The Playstation Vita is turning out to be a sneaky little piece of kit, and no mistake. First came the console's price tag: sitting just above £200 for the base unit, the sleek, black capsule of virtual trickery glared down from pre-order pages daring you to buy it. It looked so good, but would it be worth the money? Would gamers be better off waiting to see what the launch lineup held or, better still, postponing the decision until six months in and checking out the landscape then? Could it really rival the PS3's graphics? Could Sony deliver a plethora of triple A titles at launch?
The news that UMDs would not be put to good use was unsurprising, the bulletin that you'd have to pay to transfer them over was something of a mild nuisance, like a bluebottle on a summer's day. A shrug-worthy irritance, considering most UMD owners would still have a PSP. But then came the second hammer blow: no SD cards allowed, and Sony's proprietary cards would be underwhelming in size, yet overwhelmingly expensive by comparison to the rest of the field.
A 10% discount figure was thrown around merrily, and we frowned a little but jumped and tried to grab it with both hands, just to have something, anything to hold onto. Then, the day before release, that is today, Sony dropped the bomb on the full range of digital launch titles. We'd already marvelled at the low price of MotorStorm RC a week or so earlier. "Is this a sign of things to come?" we whispered in dimly lit corners of the internet, fingers crossed, touching wood.
Somewhere, a man in a suit is laughing at our optimism.
On paper it seems to make clear sense as a consumer as to why digital material should cost less than boxed copies of a game. There are none of the physical production costs for one things, you don't have to pay for shipping, several forests get to live a little bit longer and there's no additional middle man involved, which means direct profits for the platform holder and publishers. Consumers get their games without delay and the profit margins are significantly higher.
Sony's official line is that we are in fact getting the discounts. In fact, the party line would suggest that the price drop exceeds the 10% previously rumoured. "Here are the prices for retail games vs the PSN prices," a Sony spokesperson told us. "As you can see they have received a discount and are £5 cheaper." The figures shown reflect Sony's RRP, those in parentheses show the PSN prices.
- Uncharted: Golden Abyss: £44.99 (£39.99)
- WipEout 2048: £34.99 (£29.99)
- Everybody's Golf: £34.99 (£29.99)
- Modnation Racers: Road Trip: £34.99 (£29.99)
- Little Deviants: £24.99 (£19.99)
- Reality Fighters: £24.99 (£19.99)
The suggestion that £39.99 is somehow a good price for Uncharted: Golden Abyss (at the time of writing ShopTo have the game for £34.85) is laughable. Or at least it would be if the rage hadn't set in already.
RRPs have long been the retail industry's failsafe, wheeled out when sales and deals don't seem to quite match up. It doesn't matter that no-one really stocks items at that price, it's a nice benchmark that means technically any value underneath it can be called a 'Sale'. Then again, if retailers actually used the word 'sale' properly and consistently, in relation to the rest of the market, then there'd be no need for the likes of us and HUKD, god forbid.
The disappointment here comes from the fact that this was an opportunity to make a real statement of intent: to set the standard for digital distribution going forward as the future for games retail, for good or bad. Here was a chance for Sony to acknowledge their high hardware costs, and present a counterpoint to consumer criticism. A real counterpoint, not the same beautiful lie we've seen before. "Here", they could have said, "we know you've paid double market price for the privilege of our name on your memory cards. But we'll make it worth your while!"
Only they didn't, and it's the consumer who's seemingly worse off once again, with an expensive console, expensive proprietary accessories, and a software retail model that looks exactly the same as every other software retail model out there.
So what are consumers paying for, should they go down the route of digital distribution for their triple A titles? Well, for starters, you're paying for convenience. Remember all of that hassle you saved the publisher? Well if you think about it, they're saving you hassle too. There'll be no pesky boxes cluttering up your house, no multiple little cards to lose, and who really wants a tangible, physical sense of ownership over the things they buy these days? Plus it's the most express delivery around, right? And let us not forget the joy of juggling your games around between your Vita and your PS3 because we can't get a card bigger than 16GB even though you can buy TWO 32GB SD cards for the price of ONE of Sony's branded insults.
But as a console manufacturer and platform provider, you want your new system to be available in as many areas as possible across a wide range of retailers. A competitive market is a healthy market after all. So, sod the consumer, protect the market. After all, if the retailers disappeared, publishers would definitely have to lower their prices. Best to keep them around, and announcing digital prices that undercut physical media by a notable proportion would be an easy way to lose friends.
It makes sense. But only in the context of fear. The digital prices are indeed a statement of intent, just not the one we wanted. The existing retail models are in danger, and just as it's all very well for us to romanticise physical media and enjoy the feel of it in our hands, the fact is that the future is digital. Existing retail models will have to change as their old foundations are eroded by new possibilities and the consumer demand for immediate content rises. But no one wants to be the first to make this increasingly unstable house of cards fall. Not enough parties have invested yet, there are too many who might be left behind and with an uncertain future, one thing you don't want to do is play into the hands of your competitors.
So what have we learned? Well, digital distribution is still pretty balls for large titles, no matter which way you try and spin it. It'll be handy for the lower end of the spectrum, in the sub-£10 zone that pits Sony against iOS and Android, but the cost of storage and the cost of the games themselves makes shopping around online a far better bet. So after all of that talk of making digital worth it, the Vita's first step proves to be about as interesting as a cardboard box, which is ironic, because that's probably how you'll be wanting most of your games to be packaged and delivered.
Don't be surprised, it's only natural for new kids like the Vita to want to fit in as quickly as possible.