Clever Game Pricing, Not Just Games, Is Key to Vita's Success

The last piece to the Vita puzzle is perhaps the most important.

Sony's cards are on the table at last. All six of them, in fact, as part of the WAAR (wide area augmented reality) feature Vita developers have been banging on about recently, with the console able to register up to six cards at once to create fancy AR experiences on the fly.

As for its strategic hand, the only key information we're now missing is how much the games will cost. But in the past week, PlayStation's Euro boss has given us the clearest indication yet of what to expect from its PSP successor when it launches over here next February.

Jim Ryan, SCEE president and CEO, is a Sony veteran relatively fresh to the top job, who gives a refreshingly candid interview for a senior suit (certainly when compared with his boss, Kaz Hirai, the industry's very own Duke of Doublespeak).

Two things jumped out at me when I spoke to him in London recently: he revealed that Sony would take a "more tailored approach" to software pricing than it did with PSP, and that it would "take it younger more quickly and more deliberately than we did with PSP."

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LittleBigPlanet Vita could be the perfect proof of concept for Vita's range of features.

In other words, there'll be a range of price points, rather than a single fixed one, for Vita games; and Sony wants to make it more family-friendly fast - which could well mean a price cut, as well as more wide-appeal games, by Christmas 2012.

It's been fairly clear for some time that the biggest issue facing Sony and Nintendo in making their new handheld consoles a success is the price of software not hardware.

The world is a very different place now than it was when DS and PSP launched, when there was no such thing as an iPhone, let alone any real notion of games that could be easily downloaded in seconds for pennies.

Apple's rampant, rapid growth in handheld gaming has been astonishing and has caught traditional console makers completely off-guard. And what must really stick in Nintendo and Sony's craw is not Apple's boast of making the most popular portable gaming device in the world (a crafty spin, since most don't buy iPod Touch primarily as a games system), but that it's achieved it without even trying.

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Gamers will pay full price for big guns like Uncharted, but Sony realises it can't charge top whack for everything.

Other than happily creaming off its share of the revenue, the company has shown only the thinnest evidence of any kind of gaming 'strategy', instead providing a massively-popular platform - and content delivery-mechanism - that game makers fall over themselves to develop for.

Sure, by-and-large iOS games offer only a fraction of the depth of traditional handheld console games - and a virtual joystick and buttons is a terrible substitute for the real thing.

But in many, many brilliant cases, they also capture the joyful essence of gaming-on-the-go at a fraction of the price of traditional handheld console games and on a device that is always in your pocket - not just able to fit into it.

This makes handheld consoles a harder sell today by definition: if I have my console in the living room and my smartphone in my pocket, can I really justify shelling out for a portable console? And even if I can, why do I need one?

It's something Nintendo is still coming to terms with, but the lack of excitement around 3DS post-launch and pre-Mario was - the company hopes - as much to do with a lack of must-have software as high pricing.

"Looking at the competition, perhaps the launch line-up was not as strong as they'd have liked it to be," Ryan acknowledged to me, while predictably talking up his own first-party selection as: "Comfortably the strongest line-up we've had for any platform launch."

He may well be right - and, to my eyes, it's looking an awful lot more appealing than 3DS did on day one as a result.

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There's no denying Vita is an impressive piece of technology: but who is it for?

Sony has got a lot of things right with Vita that it got wrong with PSP: adding twin analogue controllers, for instance, the lack of which in the previous model effectively condemned it from birth to being the portable PlayStation that couldn't play PlayStation games properly.

Crucially, it's also learned that it's not enough simply to say, "Look! It's a baby PS3 with its own teeny-tiny screen! Aren't we clever?!" And so considerable noise is being made, quite rightly, about the console's full suite of features: front and rear touch, augmented reality, social connectivity and so on.

In short, Sony is demonstrating that there is a specific and unique gaming point to Vita - best exemplified right now perhaps by LittleBigPlanet, which may well have found its natural home on the handheld.

Which is all good, encouraging stuff. But demonstrating gaming value is one thing, demonstrating value to gamers - and, therefore, a reason to buy one - is quite another. And that's why Ryan's remark that game pricing will be "more tailored" is critical to Vita's long-term chances.

I agree with him that, for visibly high-production and hopefully high-content games like Uncharted, Sony will be able to continue demanding "historic console type price points", as he puts it.

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Nintendo learned quickly with 3DS what happens when you don't have enough good games, and they're all priced high.

But in the age of the 69p app, games publishers can no longer lazily assume their audiences will perceive 35 quid as a fair deal for all handheld games across the board.

What these price points will be on Vita remains to be seen. But Evolution Studios, for example, which is making MotorStorm RC, a first-party launch title, told me it's lobbying Sony to come in at less than full price for the game - and, importantly, to have a single, universal price for those who want both the Vita and PS3 versions.

And it's also worth noting that, via PlayStation Suite, Vita will also have access to Android games at the other end of the spectrum. Though many will already be enjoying these on their phones, of course.

Ryan is so confident he believes Vita will not just sell-out at launch, but break the UK sales record currently held by PSP. That's fighting talk that could - just as it did for Nintendo earlier in the year - come back to haunt him.

Sony, though, has a track record of loyalists turning out in force to ensure a strong launch. Not only did PSP shift 185,000, PS3 - despite costing a whopping 425 - did 165,000 in its first week.

But a successful launch does not guarantee a successful future, and Sony is well aware of this. With Vita, then, the company seems to be delivering the handheld console gamers will want to play. It just needs to ensure it's also one they are prepared to buy.

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