Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Vita's Catch-22

It's no secret that I want the PlayStation Vita to succeed for my own personal enjoyment. As someone with a love of portable gaming, I would be thrilled to see both portable consoles do well. The 3DS has Nintendo's beloved first party titles, but the Vita lacks a Mario to fall back on. As such, the Vita is now in a catch-22 situation where it needs major developers on board, but those same developers are unwilling to commit. That's not to say the Vita has no games, but it is stuck with a library that appeals to a smaller niche than it needs to be a retail success.

Those seeking a great gaming experience on the Vita can find it. Games such as Persona 4 Golden, Gravity Rush, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation have all proved to be entertaining games for the system. Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward, Mortal Kombat, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, and Retro City Rampage are not exclusives, but have also shown to play wonderfully on the Vita. Despite being a happy Vita owner, I'm not blind to the problems facing the system. Memory card issues, pricing, and size limitations for a system built around supporting a digital infrastructure boosts up the cost of entry well above a casual entry point for many gamers. And despite that list of games above, there is still a call for a "killer app" to really bring gamers flocking to the system. Possible solutions to this can be found on both sides of the world.

First, many Western developers seem to believe that gamers don't want to play big series titles on a handheld system. Sure, people want the massive screen experience, but that doesn't mean that portable gaming has to be ignored or limited to mobile games. I'm sure many publishers have seen less than stellar numbers come back from their forays into portable gaming and wondered why they even bothered. The real issue could well be that gamers just got burned by a crappy version of a game that was shuffled off to a secondary developer without the time or resources worthy of making a quality title. North American developers need to quit devaluing franchises with awful, secondhand ports and show gamers that a handheld system can handle a quality version.

One major example of failure is Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified. This game landed in the lap of Nihilistic who attempted to cobble together a game on whatever minimal budget Sony and Activision had left after the console versions. The end result ended up being a half-hearted effort that did more damage to the public image of the Vita than it helped. It might have sold well based on its name alone, but the game actually could have been great if it had just been given any real consideration and wasn't just a mere afterthought on Activision's to-do list. Even a simple Vita port of Black Ops 2 would have been better. I actually pity Nihilistic and applaud their attempt here, as I don't blame them as much for this disaster as I do Activision. Regardless of who is to blame the waters have been soured, as what could have been the system's biggest hit of the year ended up as the biggest joke instead.

I do want to praise Ubisoft for being willing to support new hardware. Not only did Ubisoft offer the biggest third party launch lineup for the Vita, but the late year release of Assassin's Creed III: Liberation was apparently a success for the company. And you know why? Because the game wasn't a cheap, farmed out afterthought. Ubisoft Sofia developed it to stand beside the mainstream game and it shows. Whether you like it or not, it was a solid effort to craft a unique and complete experience on the Vita.

It's a sad truth, but when it comes to major handheld releases, very few are Western developed and those that are tend to be given the Black Ops Declassified treatment. This in turn furthers the catch-22 situation the Vita is currently trapped in, as North American studios don't want to make games for a system few people own. At E3 2011, it seemed as if Sony had brought out the big guns to counter this kind of situation when Ken Levine of Irrational announced a brand new BioShock game for the system, but only a year later the stars might not align for it after all. So here we set with very little, if any, support from major Western studios.

Western development tends to shy away from portable consoles, but certain games could do wonderfully if given the chance. What gamer wouldn't be excited for a BioWare, Bethesda, or Obsidian developed RPG on the go? Just because handhelds don't have the market share that iOS does here in states doesn't mean that a great gaming experience from the right developers couldn't help turn that around.

Despite lacking strong first party franchises, support for the Vita has still been heavily reliant on Sony studios. The company has brought out portable versions of most of its major titles and is still looking forward with new content from games like Killzone: Mercenary and Soul Sacrifice. Sony is trying its best to stay above water in terms of game releases, but relying on first party titles alone isn't going to cut it. Sure another non-card game Uncharted or a Ready at Dawn developed God of War would be great, but without stronger third party support it is still a major uphill battle.

In Japan, third party support has been better with studios like Marvelous, Namco Bandai, and Nihon Falcom all on board, but even there some key figures are missing in action. Square Enix has been completely out of the picture since publishing Army Corps of Hell at launch. I'm not sure the details of the deal that brought Square Enix on stage at Sony's Vita event in 2011 to announce an HD version of Final Fantasy X, but if money changed hands there, Sony needs to ask for a refund or kick SE in the pants. Those character model screens shown during the Feb. 18th Vita announcement is not enough, this game needs to be finished and out already. Then Sony needs to pay Square Enix to work on Final Fantasy X-2, Final Fantasy XII, Final Fantasy Type-0, and even a port Final Fantasy XI. If Sega can do it for Phantasy Star Online 2, Square Enix can find a way to bring Final Fantasy XI over as well. Many other Japanese studios could help the system by jumping on board. Imagine a new Valkyria Chronicles from Sega or major crossplay support for upcoming PS3 games. It could be great.

Yes, the PlayStation Vita already has great games such as Persona 4 Golden available right now, but the system needs more support to keep growing. North American development is extremely limited right now, but one correct, bold move could help the system immensely. Japanese support is steady, but only covers a niche area right now. Thankfully, due to publishers like XSEED, Aksys, and GungHo, these games are being localized. While I'm thrilled with those niche titles, the system needs a wider fan base. Indie support is fairly impressive for the little system with titles such as Mutant Blobs Attack and Retro City Rampage out and others like Guacamelee, Dragon Fantasy Book Two, and a port of Hotline Miami coming. The catch-22 just needs to break and it's up to major developers to do it. Sony can apologize all day long and even cut the price of the system, but the company really need to shell out funds for a big third party title...and that game's development needs to be taken seriously. Regardless of the doom and gloom I'm still very hopeful for the PlayStation Vita, even if I have no logical reason to be.


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