Two steps forward, one step back, 999 steps to go: A deeper look into the PlayStation Vita launch

You know the start of Jerry Maguire (I know, I know) where Jerry has this epiphany and feels the need to share it with his sports agent company even though it flies in the face of everything that company stands for (we are good but WE CAN BE SO MUCH BETTER!!!)?  That’s how I feel right now in terms of the Vita, except I don’t work at Sony so I can’t circulate a memo to get myself fired.  So instead I’m just going to write this and maybe spam some twitter accounts and hope for the best.  This stuff is always so much easier in movies.  But I had this burning desire to get all of this out, which is weird – I know – but that’s why the internet is great for crazy people.

One month ago, on a Monday morning much like this one, I sat here at my computer in a state of complete mania.  I was two days away from getting the PlayStation Vita First Edition bundle and I couldn’t possibly be more excited.  In retrospect I’m not even sure what I was so excited about, other than generic gadget lust, because what I’ve come to love about this unit is not exactly what I figured going in.  It’s been a long, strange journey going from “I don’t care about a new PSP” to seeing the “NGP” unveiling and thinking “holy crap that has every possible thing I would want in a portable” to the weeks and months leading up to it talking to my co host James on the podcast how Sony were gonna screw this whole thing up.  And they did, of course, but not entirely.  In fact as far as things go for Sony this launch has been extremely positive.  But that doesn’t mean there weren’t some head scratching decisions along the way.

Lumines is overpriced at $40 but is a wonderful game. The notification system, however, is quite intrusive.

So this is my attempt to make sense of it all.  I want to look at what I thought the Vita was going to be, what it is, what it can be… and what Sony needs to fix ASAP.  If you aren’t familiar with our podcast I am definitely a fan of Sony, though more so for their games than for their corporation.  I don’t care if rich people get richer.  But I’m not coming at this without bias, and I figure that’s worth noting.  It’s also worth noting, which I already did in the second paragraph, that I really, really wanted this thing.  So Sony didn’t have to do much to sell me on it after unveiling what it was capable of.  I think there is a great discussion to be had about how they can sell it to others, and I may touch on that, but since I was already a shoe-in it’s not something I spent much time thinking about.

The Hardware and the launch

This is probably the most positive aspect of the Vita as a whole and most would argue that it’s the most important.  The hardware is, in a word, incredible.  There have been some complaints about the use of plastic instead of glass but in 75+ hours of usage I can tell you that it hasn’t had any bearing on me.  I have (or have had) iPhones, an iPad, a DS, a 3DS… and the build of this isn’t quite up to apple standards but feels much more solid than anything Nintendo has put out (especially the flimsy feeling 3DS) and even the original PSP.  Also, after some initial discomfort with the buttons being too close to the sticks and my fingers accidentally hitting the rear touch screen I adapted rather quickly and the layout works just fine.

As for the guts of this thing I am in no way a technical guru but I do know what’s being output on that gorgeous screen, most of the time, is pretty darn impressive.  It’s not quite PS3/360 quality, but it’s in the same ballpark, and it’s aided by being on a smaller screen.  Some games aren’t at the native resolution, which signals to me that developers are still trying to figure out how to get the most they can out of this thing (and that they likely rushed games to reach the launch).  But all in all the hardware doesn’t disappoint.  On paper it was the most impressive handheld I had ever seen and when I had it in my hands it delivered on that promise.

Yep, that sure looks like Uncharted. Plays like it too!

The launch itself was handled a bit strangely.  Not only was it a tiered launch with the First Edition Bundle (FEB) people getting it a week early, but some launch games came up that week for them while others weren’t released until the official launch a week later.  Also, the lead up to the launch was filled, or not filled rather, with a shocking lack of info out of Sony.   When unveiling the NGP over a year ago they had mentioned things like “cross platform play” and “expanded remote play” and “Buy a game once and get it on both the PS3 and PSV” and “Vita games will be cheaper on the PSN store.”  But even just weeks before the launch we still didn’t have any info on any of this stuff.  There also was a shocking lack of advertising happening.  It seemed like Sony was trying to spring it on the world Sega Saturn style.

But as the launch finally arrived most of this stuff worked itself out.  PSN games in general are about 10% cheaper, though some (terrible) companies decided not to play along with this (shame on you Capcom, Square-Enix).  10% isn’t exactly enough of a bargain to make retail people become direct download people, or even enough to nudge people on the fence over said fence, it is still better than any of the console manufacturers are doing in any other space.  They came through with the promise of buy it once get it twice with Hustle Kings, which is especially nice for those of us that bought it over a year ago on the PS3 and now have it for free on the Vita.  They also, seemingly at the last minute, put together a $20 off promotion for buying both versions of MLB: The Show.  We still don’t know what’s going on with remote play, and the little we do hear doesn’t sound as positive as rumors that were reported in late 2011 (like that all ps3 games would work in remote play).  But we did get our first taste of cross-platform play with Wipeout and Motorstorm RC and it’s pretty fantastic.

There’s always something wrong

Any longtime fan of Sony (and I mean fan, because fanboy’s wouldn’t admit to such nonsense!) knows that Sony always messes stuff up.  It’s not just Sony, of course, as no console is perfect, no software lineup is perfect, no anything is perfect (except for my wife, I’ve learned).  And maybe it’s confirmation bias at this point and we are just searching out for Sony mistakes at an unfair level.  But whatever it is Sony always is set to deliver.  And with this launch it wasn’t just Sony, it seemed like everyone wanted in on the act.  Lets do some quick hits on the launch games.

Uncharted:  Sub native resolution.

Wipeout:  30-FPS and 45 second to 1 minute long load times.

Modnation: Extremely poor frame rate (feels sub 20 at times), long load times, no online play, no daily hot lap

Lumines: Ubisoft gets in on the act by charging $10 too much for a puzzle game.

Dungeon Hunters:  Ubisoft’s biggest transgression, a port of a $12 PS3 game which was an upgraded port of a $7 iPhone game.  MSRP = $40.

Plants vs Zombies:  $15 for reasons I still don’t understand.  Cheaper on literally every other platform.

Hot Shots Golf: No ability to do private matches online.

Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus: An 8-year-old game that’s been 60-fps everywhere else is somehow 30-fps on the vita.

Unit 13: A game designed around getting high scores and comparing/beating high scores of your friends inexplicably only posts the top 1000 scores which means only the most elite need apply.

There’s more, I’m sure, but that’s a good list to start with.  And like I said you can do this with any list of games, be it launch titles or games that came out in the last month for 6-year-old consoles.  So I know it’s not exactly fair.  But so much of this stuff sticks out to the Vita consumer because a lot of it proves how Sony didn’t manage to understand who their customer base was going to be.

The best example of this is Modnation: Road Trip.  When it was announced that the game did not have online play the internet erupted and the developers seemed a bit confused by all the hubbub.  ”Less than 10% of Modnation PSP owners played online” they said.  And while this is undoubtably true, they clearly had no idea that those people are not us.  We, the early adopters, make assumptions that things like online play are in a game.  It’s a given!  I mean why on earth would someone make a racing game without online play?  Well, Sony did it, twice actually (Motorstorm RC also doesn’t have competitive online play).  They looked at their metrics to try to make some decisions and they came up with the wrong answers.  I mean it seems clear as day to me.  Modnation PSP came out in what, 2009?  2010?  The PSP was a very mature system at this point, not particularly popular in the west, but the people who loved it really loved it.  Those people, however, weren’t really online gamers.  Most of the people I knew that loved the PSP loved it for one specific reason:  JRPGS.  While the JRPG has languished this generation on home consoles, there have still been some absolute classics on the PSP and DS.  So this is your core PSP audience and you release Modnation and some of them check it out and even fewer of them take it online.  This all makes sense to me.  But to then extrapolate from that data that Vita launch people won’t want to play Modnation online seems completely insane to me.

If this track looks awesome that’s because it was designed by a genius: me. But don’t let my technical artistry fool you, this game is the very definition of a rush job.

Unit 13 is another game that really just speaks to the amount that Sony doesn’t get what’s happening in the handheld/casual/social/whateverbuzzword space.  They made a solid attempt at going after it, and the basic design of Unit 13 is an absolute stroke of genius.  They took one of their best shooter teams and built a tactical shooter that had a ton of social gaming hooks in it to keep people coming back.  This includes a fairly brilliant scoring system, daily missions and co-op and near support.  The game is designed around repeat playing to get better scores.  The whole idea, I would think, is that you sign on and see that your friend beat your score on mission 12 and you immediately start that mission up to take back your spot.  Awesome!  This is such a fresh idea for a shooter, a genre not known for fresh ideas AT ALL.  The problem is that your friends scores never make it onto the leaderboard unless they are absolute gods at the game.  You see only the top 1000 scores for each level are listed on the leaderboard.  So even though right now I have 5 friends that own the game, when I go to look up friends scores on level 1 (surely we’ve all beaten level 1 by now) I get NO SCORES to look at.


How does stuff like this happen?  Do they not understand how this stuff works?  People like to compete but not all of us are amazing gamers.  That’s why friends list leaderboards are such a huge deal.  When I look at the global leaderboards in Battlefield 3 and see i’m ranked 500,000 I really don’t give a crap in the slightest.  But when I sort it by friends and see I have a higher KDR than a few of my friends I feel better and then I see im 100 kills lower than another friend I’m likely to go make a push to pass that person.  It’s motivating!  It’s also a lot of fun.  Zipper making a score chasing game and then only posting the best of the best is one of the most bewildering moves i’ve seen a developer make.  And it’s a shame because the gameplay is so good.  I have friends on all sorts of random message boards all saying the same thing:  ”I was going to get Unit 13 but decided not to because of this leaderboard nonsense.”   It’s such a small thing, but it’s losing you sales Sony.

Some of the other game shortcomings are expected in a launch.  Even at sub-native res, Uncharted still looks gorgeous, so I think most of us are willing to give it a pass on that.  And at 30FPS Wipeout and Ninja Gaiden are still a lot of fun.  The load times in Wipeout and Modnation are pretty inexcusable in a handheld game though, launch title or not.

The operating system and features:

The operating system is a solid first step for Sony and even as a first step it is much more robust than what the 3DS (or even PS3 + 360) are offering.  It’s not perfect by any stretch, and if Sony doesn’t expand it like we assume they will there will be disappointment, but as it stands now it’s good.  The ability to change background images while seemingly simple does help make the system feel more customizable.  This is something that people enjoy.  Even Apple doesn’t seem to understand this, but humans tend to think of themselves as individuals (weird, right?) and we like to make our own personal mark on things.  I want my Vita screens to look a specific way and the more I can do to make that happen the better.  Android gets this, iOS doesn’t.  Vita OS kinda gets this, but hopefully it’s fleshed out more in the coming months.

With just the ability to move around the icons and change the background image you can make Vita OS look quite individual to what you want. Let’s hope they expand this further in the future.

The built-in browser is functional but not particularly impressive.  If you need to look up a FAQ or check some sites/forums it’s fine.  If you want to watch YouTube videos or something a bit more extravagant you are out of luck.  The twitter app is fairly solid, and the ability to capture screenshots at an OS level (PS button + start, if you didn’t know) and then tweet them is pretty awesome.  In fact I’ve used the screen shot feature (and the flickr app) to create a fairly complex set of tournaments for Hot Shots Golf at the PlayerOne Podcast forums.  This is great!  Social interaction!  YES!

We are still waiting for the rest of the PSP games to work with our Vitas.  They said they would be done in the upcoming weeks… weeks ago.   I own about 40 minis, currently only 4 of them are compatible with the Vita.  We are also waiting, not so patiently in some cases, for PSone support.  And we would love to hear further clarification on PS2 emulation rumors and what in the world is going on with remote play.  Because we’ve already seen the YouTube videos of hackers playing anything they want on their vita with a PS3 with custom firmware.  Sony, don’t let them have more features than you do.  Seriously.

My minis page is a barren landscape of sadness.

The biggest complaint I have on an OS level is the amount of times the damn machine signs in and out of the PSN.  This wouldn’t be an issue if it was a 3 second process, but it’s not, it’s more like 20+ seconds.  I understand that it likely does this to save battery life but at least give an option to remain online.  I would surely trade battery life, in some situations (like when I’m near a plug) for the ability to not have to wait through this 20 second long process multiple times in a sitting.

Moving forward though I think it’s right to feel good about the OS.  Eventually all of those game types will be compatible, the browser will get better, we will surely get more customization options and really wonderful ideas like the Live Area and Near will likely be expanded.  Things are solid with the Vita OS.

It’s the games, stupid

The reason we buy a system is for the games.  Right?  The other stuff is nice, I surely like having Netflix on this thing, and OS level screen caps make me beyond happy…  but would I even bring this thing with me when I leave my house if it didn’t have games?  Of course not.  And as far as that goes, besides the stumbles a lot of them take, this is one of the most solid launch lineups ever constructed.

Uncharted is a worthy entry to the series and that’s saying a lot since the bar for that series is raised so darn high.  Wipeout, after waiting for it to load, is gorgeous and fun.  Hot Shots Golf, especially with the daily tournaments, is as good of a golf game as I’ve ever played.  Unit 13, leaderboard issues aside, is as fun of a shooter as I’ve played in years.  Seriously.  Hyperbolic, sure, but you have to remember that the novelty of playing a real shooter on a handheld brings with it a bit of magic, for lack of a better word… and the scoring system really does feel new and fresh in a genre that is allergic to the words new and fresh.  I wish I could turn the autoaim off, but otherwise when I’m moving through a level dispatching foes it just feels so freaking satisfying.  And the daily missions mean I’ll be playing it at least once a day for a long time even after I finish the main campaign.

When I’m not raging about the leaderboards it’s the gunplay in Unit 13 that feels so great… but an occasional explosion certainly doesn’t hurt.

Out of the 26 launch games there are actually very few turds.  If you look at the list you can figure out which ones they are, I won’t waste your time listing them.  But even borderline stuff like Dynasty Warriors is actually quite good if you have the benefit of liking the series (it, of course, won’t make fans out of non-fans though).  Hustle Kings is one of the most underrated and underappreciated games of this entire launch.  At $10 you get both the PS3 and Vita versions and it has this wonderful turn based (using the system messaging app) mode where you take your shots and then send the game to your friend for him to take his turns.  It’s really awesome!  I hope to see much more of this type of asynchronous multiplayer on the platform going forward.

Hustle Kings is amazing looking and the physics and controls are spot on. Definitely an underrated gem in the Vita launch lineup.

The shock of the vita launch sure was getting Motorstorm RC for free.  Thanks Toyota!  I feel dirty even thanking a corporation, but you know what…?  I like free games!  And I will gladly look at splash screen ads to play them.  Good on them for doing something a bit outside of the box.  The game itself is wonderful, Evolution Studios remains one of Sony’s most underrated studios.

In general all of the games $15 and below are wonderful and I hope we see a lot more happening in this space going forward.  I certainly want $30 and $40 “big boy” games as well, but much like on the PS3 I am actually really, really into these smaller offerings.  Plants vs Zombies is overpriced but no one can knock the quality of it.  Escape Plan has its problems but it’s also one of the most interesting looking games this side of Journey and Limbo.  Stardust and the aforementioned Hustle Kings are both fantastic games weighing in at a very fair $10.  The absolute steal of the launch, however, is Mutant Blobs Attack.  For $8 you get a meaty, inventive and fun indie sidescroller with great controls, visuals and music.  It’s definitely one of the top 3 games of the launch and it’s also one of the cheapest.

Rayman is gorgeous and plays wonderfully. Something about sidescrollers just work so well on handhelds. We probably have Super Mario Land to thank for that.

I have upwards of 18 of the launch games and while they all have disappointments on one level or another (as seen above) the only one I would say is truly crap is Modnation: Road Trip.  And even that game I still have fun playing…  but god it’s a mess.

Going forward

One tactical mistake I think Sony made with this launch was putting all its eggs in the launch basket without much to back it up.  This mistake is only exacerbated by sales that at best could be called “kinda ok, maybe.”  Yeah, no, I’m not even gonna pretend.  The sales of the system are dismal and they aren’t going to get better anytime soon.  The main reason for that is price and I don’t think we will see any major movement in terms of bigger sales until Sony drops price (can I be a Sony Ambassador???).  But another issue is that software slows to a crawl starting this Tuesday.

And once again you have to ask WHAT IN THE WORLD WAS SONY THINKING!?!?  You have a game like Modnation, which has an ok following, and you rush it for launch with a terrible framerate and barely any of the fun features of it’s PS3 cousin.  WHY?  Why keep that game in the cooker and release it a few months later with some polish?  Why was it so necessary for it to be a launch title?  And then maybe delay Plants vs Zombies and release it in a cold spell where people will pay anything for something new (early April, for instance…).  Have some other $10 type games ready and waiting for these first few months?  It makes perfect sense to me.

Between now and June I plan on getting Disgaea 3 (which is a niche title at best), Gravity Rush (which in a perfect world would be a huge success), Mortal Kombat (I’m excited, but it’s a port of a year old game), Sound Shapes and Resistance.  Four months, five games.  Certainly they could have spaced this out better.  And after Gravity Rush in June I have no idea what’s coming.  E3, I’m sure, will clear that up, and I don’t necessarily need to know beyond four months at this point in time… but with sales so slow you would think a steady flow of finished games would be helpful.

Sometimes I just want to hop in my Buick (yes, I drive a Buick, and I wear cardigan sweaters, I’m your grandfather) and drive across the country and walk into SCEA and demand they hire me so I can point out these things that are just common freaking sense.  I thought Sony was making a good move with this “Vita Game Heaven” conference or whatever the hell it was called, but it seemed to be perfectly timed and get people jazzed up about the next round of software, but in the end it was confusion (and not a conference at all?).  Basically it was a website with some YouTube videos.  Now, of course, the big news out of that was that Phantasy Star Online 2 will be a Vita exclusive (well, PC + Vita) and I’m certainly excited for that.  But overall the conference, I mean website with YouTube videos, made me wonder if there are actually as many games coming as Sony keeps saying there are.

The way that Wipeout 2048 looks… and plays… will make you feel good about the future of the system. Even if it takes 45 seconds to get there.

We do know that this fall will bring with it Call of Duty and Assassins Creed.  It will be interesting to see how those do.  CoD seems like a no-brainer success, but I have my doubts that a typical Call of Duty gamer gives a crap about playing those games on the go because generally I don’t think those people are ever on the go.  ZING!!!

So overall it was a great launch, I have a truckload of titles that I really enjoy a lot even if there are some questionable decisions surrounding some of the design.  But going forward I am less certain, and if I’m less certain that means the general public has no faith.  Sony needs to solve this, quick.

But should I get a Vita, Pete?

This isn’t the easiest question to answer as it’s all very individual in nature.  The launch lineup, while I think is one of the best ever, could be considered one of the worst ever by a person that doesn’t like Sony’s core game catalog (which you would have to wonder why this person wants a Vita, but that’s another story).  But if there are games that interest you and you can pay for this thing (which by no definition of the word is cheap) without missing bills/rent and/or getting you broken up with/divorced… I say absolutely, get one.  It’s an amazing little piece of tech that a month later still feels as awesome as it did on day one.  The games are all fantastic sequels to fantastic series.  The social aspects aren’t quite to the iPhone level but they are on their way.  There are hundreds and hundreds of hours of fun to be had just from the 30 or so games that are out now and in those terms it’s worth it.

But we can’t ignore the fact that Sony has its work cut out for it.  Fanboys will tell you that 1.2 million worldwide is solid, but it isn’t and everyone knows it.  It sold about 1/3 of what the PSP sold in its launch month and 1/2 of what the 3DS sold.  At the same time though, who cares.  I mean, yes, sales are important, developers aren’t going to make games for a system that isn’t selling at all, but why even get involved in the fight for who is number one.  The PS3 has been #3 this entire generation but it’s done well enough to not lose any software support and in the end I have more PS3 games I like than 360 ones.  Microsoft may be happy that they sold more 360s than Sony did PS3s, but why should I care?  I’m in it for the games.   So, yeah, I hope Sony gets it together enough for this thing to do well enough to attract developers, but I really don’t care if it passes the 3DS or whether the iPad is siphoning  casual customers.

Welcome to my PAINCAVE!!!!!

The work I hope Sony does do is for the end-user:  me.  Us!  All of us.  Because I think once we are happy everything else will fall into place.  People want to buy things.  If I am still spamming my twitter feed this Fall about how amazing the PSV is, fence sitters are going to have an awfully hard time not pouncing.  So give us what we want, Sony!  Sort out all of this crap with PSP/Minis/PSone games.  Keep us updated on whats coming.  Take your great ideas with Near and Live Area and keep adding to them.  Call up Zipper RIGHT NOW and tell them to expand the leaderboards from 1,000 to 100,000 or higher.   You have an amazing machine and some amazing games, Sony, but you still have so much to learn.

The bottom line, despite a pretty steep change in attitude from my first piece, is that I still absolutely adore this device.  And just about everyone I know who has one feels the same way.  It feels like a new system (as in console more-so than handheld).  There’s something very novel about that.  The games are great, the OS is decent and unit is solid.  Get it.  You won’t regret it.  But once you do join me in helping Sony pull their heads out of their, well, you know…

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  • Only 10% of the players [Modnation PSP] were online because you needed a $20 DLC pack to play online! thats almost as much as the game itself1

  • Wasakawaka

    Excellent article, everyone one at Sony needs this as required reading material.

  • Colton47

    You just summed up everything that ive been thinking about my vita. Nice article!

  • I’d like to point out another problem with Unit 13, one I just discovered will NOT be fixed according to the non-helpful PSN community forum tech. I bought the Vita on Launch day because I’d seen many early reviewers say one could buy a game from any market and play in in their preferred language. I’m an American living in Italy, so for me, having this option seemed perfect to me. I bought Uncharted at Fnac here in Italy, and it  plays in English no problem. So did Escape Plan, Mutant Blobs Attack, Fireworks, and Table Football.

    However, Unit 13 region locked the languages for the European release to Dutch, German, French, and Italian. So because I select English as my system language the game defaults to…French. This lack of English as an option comes despite the UK being a part of the EU. The tech who wrote to me on the forum said (loosely translated from Italian), “Just play it in Italian,” and then added a winking smilie to the end of this casual flip off, to show “No hard feelings right?” Or, I guess that’s what he thought it came across as. To me, it came across as, “Your problem is trivial, and you just wasted your money. Kindly piss off.”

    My husband is looking into contacting a gaming advocacy group locally, but for now, I’m out 35 euros for a game I can’t play in my preferred language, making Unit 13 one of the few games to region lock a title and restrict the languages to said region. Whether this is a fluke, or will happen again, I don’t know. But it has certainly soured my opinion of the PSN marketplace now, knowing that every online game purchase may lead to yet another expensive gotcha. What looked like a lot of tempting purchases now looks like a minefield, and Sony has shown absolutely no concern about fixing this.

  • Good1pete

    Nice article Pete.