It’s looking more like a long, slow bridge to who-knows-where for Sony’s silent running PlayStation Vita. No, I don’t have official sales figures in front of me, but Sony’s reticence about said figures is telling. Companies can’t wait to crow about upbeat sales, but clam up when things go south. That, or they issue press statements with murky phrases like “continues to meet sales expectations.”
In this climate of marketing clichés and fuzzy rhetoric, absence of evidence usually is evidence of absence.
To be fair, Sony hasn’t said much about its enthusiast-angled gaming portable since the thing launched stateside and in Europe on Feb. 22, 2012. At that point, the company was still publicly bullish about the Vita, pegging worldwide sales at 1.2 million (including the Japanese market, where the system launched two months earlier on Dec. 17, 2011).
Nintendo, by comparison, had moved roughly three times as many Nintendo 3DS handhelds by March 31, 2011, barely one month after its Japanese launch on Feb. 26, 2011 and just days after its stateside debut on March 27. The 3DS today — Nintendo, unlike Sony, hasn’t been bashful about sharing sales figures — stands at over 19 million units shipped worldwide.
The latest piece of Vita sales info to cross desks came a few days ago, when Sony announced dismal game division sales, dropping 14.5% year-on-year for a loss of about$44.7 million. Contrast with the prior year’s $52.4 million profit.
But when it came to Vita specifics, Sony shrewdly folded the PSP into the equation and revised its original 16 million total handheld units sold projection for the year down to just 12 million. Sony had previously projected 10 million in global Vita sales by year’s end, but that figure appears to have evaporated. When pressed for Vita sales specifics, Sony stonewalled — one assumes because those figures are incredibly unflattering, and that the company is doing its level best to avoid a rash of news clusters with negative headlines like “Vita Sales Shock: Handheld Numbers Plummet!”
That hasn’t stopped the public from reading the tea leaves. Google the phrase “PS Vita Sales” and in the handful of related searches at the bottom of the page, you’ll discover the words “tumble” and “disappointing.” What you won’t find: any positive search terms.
I can’t prove this, but I’d wager most gamers, even the ones who dig the system (as I do), view it as an overpriced latecomer to a market that’s been hemorrhaging players since companies like Apple and Google essentially backed into mobile gaming, all but accidentally, by adding games as an ingredient on smartphones and tablets.
If the bloom’s already off the Vita, it’ll be a shame. To a gamer like me, Sony’s handheld is everything I dreamed a portable game system might be as a kid, hammering on stuff like Tomy’s Blip and Coleco’s Electronic Quarterback. It’s powerful enough to run games that look nearly as good as their console counterparts and rigged with left/right thumb controls to play spatially complex games without compromises. The touch-based extras really are extras, too, added in most games as complementary instead of feeling foisted (speaking as a guy who prefers gamepads to motion control wands or motion-detection cameras).
The Vita’s overwhelming problem at this point: its price.
Right or wrong, the Vita is perceived as too expensive. At $300 for the Wi-Fi + 3G model and $250 for the Wi-Fi-only version, it’s at least as expensive as a brand new 160GB PlayStation 3 ($250). Nintendo’s 3DS currently goes for $170 (after Nintendo launched at $250, experienced a sharp sales drop-off, and slashed the price accordingly). If you’re a smartphone gamer, I’m betting you paid around $200 for your phone, as I did for my iPhone 4 in February 2011, thanks to carrier contract subsidization. And if you’re really on a budget, you can find new or used PSP and DS systems with sprawling game libraries for well under $100 a pop.
With unemployment up, the economy still wavering, consumer spending flat and, one assumes, buyers looking to wring maximum value from their entertainment devices, the boutique-tier Vita seems to be in an impossible spot. Sony’s manufacturing costs are presumably high, since the Vita shares much in common internally with high-end smartphones that go for $600 to $800 without contract subsidies. But the Vita is strictly a game system. There’s no carrier subsidization option to mitigate Sony’s manufacturing outlay and the consumer price point.
Companies can talk about a system’s value all they like; that won’t change the reality on the ground, where the Vita’s luxury bells and whistles aren’t enough to offset pricing expectations. After the reaction the 3DS received, I’m betting most people view handhelds as $200 or less investments. That may be in part because handheld refreshes seem to be occurring every two to three years (check the history of both the PSP and DS, to say nothing of the annual smartphone one-upmanship game). We’re talking about a relatively new and pricey habit, especially for users buying these things as well as computers and consoles. And if you’re buying a dedicated games handheld, probably in addition to a smartphone, too.
If Sony wants the Vita to succeed, it needs to take its cues from Nintendo and drop the $250 Vita’s price by at least $50. The Vita is almost certainly selling at a snail’s pace compared to Nintendo’s 3DS — itself facing lower-than-expected sales criticism, despite much higher weekly and monthly sales than the Vita. Nintendo executed the 3DS’s sales-rescuing price drop back in August 2011, less than six months after the system launched in the U.S. It’s now August 7, 2012, nearly six months after the Vita’s U.S. launch, the back-to-school window prefacing the holiday shopping period is almost on us and we’ve heard not a peep from Sony about its plans to stimulate Vita sales. LittleBigPlanet, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and Persona 4: Golden sound lovely, but they’re hardly going to spawn a multimillions-unit sales comeback.
When I originally reviewed the Vita, I called it “beautiful, expensive and worth it.” At the time, it was, and to me, it still is. But the wallet-voting public seems to disagree, and if Sony wants to change people’s minds, well, in this case, it’s hardly rocket science.