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Sony does more for Vita than it gets credit for, but it's okay to be frustrated

4:00 PM on 08.13.2014 // Kyle MacGregor
  @DtoidKyle

Time for some tough love

A lot of people seemed disappointed when Sony closed its gamescom press conference without much mention of the PlayStation Vita. And it isn't difficult to understand why.

The struggling portable seemed like an afterthought yesterday. Anyone hoping for an exciting new Vita reveal was left wanting. Adding insult to injury, the system actually managed to lose an exclusive, as Tearaway was announced for PlayStation 4.

There was a single moment during the event that seemed indicative of Sony's approach to the handheld. Thomas Was Alone creator Mike Bithell took the stage in Cologne, and showcased his upcoming project, Volume, a stealth title destined for PS4 and Vita next year. It's an independent game from a tiny, but talented developer. And it's cross-platform to boot.

Outside of cursory mentions like that, Sony's show was all about PS4. And why not? It's the newer and more successful system. Sony allocated its airtime wisely, highlighting its breadwinner, rather than choosing to fight an uphill battle. It made perfect sense, too, given Microsoft's strong showing earlier in the day. 

That's a rational outlook, though. Sadly for Sony, humans aren't always rational creatures. Vita owners felt spurned, and they made sure Sony heard about it.

The outrage and despondency came swiftly. And judging by the reactions, you wouldn't know that Sony is actually exhibiting Vita titles at gamescom. A lot of them, actually. Not everyone can walk the Koelnmesse show floor this week and see that for themselves, though. People from around the world did, however, tune in to watch that press conference, and witnessed what they perceived to be Sony ignoring one of its front-line products.

That's not exactly new. The Vita has seen less and less time in the spotlight in recent years. Once it became clear the platform wasn't ever going to set the world ablaze, Sony seemed to dial its efforts back a notch, setting the burners to simmer. But to say the portable has "no games," as some have suggested, is simply untrue. And while Sony doesn't seem willing to put the Vita in center stage, one individual at the company vociferously disagreed with those asserting the handheld is lacking new software.

That man is Shahid Ahmad, a senior business development manager at Sony responsible for inking deals that brought titles like FezHotline MiamiOlliOlli, and so many others to PlayStation systems. Much of his focus (and passion) seems to be centered around the Vita, and he's become somewhat of a champion for the device.

On Tuesday, Ahmad responded to critics on Twitter by recounting a litany of excellent-looking Vita presently titles in development. That ledger included the likes of Titan SoulsAxiom VergePapers, Please, Tales of Hearts R... The list goes on and on.

 Some of those titles are exclusives, whereas others are most definitely not.

No matter what you think about what Sony is doing with Vita, just don't use the phrase "indie ports" around Ahmad and his team. Them's fightin' words, apparently. Developers do not just show up at Sony's doorstep with finished products looking to turn a quick buck. Folks like Ahmad put in a lot of hard work and effort to court developers, curate, and help bring games to market. And in the case of Sony's Santa Monica Studio, a lot of resources go into incubation programs, fostering talent, and helping with the creative process as well as logistics. 

It's true, though: The Vita library features a myriad of games that you can experience elsewhere. And while it doesn't take anything away from the system necessarily, it doesn't make for a terribly compelling case as to why you should purchase one either. The conventional wisdom states what the Vita really needs is some hot exclusives.

The problem there is exclusive games in this day and age are a dying breed. They might convince consumers to buy one device over another, but they don't benefit anyone other than the platform holder. A lot of people look at an exclusive game and see something they will never get to play. Did you notice how people responded to the new Tomb Raider (falsely) being announced as an Xbox exclusive? It was like poking a hornet's nest.

Not many people can justify the purchase of yet another system just to get their hands on the Rise of the Tomb Raiders of the world. The folks at Microsoft sure hope you'll come running into their arms, though. They're certainly banking on it.

Exclusives don't benefit developers either. Why would you want to limit the size of your audience? Not everyone can count on Microsoft lining their pockets to keep their products off competing platforms. So, exclusives are becoming increasingly rare.

Still, exclusives happen. It just takes time. Eventually systems will amass a number of unique titles and we fence-sitters will inevitably acquiesce. A nice library goes a long way to making consumers amenable to sinking their hard-earned dollars on a device. You want to feel good about your purchase. It's the same for early adopters, in a way. They want to justify their investment. They bought a promise, and if it's never delivered, then that's disappointing.

I suppose the Vita is a bit of a disappointment then. It's a lovely system. It has so much potential. And yet, so few people actually seem to want one. It exists in a wasteland between home consoles, Nintendo 3DS, and mobile phones. The install base is tiny, so big publishers aren't making games for it; and because there are so few big games, people aren't buying the thing. It's a vicious cycle.

The cavalry isn't coming. EA said thanks, but no thanks. Activision put out a truly awful Call of Duty game, before following suit. Ubisoft actually managed to do right by Vita owners with Assassin's Creed III: Liberation, you know, before repackaging it as a high-definition remaster for consoles and PC.

It's basically up to Sony to make its platform a success, but that's not really happening. Awesome console-quality experiences, such as Killzone: Mercenary and Uncharted: Golden Abyss, seem to be a thing of the past. Sony says the economics for AAA games just don't work on Vita.

So the task of propping up the system seems to have fallen squarely on the shoulders of developers like Mike Bithell and midsize purveyors of Japanese goods. The economics seem to work a tad better for Atlus, XSEED, and indie developers. Teams with low operating costs can turn a tidy profit in an ecosystem that big-budget studios cannot. And that's just fine for them. It's just very unlikely to move the needle for Sony in any significant way, though. 

Maybe that's okay. Maybe Sony is content with having a dedicated machine for fans of obscure JRPGs and indie games. I'm perfectly fine with it. I love that stuff.

It just might be nice if we could share that love with more people. It might be nice if Sony tossed in a two-minute reel of that stuff amid the hour of glossy PS4 stuff. Maybe someday I'll get to see the Vita in the limelight again, even just for a moment. Until then, I'll just keep an eye out for baffling product placements, like that one in the first season of House of Cards.



Kyle MacGregor, Associate Editor
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