I loved the Vita. I have vivid memories of playing Persona 4 Golden hours in the dark on my father’s couch in Chicago, flying around the world of Gravity Rush from an airplane seat and play Murasaki Baby before bedtime. The Vita felt good and it made me happy. And then Sony killed it.
For the past seven years I’ve wondered why the Vita had to die. So today we’re finally going to grieve and analyze together: what happened to the Vita and what if it were still there today?
It’s been hard to not think of the Vita recently. The mobile market is now on fire, with Valve’s Steam Deck shipping, Panic’s Playdate on the way, and of course Nintendo’s Switch and Switch Lite topping the charts. Not to mention that Microsoft is courting the handheld space with Cloud Gaming and Game Pass, and mobile gaming represents the largest and fastest growing segment in the industry. From consoles to PC, it seems every company is investing in handheld games. Any company except Sony.
To be clear, Sony doesn’t have to compete in the handheld market just because everyone else is doing it, but the tragedy here is that they goods do with the Vita – and as LL Cool J would say, they were doing good† Even with an embarrassing amount of options in the handheld space, I still want a new Vita. I want one in black and another in a peach colorway; I want the entire back panel to be a touchpad with DualSense-like haptics, and I want a small hole in one of the corners so I can attach charms, just like I did on the original. And, charm-hole aside, I don’t think I’m alone here.
So why don’t we all have shiny new Vitas in our hands now? Basically, I think Sony got scared and distracted, and not necessarily in that order.
The Vita was a commercial failure, but the numbers weren’t entirely tragic and there were even bright spots in its sales history. The Vita was an evolution of Sony’s successful PlayStation Portable line, with improved input mechanics, an OLED touchscreen and enhanced guts, first hitting the market in late 2011. This was just before the launch of the Wii U, PS4, and Xbox One, and right after Nintendo dropped the 3DS.
As another wearable device, the 3DS is a good point of comparison for Vita sales, and it doesn’t look good for Sony in the end. In 2012, Nintendo sold over 13 million 3DSs and Sony sold about 4 million Vitas that same year. Sony stopped reporting Vita sales figures independently after its first year on the market, and despite a few hardware iterations, the studio stopped building new devices in 2015. hardware sales about 16 million units. The 3DS is now finished more than 75 million†
That’s the analysis on the surface, but I think comparing the Vita to the Wii U actually gives more insight into the way Sony thought at the time, while giving a clear picture of what could have been.
At the start of 2013, the Vita and the Wii U were on shockingly similar trajectories. They were both iterations of previous hardware, trying new things and messing around. Nintendo’s Wii U came out in late 2012 and wasn’t nearly as well received as its predecessor, the Wii, offering players a bulky gamepad with an inconvenient user interface and crappy battery life. In its five-year lifespan, Nintendo has sold about 14 million Wii U consoles, even 2 million less than the Vita’s estimated total.
Here Nintendo and Sony have turned away from each other. In classic Nintendo fashion, the Wii U designers kept their heads low and continued to build on their vision of a hybrid console. The Wii U wasn’t perfect, but that didn’t mean the whole concept was bullshit, and Nintendo’s blind focus eventually resulted in the Switch, a console with an emphasis on mobile play. Today it is one of the best-selling systems in history.
But where Nintendo chose to stay on track, Sony decided to turn around and head back home. It just killed the Vita – and I think it was the result of internal turmoil within Sony itself. There was a discrepancy in the way Sony marketed the Vita in different regions, and even in the way it explained the basic ideas behind the hardware itself — such as with its confusing and expensive memory card plan.
Ever since Sony stopped releasing Vita information early on, I’ve been using stats compiled by a self-confessed data geek on Kresnik258Gaming for this bit: the Vita sold best in Japan, where it enjoyed a sweeping marketing campaign, complete with unique hardware bundles, models and games. The North American audience didn’t get the same attention, with limited advertising, few hardware bundles, and only a few half-hearted attempts at regional software. By the time the second-generation Vita and Vita TV came out in 2013, Sony seemed barely interested in explaining the benefits of these systems to US and Canadian players, and reddit used to be stuffed with complaints about the company’s lack of support.
This regional disparity happens to coincide with some significant management shifts at Sony and a wider shift in the approach to players and developers. With the launch of the PS4 in 2013, Sony was on top of the world — interactive entertainment president Jack Tretton destroyed the Xbox One at an iconic E3 show, and when both consoles hit the market, the PS4 emerged as a clear winner. in terms of sales figures. Then Tretton left Sony in 2014 and Shawn Layden took his place. At this point, the Vita was clearly an afterthought in North America. With Layden at the helm, Sony’s E3 shows took on a more corporate tone, and 2016 felt like a completely different company on stage. And this wasn’t just external: Sony had saturated its systems with innovative and award-winning indie titles in the 2010s, but in 2016 two of the company’s pivotal indie evangelists, Adam Boyes and Nick Suttner, left and indie developers said. they felt let down by Sony’s system.
Frankly, it seems like Sony had too much going on internally to focus properly on the Vita, and in the chaos it lost its sense of experimentation. Since that time, Sony has doubled its know-how such as upgrading its console hardware and releasing first-party games, and it just follows the crowd when it comes to things like PlayStation Plus and streaming. I think PSVR is cool, but it certainly doesn’t have the same impact as the Vita once had.
Or, as the Vita might still have. Imagine Sony today having a sequel to the Vita to market alongside the PS5 as a connection point for its streaming ambitions and an attractive hub for developers of all sizes. While Microsoft is busy buying up every mid-sized studio in town, a Vita would offer Sony an opportunity to partner with smaller developers in unique ways, giving the company even more exclusivity, the currency of the modern market. We know that players today appreciate a streamlined handheld component for their consoles, and Sony could use something to compete with Microsoft’s vast cloud capabilities and funding in R&D. It could use something that Microsoft doesn’t have. PSVR can’t fill this role, but Vita can.
At least that’s how I feel. Let me know if I’m really alone here, or if you’d like a Sony handheld system too – the only rule is you have to say if you want the charm hole.
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