Call me crazy. Call me misguided. But I preordered a Sony PlayStation Vita the other day.
That's right, I plunked down a $50 deposit at a GameStop near work, thereby earning the right to own Sony's new handheld game console the day it comes out here in the U.S. on February 22.
I didn't catch too much grief among my fellow editors for doing it, although we have an ongoing debate in the office about how successful the Vita will be. A lot of folks think the Vita, like the Nintendo 3DS, will have a rough go of it, largely because it's just too expensive at $250 for the Wi-Fi-only version and $300 for the Wi-Fi+3G model.
Part of me agreed. Having played around with the Vita at a few "preview" events in the last few months, I was mostly impressed with the system and its graphical capabilities, which approach those of the PS3. But some of the touch controls seemed gimmicky (in addition to a 5-inch touch screen, it's got a rather superfluous touch pad on the back of the device), the battery life could be a bit better (the battery is sealed in so you can't swap a second one in), and it was hard to overlook the fact that it takes proprietary memory that's overpriced (you have to buy a card to play a game and it adds at least $30 to the cost of the system--that's for an 8GB card).
on it, wouldn't all these gripes
about price and paying extra
for proprietary memory just
fade into the background?
Something about all that sounded familiar. And then it hit me. Wasn't I guy the guy who paid an extra $100 to step up from a $499 16GB iPad to a $599 32GB iPad? Or more precisely, didn't I pay $100 for 16GB of memory that would normally cost me around $20? And that whole Siri thing, wasn't that a bit gimmicky, too?
I realized then that I was looking at it all wrong. If the Vita had an Apple logo on it, wouldn't all these gripes about price and paying extra for proprietary memory just fade into the background? Heck, with the Vita, you get a whole lot more device for $300 (I'm including a 16GB card in that price) than you get for a 32GB iPod Touch, which also costs $300. A bigger one, anyway, with real gaming controls, not virtual ones.
Worth noting: Normally, I don't like to buy the first generation of anything, but Sony is one of the few companies that makes excellent first-gen devices. I own two of the original PS3s and they're still working fine. It built that first PS3 like a tank--remember, that's when it was charging $500 to $600 for it--and the original PSP was also well-made.
However, when it comes to gaming platforms, hardware is only half the equation. Despite being very well-designed, the iPhone and iPad are the juggernauts they are partially because of Apple's vaunted "ecosystem" that includes an App Store with gazillions of cheap 99-cent apps, a substantial portion of which are games.
The one big lesson that Sony could take from Apple is to make its downloadable games cheaper. Most downloadable titles (this includes older PSP games) should retail for less than $3. That's all they're worth in the new world of mobile games, and that's how you help build momentum for the Vita: you make it affordable for someone to build up a library of older PSP games while playing a few new "premium" titles that cost $40.
FIFA Soccer on Sony's PS Vita
I'm personally a fan of sports games, and have played both EA's FIFA and MLB: The Show on the device, and I can tell you that a lot of people will buy the system just for one or two franchises they love. Obviously, Call of Duty coming to Vita would be a system mover. And Madden, if it were done well, would certainly entice video football fans like our own Scott Stein to come off the sidelines and get in on the Vita action.
I can name a bunch of other games who would helps spur sales (the Japanese, for instance, are big fans of the game Monster Hunter, which sparked PSP sales). But at the end of the day, a handful of premium titles will only take you so far. A few hundred good cheap games (OK, maybe a thousand) have helped Apple sell millions of devices, and it doesn't have to lower the price of its hardware to keep selling it.
So despite being more optimistic about the Vita's fortunes than some my fellow editors, I can't help but think that Sony will most likely have to drop the price of the system to $199 or $179 to really start moving units after the early adopters have their fill (in Japan, Vita launch sales were initially strong but have dropped off precipitously in ensuing weeks).
That's a shame because the Vita is worth $250--or even $280 with that damn memory card. Cover up that PS Vita logo with an apple, and some people might even say it was a great deal. Don't you think?