and a huge supporter of Sony’s console. “As much as I love indie games personally, I don’t think a mainstream platform can succeed on a large scale with them alone.”

Sony’s choice of proprietary memory cards also added to the woes of the system. While plenty of physical Vita games were available, the company was also aggressively pushing digital sales for the console, particularly with the release of many acclaimed PSone and PSP games that all look absolutely fantastic the Vita’s OLED screen. Its memory cards were stupidly overpriced, however, with the 4GB and 8GB being largely pointless due to their lack of sensible capacity, and the more desirable 16GB and 32GB offerings costing a staggering $69.99 and $119.99 on release – ludicrous when you consider the Wi-Fi-only version of the console was launching at $249. Sony eventually released a 64GB card in Japan, but even with eventual price reductions it’s rare to pick one up for less than £70, something that Josh Fairhurst, one half of the duo running Limited Run Games, a company still publishing games for the Vita, finds particularly galling. “Most games released on Vita are only available digitally and many are 1GB or larger. A 64GB memory card may only be able to hold 20-50 games and it costs nearly as much as a used Vita console!”

Perhaps the biggest nail in the Vita’s coffin, though, was Sony’s proud reveal of Remote Play for the PlayStation 4 in June 2013. A greatly enhanced version of what had been available for PS3, it works extremely well and massively opened up the Vita’s library of games (providing of course that you had a good enough internet connection). It can’t be a shock to learn that it’s also the point that you could start seeing support for big triple-A publishers dropping off from the system. After all, why spend additional millions making a game for a small pool of players, when they can easily access and enjoy (odd button issues aside) your existing PS4 games? We’re big fans of remote play, but we also feel it was a crushing blow to the console.

PS Vita – Dead And Loving It

While the PS Vita barely registers a pulse in the West, it’s still doing exceptionally well in Japan, supported by some of the country’s biggest publishers, including Square Enix, Namco Bandai, Koei Tecmo, Idea Factory, Atlus, Sega and NIS America. So what has allowed these companies to thrive and why is Sony’s system still so popular there? “Commuting via train to work is the norm and commutes can be in excess of one hour one way,” reveals Alan Costa, NIS America’s senior associate producer. “It makes sense then that a dedicated gaming handheld would be a great way to occupy the time. Although this has recently been changing, the Vita has often had exclusives that have contributed to its popularity in Japan.”

Arianne Advincula, Idea Factory’s marketing coordinator is in agreement with Alan, but she also feels that specifically targeted games have helped the machine gain interest with certain types of gamers. “Idea Factory games appeal to gamers who like Japanese-style video games and PlayStation Vita games appeal to Japanese players. So, it only makes sense that they would continue to put their titles on the PS Vita.” For Josh Fairhurst it just comes down to ensuring gamers have the games they actually want to play. “For me, it’s the perfect platform for visual novels, shoot-‘em-ups and RPGs,” he explains. “It’s easy to develop for versus the 3DS (and more powerful) and the beautiful widescreen display makes these genres really shine on the platform. I feel like if those genres were more mainstream in the West, the Vita would be much more successful here. Unfortunately, the Vita was marketed in the West as a triple-A portable and in hindsight I don’t think that really played to the console’s true strengths.”

Despite questionable marketing in the West, the Vita nonetheless has an excellent community of passionate gamers there, many of whom are big collectors of the console. Facebook groups like PS Vita Gamers Unite! have become robust communities for members, while Vita exclusive websites like TheVitaLounge and Vita Player remain dedicated to sharing the news that passes many bigger multiformat sites by. One such supporter of the Vita is Karim Delawalla who currently has every available English-language PS Vita game, some 250 titles. “I love the Vita,” he tells us, “I like the quality and variety of games. While the Vita may be heavy on RPGs, there is still a variety of great games and the Facebook group Playstation Vita/PSP Collectors definitely motivated me to collect for it.” So as a loyal follower of the machine how does he feel about Sony’s current support in the West? “Well it’s currently non-existent except for giving discounts on the PS store,” he reveals. “As I write this, I recently read an article about how PS Now support on the Vita is going to be pulled next year. I understand that business decisions have to be made and the Vita is now quite an old console, but it’s still frustrating. Sony needed to fully back the Vita by releasing more first-party titles than they did and made it more accessible by sticking to standard memory cards. We would be looking at the Vita very differently if that was the case.”

It’s fortunate then that Limited Run Games, NIS America, Idea Factory and PQube remain strong supporters of the system in the West, creating exclusive low print runs of previously digital-only games in the case of Limited Run, or delivering lavish limited editions of big hitters such as Danganronpa 3, the Hyperdimension Neptunia games and Steins; Gate Zero. Limited Run in particular has become a big player in the West, with its focus on targeting the system with key releases ranging from Thomas Was Alone, The Swapper, OddWorld: Stranger’s Wrath and Soldner X2 delighting and frustrating collectors in equal measure.

PS Vita – Dead And Loving It

While many love physical versions, the range of PS Vita and PS4 games have become the target of scalpers, who take advantage of the small print runs and the ability to often order two games at a time. “Initially it was just this self-serving goal to put my own games (Breach & Clear and Saturday Morning RPG) into a box,” recalls Fairhurst about setting the company up. “I hated that my digital games would have no legacy and would disappear into the digital ether when PSN on Vita inevitably shuts down. I wanted to preserve them even if no one else really cared. When we saw the response to our Breach & Clear release, it was clear that we needed to support the Vita in a much higher capacity than we originally planned. The fanbase on this platform is amazing and we want to do whatever we can to bring them more physical games.” Costa is also aware of the strong thirst for exclusive Japanese games here and it’s allowed NIS America to become a prominent player thanks to the incredible success of the Danganronpa and Persona franchises. “Our mission is to bring Japanese entertainment to fans in the West,” he continues. “The Vita, like PSP before it, has many unique, quality titles on it that are quintessentially Japanese. Fans have caught on to what’s available on the platform and they know who is providing it.

Of course, we can’t talk about games that are ‘quintessentially Japanese’, without briefly focusing on the ‘Waifu’ games that can be found on the Vita. While titles like the Senran Kagura games can be seen as the Vita equivalent of Carry On films, due to the ridiculous antics of their big bosomed protagonists, the likes of Gal*Gun Double Peace, Dungeon Travellers 2, Monster Monpiece, Criminal Girls and Dead Or Alive Xtreme 3 – which received such a backlash that Koei Tecmo decided against releasing it in the West – have received far more criticism, as they effectively allow the player to rub and touch the young female protagonists to do anything from level-up characters to simply advance the story. The primary argument in their defense is that it’s Japanese developers responding to a clear niche in the market born of cultural norms that are different from those in the West. Understandably, that’s not stopped the Vita and these titles from coming under fire. “Each of us has their own personal tastes and what makes us happy,” is Advincula’s take on such games. “I’m just as passionate about my own hobbies and interests and can relate to fans who know what they want, especially when I’ve had the pleasure of meeting plenty of them.”

As over-the-top and controversial as some Vita games are, they pale in comparison to the many lavish boxsets that exist on the system, which in turn make Sony’s console highly desirable. Typically the vanguard of big triple-A releases, virtually every physical game from NIS America, PQube and Idea Factory comes with an equally elaborate box set that range in price from £40 to £80 and very quickly sell out, leading to astronomical prices online. It’s become a crucial stream of revenue for many Vita publishers, so great care is taken during their creation. “At Idea Factory International, it is part of the marketing team’s job to propose and handle the creation of the limited edition items,” confirms Advincula. “We also work closely with the design and production team to finalise how the collector’s box and packaging will look. Of course, we also work with the original licensors in Japan in order to approve each item we make for these limited editions.” Costa also feels that they offer great value for those buying them. “Japanese games often offer a unique world or setting in which players love to lose themselves,” he reveals. “A good LE helps the player get closer to the worlds and characters they love, so we spend a lot of time incorporating user feedback to make LEs that our users enjoy. The LE market is very important to us because it allows us to help directly connect our fans with the worlds in the games. A quality localisation is also paramount to the game’s reception and we take that aspect of the project very seriously. The team begins looking at the game early on to get a feel for it and a translator works closely with an editor to ensure the text is faithful to the original while still being natural English.”

PS Vita – Dead And Loving It

The critical combination of quirky Japanese releases, high-quality limited editions and a continuing stream of titles from Limited Run (it’s currently publishing Runner 2, it’s 20th Vita release) has made Sony’s console into a highly desirable system for collectors, who are flocking to the machine; which in turn is convincing many publishers to stay with the system. “I like to think of the Vita as the Dreamcast of its time,” concludes Fairhurst. “I love my Dreamcast for the same reason I love my Vita: a focused library filled with unique niche games that you wouldn’t find on any other platform. In the same vein as the Dreamcast, the Vita is the underdog, the diamond in the rough that the mainstream is missing out on. It’s an easy platform to feel passionate about. As a diehard fan myself, I take every opportunity I get to sell people on the Vita. Once they get one and start diving into the library, they get it and they become diehard too.” Provinciano, who is still planning to release a physical version of his incoming game, Shakedown: Hawaii, is also convinced there’s still plenty of life in Sony’s forgotten console. “I absolutely love the PS Vita. I’m a handheld gamer first and foremost, and think there will be enough players still to support the cost of porting. There may not be enough to recoup on an exclusive title, but the other platforms can subsidise the cost. What I really hope, is to finish another game after Shakedown while there’s still enough life left on the Vita to cover the cost of porting that too!”

There’s every chance that the recent release of Nintendo’s Switch will eventually seal the system’s fate, particularly if it becomes a big success in Japan, and staunch Vita supporters, including NIS America and Limited Run already have their eyes on Nintendo’s hybrid console to see how it fares there. For now though, Sony’s PS Vita is very much alive and kicking so why not give it a try? In doing so you’ll discover one of the most diverse and interesting libraries of any current console.