Something About Japan: why PS4 isn’t a Japanese console and Vita TV could be a stroke of genius

So, 22 February 2014 it is then. Japan, Sony’s home country, which has always had a head start on PlayStation hardware, will get PS4 three full months after the US and Europe, and in its place this November we will instead get Vita TV, a newly announced miniature console for playing Vita-compatible games on your TV.

And in a way, it’s no big surprise. Sony has several reasons to leave Japan till last on the PS4 list. Not that Sony can afford to coast in Japan – Xbox might be dead in the water here, but Nintendo is still top dog. Still, with Microsoft Japan labelling Japan a “Tier 2” region that is unlikely to see Xbox One in 2013, coupled with Wii U’s abysmal sales in Japan and everywhere else, Sony probably feels the home front is not at risk just yet.

Also, the PS4’s launch line-up for November holds little appeal for Japanese gamers. With the exception of Deep Down and possibly Knack, these are exactly the sort of titles that no one here will want: shooters (Killzone Shadow Fall and Wolfenstein: The New Order), an overly serious racer (Driveclub) and another Assassin’s Creed game. If pushing back to February means a few more Japan-centric games, such as new Yakuza title Ryu Ga Gotoku: Ishin and another Dynasty Warriors game, it might make for a smoother launch.

(The “sweetener” of a free copy of Knack and an extended warranty intended to appease Japanese PS4 fans, by the way, is being generally derided on Twitter. “Who needs Knack anyway?!” comments one representative user.) Sony had time to get some of those key Japanese titles in place for a November launch, but the fact that it instead chose to focus its energies on the West is revealing.

For one thing, as mentioned above, Sony has less competition in Japan where next-generation home consoles are concerned; its energies are better spent in the West, especially North America, where Xbox 360 has dominated the current generation. And indeed, to this end, PS4 has been designed in America by Brits, Americans and Japanese, with a global audience in mind. After the announcement, Japanese gamers were quick to complain that Japan will be last to its own party, but they’re wrong; Japan was never the host this time around. PS4 simply is not a Japanese console.

And all of this brings us back to PS Vita TV. In Japan more than anywhere, this seems like a stroke of genius on Sony’s part. Japan has all but abandoned home consoles in recent years; 3DS hardware and games consistently top the sales charts and children’s birthday lists, and surpassed the PS3’s lifetime sales in just over a year. And you can barely move on a rush-hour commuter train in Tokyo for casual gamers of all ages and walks of life poking away at Puzzle & Dragons on their smartphones.

Vita has been left behind, thanks partly to Sony’s loss of the Monster Hunter franchise to Nintendo and a lack of great games, but it is starting to pick up, and Sony probably knows that competing in the portable space in Japan is even more vital than the battle for the living room.

So PS Vita TV could be seen as a Trojan horse. It’s cheap – less than 10,000 Yen (£63.80 / $100) — which makes it more appealing than a 40,000 yen PS4; and it’s small enough to take up little space in a cramped Japanese apartment. Hardcore Vita gamers get a unit that lets them play their games on the go and then plug them straight in to the TV; the causals get a budget console that plays the PSone classics from their childhood, it doubles up as a box for videos services like Hulu and Niconico Douga and they may later be tempted to buy a Vita for taking their library outside. And Sony gets another revenue stream for its Vita content while expanding its user base to hopefully attract more publisher support. If it all really does go wrong for the handheld, at least Sony can salvage some of its outlay with this tasty alternative to an Apple TV.

Sony needs to get the Japanese PS4 launch just right if it is to stand any chance of succeeding where Nintendo has so far failed with Wii U. Frankly, it’s already a long shot. It’s bad news for those of us who will have to wait three more months to join the next generation, but it is a generation whose future is far from guaranteed in Japan. Better late than doomed.

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