Last week, Sony announced that they'd managed to sell 70 million PS3s worldwide. Of course, a closer look at the fine print revealed that really they'd only shipped 70 million units, but it's still an impressive figure nonetheless, and one that suggests the gap between PS3 and Xbox 360 is pretty much non-existent. It's heartening news for a company that's had another mixed bag of a year. We've not seen the usual plethora of exclusives as we have in previous years, something that was noted onsite, but there's been a good reason for this: the Vita.
In lieu of exclusive HD games, Sony have had to launch and maintain a totally new, premium handheld, and it's proven to be something of a slow starter for them.
Sony themselves have been resolutely cagey about giving away too many facts and figures about the Vita, so it fell to a competitor to swan in and deliver a couple of graphs that made things look rather less than rosy for Sony's new toy. We've already asked whether or not Nintendo's relatively recent financially report constituted corporate trolling (after all, the graph presented they sourced themselves rather than via Media Create), but the reticence of Sony to reveal figures of their own, alongside rather downbeat protestations of optimism suggests that the trend might at least be accurate.
To see suggestions of the Vita sales slipping lower than those of the PSP, especially outside of Japan, must be worrying indeed. Of course, the party line has been one of playing a long game. SCE America VP John Koller pointed towards a big holiday season for the platform three weeks ago, noting large third-party involvement in the form of AC3: Liberation, and that Call of Duty spin off.
“As we’ve said multiple times, it’s a marathon, not a sprint," Koller had said. "And it’s certainly going to be a marathon for Vita. It’s going to be a very good, solid platform for us, one that performs very well. We’re confident in our position for the holidays.”
“If you look at a game like Assassin’s Creed: Liberation that’s coming, it’s a fantastic game. Call of Duty is going to be a very strong game, particularly multi-player is going to be fantastic. It’s something you don’t see on a dedicated handheld device or a mobile device, that console quality gaming opportunity. So we’re big believers in Vita this holiday and beyond."
But with both Ubisoft and Activision too embarrassed to send out widespread copies of either game, presumably because of the fear of critical backlash, it remains to be seen just how accurate Koller's predictions are. Liberation entered the UK charts at 14th before sinking fairly quickly. Declassified, too, ell outside of the top ten on its debut, at 16th. Of course, they'll be attractive propositions for existing Vita owners, and I speak from experience here, desperate to validate their console purchases wherever they can, but reports suggest that those two flagship third-party titles really aren't all that great.
There's just little that's essential about a Vita. The replications of major console franchises on the smaller screen have all proved inferior to their larger siblings thus far. The level of unique first and second-party material - that is to say experiences wholly unique to the Vita itself - has been sparse at best and glaringly absent at worst. Although I stand by the score I gave the game at the time (one might argue that at launch you can only ever really review a game in the context of its release, after all), I can't deny that Gravity Rush doesn't have its faults, and its easy to forgive some smaller things when a game is presenting you with the first definitive reason to buy a console. But there's been precious little to follow its ambition, save for a few smaller titles. LBPV offers up arguably the definitive LitteBigPlanet experience, but you're not going to pay £200+ for it.
Of course, Sony have all but blurted out that there'll be a price cut next year, which may have slightly (translation: definitely) scuppered present sales numbers. "We always aim to establish price cuts," Fergal Gara said at EGX. "So the question is not so much if, but when. We won't have an across the board price down this Christmas. But what you will see us doing is work very hard with our retail partners to add value to the product to make it more compelling." So we've seen bundles and little natural fluctuations, but we'll have to wait until 2013 for anything to come from the top.
Defensive types would no doubt point that the 3DS hardly had the easiest time of it upon release, and we were resoundingly critical of Nintendo's early approach to their current handheld. But they'd picked things up by Christmas, mainly by setting up two games ready for Christmas with "Mario" in the title. Sony don't really have a moustachioed plumber to fall back on, and so for all of the trumpeting of CrossPlay, for all of the allure of those many PS1 titles available for download (though you can barely fit more than three on a memory card!), the Vita's Christmas success is in the hands of third parties. Along with the two games previously mentioned, Need For Speed: Most Wanted and FIFA 13 are the big guns that Sony will hope against hope fire the Vita into sales heaven.
The thing is, after clamouring for console experiences on the go, is it really what the masses even want? Will CrossPlay really provide the answer either? Nintendo's making loud noises about things like asynchronous multiplayer and the joy of having two screens, but neither of those features are exactly new. One thing's for sure, with two of the biggest third party franchises on the platform for Christmas, it could be make or break for the Vita as a supported platform. Should Liberation and Declassified do well, it might encourage the more nervous publishers to get ore involved once the price comes down. If January rolls around bearing more bad news, though, it's going to be increasingly difficult for Sony to remain optimistic.