When Sony gets hardware right, Sony really gets hardware right. Recent years have brought us a torrent of sleek, weighty iDevices from Apple, all unibody aluminium and smoky black glass, so perhaps it's timely for us to get a reminder of just how great Sony's industrial design is when it's firing on all cylinders. PlayStation Vita just feels right, in a way that few other hardware companies ever quite manage. It's got enough weight to feel expensive and yet it's perfectly balanced in your hands. The sense of holding something powerful, something premium, is your first impression of Vita. Sony does it again.
Or so you'd think. Personally, I think Vita is a wonderful piece of kit; Tom is head over heels in love with it. The nation of Japan, on the other hand, seems rather less enamoured. The tale of PS Vita's launch hasn't been the triumphant epic Sony wanted - instead, it's become a miserable little tale of trickling sales and an unconvinced public. Has Sony really miscalculated? Or is the gaming press, much of which has become so accustomed to putting the boot into Sony in recent years, exaggerating the situation?
Taken in isolation, the figures don't look great. Sony planned to ship 700,000 units of Vita for the Japanese launch period (that doesn't necessarily mean day one, and we're not sure how quickly those units actually made it onto shelves), but by New Year's Day the company had only sold through around 440,000 of those to customers. This isn't quite the embarrassing level of over-supply that the PS3 saw at launch - but given that half a million of those consoles are special editions of the 3G model with a hundred hours of 3G data access thrown in for free, which Sony expected to be snapped up very rapidly, it's certainly not a great start.
If we're looking for some context, the obvious place to look would be the launch of the original PSP - but that's not actually a very useful comparison, as it turns out. Vita sold about 325,000 units in its launch weekend, compared to 200,000 units of the PSP sold at launch in December 2004. That was a totally different kettle of fish, though - Sony only shipped 200,000 units of the PSP for the Japanese launch, and sold every single one it shipped. It's impossible to say how many more would have sold had there been more stock available, but it's worth remembering that the European launch of PSP ended up being delayed until the following September due to problems meeting demand in Japan and North America. With 160,000 units of Vita unsold in Japan as of January 1st, that seems unlikely to happen this time around.
Of course, if we step back for a moment, it's easy to see a positive angle to this. Last time Sony launched a brand new handheld console, the company over-reached itself in manufacturing, couldn't make enough of them to meet demand, ended up leaving Europeans high and dry for nine months, and to add insult to injury, also shipped a ton of PSPs with serious stuck pixel problems (and a few which doubled up as highly entertaining ballistic UMD disc launchers if you twisted the case the right way). Six years later, an older and wiser Sony has got tons of stock and consoles that actually work. Cue the press shouting, "Your console isn't selling out! You're doomed!" One could forgive Sony's senior execs for deciding to give up, renounce worldly things and go off to live in a temple somewhere.
That's the case for the defence, or at least the bits that don't involve Kaz Hirai shaving his head and sitting under a waterfall seeking enlightenment are the case for the defence. Unfortunately, there's a bit more of a case for Sony to answer, because the most relevant comparison for Vita's launch isn't really the PSP - it's the rather more recent arrival of the Nintendo 3DS, with which Sony increasingly finds itself going head to head for big game franchises and customers alike.
Oh yes, the 3DS launch. Remember that? Remember how everyone lined up to proclaim that it was a bit of a disaster? Well, they were right. Solid first week sales quickly crumbled into nothingness, 3DS games sank out of the charts and out of sight, and Nintendo was forced to do an abrupt and humiliating U-turn - dropping the price of the console dramatically, bringing forward a bunch of headline games to bolster the software line-up, and relaunching the marketing campaign.
"There's something reassuring for Sony in the tale of the 3DS. Yes, Nintendo had to lose a bit of face, and a whole lot of yen, in getting the 3DS back onto a secure footing - but the company managed it."
On one level, Sony execs must be looking back on that whole sorry affair with absolute horror, because Vita's sales figures right now look like nothing other than history repeating itself. Vita had a decent opening weekend (but crucially not as good as the 3DS' opening weekend was, which is a stick that writers and analysts will be beating Sony with for months to come), followed by a complete crash and burn in subsequent weeks, and fairly miserable software sales too. It's the 3DS all over again, despite Sony's confidence that its powerful, sleek, online-capable console would easily see it riding out the challenges that sank Nintendo's 3D gimmickry.
On another level, though, there's something reassuring for Sony in the tale of the 3DS. Yes, Nintendo had to lose a bit of face, and a whole lot of yen, in getting the 3DS back onto a secure footing - but the company managed it, and right now 3DS is doing fantastic business in Japan and around the world. All the people who said 3DS had a terrible launch were right, but all the people who predicted that this meant the console would fail and Nintendo was doomed were flat-out wrong. It's worth bearing that in mind next time someone starts measuring Sony up for a coffin on the basis of Vita's launch sales.
Do we have some concept, though, of what actually went wrong with the Vita's launch? Things might not be as bad as they seem, or as bad as some people are eager to paint them, but they're certainly not as good as they could be. Why didn't Japan rush out in droves to line up for PlayStation Vita?
There's no single answer to that question, but there are a number of factors which explain parts of the problem. One major factor is Nintendo itself, or more specifically, the 3DS. Bear in mind that last March, the 3DS launched in Japan for 25,000 yen - around the same as the PS Vita costs now - and by August it had dropped to 15,000 yen. That means that Sony is competing with a console that's got a bigger software line-up (including the promise of Monster Hunter and Pokemon titles on the way) and a lower price point, but perhaps less obviously it also means that Japanese early adopters just got seriously burnt by buying a new console at launch. Nobody wants to pay full price for Vita if it's just going to go the way of 3DS and end up 10,000 yen cheaper in a few months time, and that's going to be holding back demand fairly severely.
A second factor which might not be immediately obvious lies in Japan's mobile phone networks. The 3G model of Vita requires that you sign up with a mobile service provider, specifically NTT DoCoMo (Japan's largest mobile provider, and about the only one that Japanese consumers actually seem to like) and buy pre-paid time cards. This simply isn't something that Japan, which largely doesn't do pay-as-you-go mobile phones or prepaid data services for mobile devices, is used to, and with the prices for top-ups being pretty steep, consumers are likely to be waiting to see what kind of extra costs this actual incurs in real-world use before making a commitment.
Thirdly, software prices are definitely a problem. iOS and Android have conditioned us to see handheld games as cheap, throwaway commodities. DS games deliberately pegged themselves below the price point of full-price console games in an attempt to find a middle ground (although they're probably still too expensive). PS Vita games are really, really expensive, and it doesn't matter how much you jump up and down and insist that they're just PS3 games in a smaller box - that's not how it feels to gamers, and it's certainly not how it feels to their aching, battered wallets. Pricing needs to be fixed, or the games need to become so absolutely essential that we're willing to take the financial hit. Neither will happen overnight.
All of those are things that it'd be pretty tough for Sony to fix right now. Sure, it could cut the price (confirming the suspicions of consumers waiting around and probably ruining first-day sales of consoles in Japan forever), but Vita is a more expensive piece of kit to manufacture than 3DS, so it'd take a big loss by doing so. The more likely approach is to try to build the software line-up, convince consumers that a big price cut isn't coming, and sell a reluctant public on the idea of pre-paid mobile data cards.
Finally, though, there's something that Sony could actually fix - and perhaps surprisingly, it's the same mistake that Nintendo made in the early days of 3DS. Speaking to friends and colleagues in Japan, I've had one conversation about Vita, repeated over and over again. It goes something like this:
"Are you going to buy a Vita, now that it's out?"
"Yeah, maybe, but what's the difference between it and another PSP? It seems expensive..."
This is exactly the problem that the 3DS had with its early marketing - outside of core consumers who read game magazines regularly, very few potential consumers of the console actually realised that it was a whole new handheld platform, rather than just being a DS with a peculiar 3D screen. The same thing has happened to Vita; the Japanese marketing just hasn't made it clear that this isn't yet another version of the PSP, it's a whole new console. Fixing that will take clever marketing and lots of hands-on opportunities for players, but the first thing it's going to take is an acknowledgement that this is a problem at all. I'm just citing anecdote here, of course, and the plural of "anecdote" is not "evidence", but in Japan even more so than here in Europe, even core consumers aren't in regular contact with the games press, and it's easy to see how this mistake can be made.
It's worth saying it again - Vita is an amazing piece of kit. It's a core gamer's dream handheld console. If you're excited about it, you've every right to be, and shouldn't be too disheartened by lacklustre Japanese sales. For Sony, though, the reality is now clear - it faces the same uphill struggle in 2012 that Nintendo had to deal with in 2011, and the rude health of the 3DS will only make Vita's job even harder. Look on the bright side, though. For gamers, this means another year when the industry's giants go all-out to win your affections and your business. Let's not start reading the funeral rites for Sony just yet - instead, let's look forward to seeing how the company fights its way out of adversity.