Sony's strategy of interoperability between the PlayStation 3 and the PlayStation Vita is starting to look like it'll turn out poorly for the Vita. While on the surface the strategy has its perks, for the consumer, it can be prohibitively expensive. How many people really believe that a second-screen gaming experience is worth buying new hardware for?
Look at PlayStation All-Stars — it's the same game on PS3 and Vita, and allows you to play seamlessly on the couch or on the go with a save file that lives in Sony's cloud. It should be obvious that there are few fans enthusiastic enough to buy two copies of All-Stars so that they can play on the road with the same save file.
This speaks to a worrying trend where the Vita ends up subordinated to the PS3, rather than enjoying a dedicated software library enabled by its truly unique hardware.
Vita Taking a Backseat
By building games and experiences for both systems, and in making the PS3 the lead platform, Sony is designing console experiences for a mobile platform. Wasn't that the point, you say? Yes, yes it was, kind of.
The actual point — and if it isn't, it certainly should be — is to design console-quality experiences with a focus on portable gameplay. In each case thus far, outside of Super Stardust: Delta, Sony has failed at this objective. Look no farther than Wipeout 2048's interminable load times, or Uncharted: Golden Abyss's lengthy, mobile-unfriendly levels for the point to be proven.
Sony faced similar difficulties with the PSP. The company habitually has second-party developers or first-party B-teams develop on the portable versions of important franchises. The results haven't always been poor. The God of War series had a strong run on the PSP, thanks to the talents of Ready at Dawn. That studio, however, has made a very public shift away from developing for portable systems. Results have generally been less than stellar, and that trend has continued into this generation.
The second part of Sony's underinvestment problem has started more recently, with the worrying double-development of PlayStation: All Stars. Either B-teams are making derivative portable versions of popular titles, or A-teams are making games that aren't actually designed for the system they will run on.
Lessening Visibility For Mobile Games
Another issue, which isn't entirely Sony's fault but one the company must deal with nonetheless, is the shrinking market for dedicated portable gaming systems. The age of the smartphone and the likes of the iPad threatens to marginalize portable gaming hardware.
There are two ways to fight this trend. The first, which Sony is half-heartedly shooting for, is to add utility to the console. The obvious way to do this is through apps, but Vita apps have gotten off to a glacially slow start. The second way — which is essentially the Nintendo way — is to craft experiences that are both wholly unique and thoroughly compelling so as to force the consumer to pick up the console. After all, where else could Super Mario 3D Land have happened, but on a 3DS? Games developed for the Wii and those developed for the 3DS — and the DS before it — are entirely different experiences.
The answer to this problem, then, appears rather simple. Sony must invest in truly high-quality first-party content for the PlayStation Vita. The company needs to assign one, or preferably more than one of its A-teams to creating content for the Vita, and lead the way in creating the kind of games it wants to define the platform. A Guerilla-crafted Killzone for instance, an original Media Molecule game as another.
As far as giving internal B-teams assignments, look to Ubisoft for a model, where premier teams are supported by a raft of lesser-known studios across the world. These teams could be given work on AAA titles in a limited capacity, such as by building a multiplayer mode or creating supplementary single-player content that either ships with the game or acts as DLC. The end goal: increase investment, increase quality and build games that actually cater to the Vita's unique strengths and the system will have a better chance.
As a litmus test, consider this: Would this article have ever been written had Naughty Dog's The Last of Us debuted as a Vita title, and as a game that was built solely to the strengths of what the Vita's got going on?