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SALT LAKE CITY -- Like Nintendo, Sony is fighting to keep dedicated gaming handhelds not only relevant, but in high demand.
At the same time, company officials realize there’s no stopping the mobile phone revolution. “We are under no illusions that PlayStation Vita will displace smartphones,” admits John Koller, director of handhelds at PlayStation.
But they also believe that smartphones are overhyped, shallow and incapable of competing with gameplay found on dedicated gaming handhelds like the new Vita. “With all of the noise in the market regarding mobile and tablet gaming, all of our research points to a very significant dedicated handheld gaming opportunity,” Koller adds.
To prove his point, Koller says the outgoing PlayStation Portable sold a respectable 75 million units worldwide over the last seven years. When coupled with the widely popular Nintendo DS, that means more than 225 million dedicated gaming handhelds were sold during the same period.
Granted, that’s a far cry from the almost half billion smartphones shipped last year alone. But it’s unlikely that such a passionate number of dedicated handheld owners will switch devices overnight for less proven gaming brands on smartphones.
Not only that, but many enthusiast players view smartphone games as quick diversions — supplemental, even — rather than replacements for traditional handheld games.
“Core gamers are increasingly unfulfilled by their mobile and tablet gaming experience,” Koller says, “and are really just using those devices to kill time.”
Mark Butler is one of those gamers. Although he distracts himself now and again with games on his Windows Phone and his wife’s iPhone, he’s still interested in the Vita.
“The shape and layout of a smartphone is not inherently designed for gaming,” Butler says, adding that he prefers to use a proper controller. “So if the Vita can bring a PS3 experience to a handheld, I’m all in.”
The problem is, the Vita may be trying to do too much with two touch panels, 3G, apps, web browser, raised controller buttons, social media, two cameras.
“It’s a very busy stew,” says Chris Grant, editor of VoxGames. And that could confuse consumers looking for a gaming device first because the handheld is wearing the guise of a multi- purpose device,” says Grant.
What’s more, consumers have already annointed the smartphone as the digital Swiss Army knife of the future, mobile gaming very much included. As such, “there is this impression that Vita will be the swan song for dedicated handheld gaming,” Grant says.
To avoid that fate, Koller and his team — armed with a $50 million initial marketing budget — says the plan is three-fold. First, convince the millions who already bought and enjoyed the PlayStation Portable to upgrade. Not a hard sell, given the brand loyalty that PlayStation enjoys.
Second, position the PS Vita as a “PS3 in your pocket” and let it communicate with and even play against those playing on the popular home console.
“We are encouraging all opportunities to connect your PS3 and PS Vita experience,” says Koller. “In terms of dedicated console or dedicated handheld experiences, the lines are starting to blur.”
That’s also a possibility given the steady popularity in home console gaming, something tablet and smartphones have so far failed to eat into, at least by significant amounts.
Lastly, Sony hopes to ensnare some of those half billion smartphone owners into buying a dedicated gaming handheld, preferably the Vita. “The interesting growth will come from the casual consumer, who currently play on mobile phones or tablets, but (is) unfulfilled by the limited gaming experiences,” says Koller. “That consumer will be able to easily jump into the PS Vita.”
For Sony, that’s where the theory breaks down a bit. Expecting a smartphone player who largely relies on a touch or two of the screen to “easily” understand the controls of a complex shooter (which can use up to 17 button clicks on a PS3) is anything but easy.
Furthermore, there’s only so much room in one’s pocket. “The biggest challenge for dedicated gaming handhelds like the Vita is asking people to carry two devices with them,” says Grant. “iOS games are already pretty good and getting better, and an increasing number of traditional gamers are warming up to them.”
Which is why Grant speculates that PlayStation will eventually become a software platform, at least on the portable front — lending weight to this idea: Sony recently announced its PlayStation Suite framework to bring PlayStation games to Android and other hardware neutral platforms. And it also completed a takeover of the Sony Ericsson smartphone line this month, rebranding it “Sony Mobile.”
Whatever happens in the long term, it’s likely that dedicated gaming handhelds and smartphone games can coexist, at least in the short term. But according to critics, the Vita has its work cut out.
“I don’t know if I’d recommend it yet,” says Grant. “It’s a little pricey, but it has a lot of promise.”
About the author: Blake Snow is a writer, user experience critic and media consultant. He lives with his vertically challenged family in Provo. Fan (and hate) mail at blakesnow.com