“Is the Vita on life support?” “Will the Vita really die?” It’s fair to say the irony of its name hasn’t been lost on critics of Sony’s portable. Such headlines may be a little premature, but nor are they entirely wide of the mark: twelve months after its Japanese bow, Vita is undeniably struggling, faced with the twin threat of a resurgent 3DS and Apple’s continued dominance of the mobile space.
It all started so promisingly, too. Around 325,000 units were sold in Vita’s first 48 hours on sale in Japan last December: slightly less than 3DS’s 375,000, granted, but given Vita’s position as a premium device – with a game and accessories, many were paying ¥40,000 (£328) for their new console – it was considered a very healthy start.
Second week sales weren’t quite so robust: Vita sales dropped by 77 per cent in the week before Christmas. Not only was it outsold by its forerunner, but, more gallingly, by a ratio of almost 6:1 by its closest rival, Nintendo’s 3DS. By the third week in January sales had dropped to 18,361 units, as Vita reached just over 450,000 sales. In its first month on sale, it had shifted over 40% less than 3DS in its first month, and we needn’t remind you that Nintendo considered its own sales in that time so disastrous that a massive price cut was deemed the only solution. Sony had been selling Vita at a loss since day one: following Nintendo’s example was clearly out of the question.
Things looked a little rosier by the time Vita arrived in the west. SCEI president Andrew House promised “an even more stunning lineup of games” for its February launch, and though that may have been overstating the case a touch, it was an undeniably strong start for Vita software. An excellent new WipEout, a solid portable Uncharted, a return to form for Lumines and a broad range of retail and digital titles besides helped Sony narrowly outstrip 3DS’s launch, with House apparently “thrilled” by Vita’s early sales.
In playing such an aggressive opening hand, however, Sony had left little in reserve. Retail titles were thin on the ground until May’s Gravity Rush, and sales plummeted, reaching a nadir in June as Sony admitted just 400,000 units had been sold in the three months between March and June, less than half PSP’s tally in the same period. With little on the slate for the rest of the year, Sony needed to show early adopters that Vita was a worthwhile investment, and it had the perfect opportunity at E3.
It wouldn’t be overstating the case to say that Sony blew that chance completely. The Vita section of its bloated press briefing amounted to little more than three titles everyone already knew about. Firstparty software was so conspicuously absent that Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Liberation was the choice for a pack-in with Vita’s new Crystal White model. Connectivity features were detailed in a demonstration of one of Sony’s most popular properties, but the show understandably left us wondering in our E3 report “why we spent £220 on a controller for LittleBigPlanet 2.”
The ever-likeable Shuhei Yoshida at least had the honesty to admit the platform-holder had “totally under-represented” Vita in its conference, citing 25 games on the show floor as evidence that Vita had plenty of life left in it. Indeed, at Gamescom, Sony set out to right E3’s wrongs with a show that included Media Molecule’s charming and inventive Tearaway (with almost certainly the best use of Vita’s oft-ignored rear touch panel we’ve seen to date) and Guerrilla’s Killzone Mercenary, the kind of graphical powerhouse you’d expect from its maker, not to mention one of the few occasions this year that fifty shades of grey have prompted rapturous applause.
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