Friday, June 6, 2014

Moving the Vita Beyond Niche Success

Even the most content PlayStation Vita owners can see that the system could use some help. Price and memory card issues aside, the key thing I want to focus on here is games. This is one area where the Vita needs to hammer home its strengths and expand out even further. To see where the system needs to go, we need to look at where it's come from first.

The Vita released with a lot of potential and promises, but many of those fell through or were delayed. We can all agree that the BioShock tease from Ken Levine in 2011 is nothing more than a sad joke that is best forgotten at this point. The fact that it took over two years from its initial announcement for an HD Remaster of Final Fantasy X to materialize didn't help things either. Then having big name titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified being such a mess that it would have been better off to never have existed made the Vita's success an uphill battle. Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation were high profile, enjoyable games, but these titles could only do so much for sales. The idea that AAA content would carry this system was flawed from the start due to high production costs and a smaller install base, but delayed and half-baked games did nothing but drag the handheld's image down.

Late in 2012 and moving into 2013, the Vita found new life by becoming welcome place for indie developers. A number of smaller titles, many previously only found on PC, started making their way to Sony's handheld to relative, niche success. Guacamelee, Hotline Miami, Thomas Was Alone, Limbo, Dragon Fantasy, Pixeljunk Monsters Ultimate, and Velocity Ultra are just a few of the titles released within a matter of a few months in 2013. The list of indie supporters has continued to grow since, and bringing awareness to this movement became the personal mission of Sony's Shahid Kamal Ahmad, who has become the face of the Vita on social networks over the past few years. While indie success is great, and helps to give the Vita a stronger backbone, it's just a small piece of the puzzle.

The Vita's indie scene could help fill some much needed gaps. One area that is missing is that of the third-person looter (aka the Diablo-style game). Some solid PC games such as Torchlight and The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing are capitalizing on this sub-genre and could be right at home on the Vita, filling a hole left vacant by Warrior's Lair (Ruin) before it was cancelled. Silent Hill: Book of Memories made a fair attempt at the style of gameplay these titles are known for, but lacked the looting aspect that makes them addictive. And yes, I'm specifically ignoring the awful port of the mobile game Dungeon Hunter. This is just one area of indie gaming that's yet to be explored on the Vita, and when you think about how much fun it could be to loot hunt on the go, it just makes sense. Plus, the indie scene could use some meatier experiences.

Another area that has become more common lately is that of HD remasters, with Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD finally releasing along with other Sony compilations such as the God of War Collection, the Sly Collection, and the Jak and Daxter Collection. These games make for a decent supplement, but when it comes down to it, they are just older games with a new coat of paint that is getting harder to hide the aging content hidden beneath. Remasters are not going to be the solution. If publishers want to release older content on the Vita, Sony would do well to find a way to make PS2 Classics playable on the system. While it might not be a technically viable option, it would be a much more affordable alternative if enough companies jumped on board. Just imagine playing the Atlus PS2 RPG collection on Vita for cheap.

These remasters are not all the Vita has to offer in terms of recycled content, as it's seen its fair share of straight up ports. Disgaea 3, Mortal Kombat, Metal Gear Solid 2 & 3, Atelier Totori & Meruru, and The Walking Dead are all available on Vita, and some of these offer new content not packaged with the original release. This helps adds more variety to the system, but without a lot of new content or a complete makeover, most gamers will pass, especially if they have already played the game before. Still, there are some re-releases that do things right. The best example would be Persona 4 Golden, one of the best games on Vita. Sure it was originally a PS2 game, but with new content and updated graphics, it made for a fantastic Vita experience. We just need more games like this. Think about it. Would you rather have a straight up HD port of a PS2 game like Final Fantasy XII (even the International Zodiac Job System) or would you rather see it remade specifically for the Vita with even more new additions and improvements than before? I know what I'd prefer.

There are the more ambitious games like the Vita version of Borderlands 2, a port of a recent generation console game with a size and scope yet to be seen in the handheld space. In recreating such a massive experience on a smaller, less powerful system, there were bound to be technical issues, and that's the case here. Many won't be able to overlook the scaled back graphics or the occasional slowdown, but the game is still impressive on Vita considering the source material.

That said, the chance of seeing more ports on the scale of Borderlands 2 is probably slim. This was a major undertaking for a game that was already two years old, and as such it had likely already been played by many and in a more complete form. Even if the Vita could easily handle development of ports games this big, it's hard to imagine that the system could really survive off titles many have already played. Games like Fallout 3 or Dark Souls would be wonderful to have on the go, but would they really have a market outside of the hardcore handheld gamers that already own a Vita?

To be competitive, the system would need something like the upcoming Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel to be released alongside the console versions, not as a two-year-later afterthought. While great in concept, I'm afraid I don't really see it happening. What would be a little more reasonable is to see more original, console-level content developed with a smaller budget. This is another area where the some of the bigger indie names could really shine by filling that gap with their own unique versions of major titles. Too often big publishers think of handheld games as an afterthought, specifically in the western market. This means instead of getting original content on par with consoles, we get what amounts a tech demo or a game that feels like it would be more at home on mobile devices. Sony is doing better than most, with releases like Gravity Rush, Tearaway, and Killzone Mercenary, but there needs to be more like those. It can't all be first party either.

The Vita's older brother, the PSP, received a lot of support from Japan, and the Vita is getting some of this carryover. It's mostly from smaller companies like Falcom, Tecmo Koei, Nippon Ichi, and Idea Factory at the moment. Heavy hitters like Square Enix and Capcom have yet to jump on board outside of a few small projects or ports, and even then it's minimal. The PSP did very well in Japan, specifically thanks to Monster Hunter, but all too often now companies simply try to cash on that game's success instead of making new content. Wouldn't gamers like to play action titles in the style of Bayonetta or Vanquish on the go? How about making the Vita the home for a new retro RPG series that looks like a 16-bit era Final Fantasy throwback instead of spending a fortune, and half a dozen years, on a game with Crisis Core level visuals? It could easily compliment the 3DS's successful Bravely series. These would be great additions to the current lineup of Japanese content and would have big names behind it to make more people take notice.

There is a lot the Vita is doing right. There have been some great re-releases on the system, and along with lots of cross play options, it is a fantastic on-the-go option. The Vita's indie presence is growing each day with more and more fans taking notice of it. While that area continues to grow, the first and third party content needs to be even more focused. There is plenty of new, compelling content to be created, and independent developers need some big names alongside them helping to keep the system afloat. Teams like Curve Studios, Devolver Digital, Drinkbox Studios, and FuturLab are doing great jobs of bringing fresh content to the system, and localizations from Atlus, Aksys, NIS America, XSEED, and Tecmo Koei are all great. The bigger names like Square Enix need a better focus, because right now they don't seem to get how best to develop for this system.

Original content that will appeal to the mainstream would go a long way to helping the Vita, specifically with its current, steady stream of games. As a Vita owner, I've rarely been without something to play, but I am clearly a niche gamer. Vita lacks a system seller in the mainstream, and traditional AAA content isn't going to work. It needs lower budget content with more mainstream appeal, and I've already shared many ideas for how to do this. Quirky, unique games like Murasaki Baby, Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines, and Danganronpa 2: Goodbye Despair are all very interesting, but are going to be a tough sell to a larger audience. Until we see a Borderlands specifically designed for Vita or an original Final Fantasy game for the system, things are not likely to change. Until then, I'll just be sitting over here playing Borderlands 2 and Mind Zero while happily waiting on Cosmic Star Heroine, Axiom Verge, and Hotline Miami 2.

1 comment:

  1. As always a good read.
    I myself don't really have anything to add as you said everything.