Did the PS Vita Show Too Much of Its Game Face at Launch?

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Conventional wisdom: Launch strong, show your best hand, win hearts and minds. Actual wisdom: Stagger your triple-A releases, because forklifting out everything you’ve got off the block and leaving a black hole of game-space between the launch window and holiday lineup is a surefire hardware sales-killer.

That’s the situation Sony’s Vita appears to be in at the moment, nearly two months on, after launching Feb. 22 in the U.S. with a reasonably strong assemblage of new and repackaged albeit popular fare. In Japan, where the system launched on Dec. 17, unit sales fell to 8,250 last week, which marks a record low for the games handheld that’s been struggling in the Land of the Rising Sun from the start. Contrast with Nintendo 3DS, which pulled out a whopping 63,796 units. According to Gamasutra, Nintendo’s outselling Sony six-to-one in Japan.

Curiously, the number one bestselling game last week in Japan was a PSP game, 2nd Super Robot Wars Z: Saisei-hen (via NeoGAF). In fact the PSP holds six spots in Japan’s top 20 bestselling games, compared to eight for the 3DS. And PS Vita games? Not a one.

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U.S. Vita unit sales are harder to come by. Unlike Japanese retail tracker Media Create, responsible for the numbers given above, U.S. analogue NPD Group stopped reporting monthly unit sales some time ago, no doubt relieving Sony of the grueling monthly side-by-sides it and its often third-position PS3 (after the Xbox 360 and Wii) endured for years. The monthly/weekly sales figures don’t tell the whole story, but they’re the closest thing to a “winning hearts and wallets” index we have. And while some shrug the numbers game off, it would be foolish to pretend they’re irrelevant — publishers and developers alike naturally look to a platform’s install base when making critical decisions about what to develop and who to support.

Last we heard from Sony’s Jack Tretton in late February, Vita sales were over 1.2 million worldwide. Sony said sales had “exceeded expectations” at that point, adding that software sales were over two million units, including both retail purchases and software downloaded via the company’s PlayStation Network. While nearly two months on, those figures are surely higher — some sites report the worldwide hardware install figures are just approaching two million — there’s no conceivable way Sony’s can spin its Japanese sales as either “expected” or acceptable.

The Vita launched with 25 games in the U.S. (the 3DS launched with 18), including reasonably well-thought-of stuff like Rayman OriginsUltimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus, Escape Plan, Wipeout 2048, Uncharted Golden Abyss and Super Stardust Delta. But since then, games have slowed to a trickle, mirroring the feast-to-famine situation after Nintendo’s 3DS launch a year ago. In March, we’ve seen eight games, nearly all either ports or multi-platform games. In April I count four, none of them much anticipated. May looks a trifle better, with Mortal Kombat, Resistance: Burning Skies and Silent Hill: Book of Memories, but dates get more tenuous farther out, and that looks like the pace until the holidays: a smattering of games every month, and less than a handful of exclusives overall. The parallels with Nintendo’s 3DS through much of last year (the 3DS also suffered a midyear unit sales slump) should be obvious.

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But Nintendo had a surprise for us last summer, when it dropped the price of the 3DS from $250 to $170. That price drop in August, coupled with Nintendo finally rolling out its first-party big guns in November and December (e.g. Super Mario 3D Land, Mario Kart 7) catalyzed a full-on 3DS sales rebound. After a little over a year, the 3DS is closing on 20 million units sold worldwide. The chances of Sony’s much pricier Vita pulling off the same feat without a comparable price drop or some triple-A surprises is beyond unlikely at this point. And while price differentials loom large when contrasting the Vita and 3DS, Sony’s software lineup — or lack thereof, post-launch — is just as surely impacting its ability to woo new buyers looking for triple-A stuff or underrepresented genres (roleplaying and strategy games). Had Sony launched with an exclusive, well-reviewed Modern Warfare or Battlefield spinoff, then followed with a stronger monthly showing, we might be having a different conversation.

Instead, there’s little in general to talk about with the Vita, game-wise. The next big thing’s probably Gravity Rush, due in June (it’s the one I’m waiting for). After that, it’s anyone’s guess. A Call of Duty game this fall? The Metal Gear Solid HD collection? Irrational’s BioShock Vita game? Final Fantasy X HD? The fabled Persona 4 port and expansion? Maybe. But the only thing that’s going to get Vita hardware sales moving in the mid-term is a price drop. Given Sony’s history of holding steady on pricing, flagging sales or no, I wouldn’t hold my breath for one.

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