PS Vita: In a world of mobile phones, do handheld gaming devices have a future?

Trying out the game “Escape Plan” from Seattle’s Fun Bits Interactive during a demo this week, I encountered a level that required me to pinch the animated character “Lil” on screen. Naturally, I placed my thumb and index finger on the surface of the touch screen and moved them together in a pinching motion — only to find that nothing happened.

“Aha, that’s what you would think as an iPhone user,” joked John Mundy, the Fun Bits creative director.

Escape Plan is made for the new PlayStation Vita, which comes with features including a rear touch panel. “Pinching” in this case meant pressing simultaneously on the back of the device and the front display. It’s a fun game mechanic that highlights a unique feature of Sony’s new gaming device.

My initial reaction was also a reminder that many of us do almost all of our handheld gaming on our mobile phones or tablets these days.

The trend is illustrated by the declining sales of the PlayStation Portable, the Vita’s predecessor, and the rival Nintendo DS product line. Last year, Nintendo saw sales of the new Nintendo 3DS start to climb only after a substantial price drop — which is partly to blame for putting the company on track for its first-ever annual loss.

Now, with the PS Vita, Sony is taking its own shot at demonstrating the value of designing hardware with games in mind.

“When we first started designing this, we looked at the lineup of mobile and tablet devices out there and said, there’s gotta be a better way,” said John Koller, Sony Computer Entertainment America senior director of marketing for handheld and mobile platforms.

Escape Plan for PS Vita, by Seattle's Fun Bits Interactive

Features of the PS Vita include dual analog sticks, a 5-inch OLED touch-screen display, and dedicated gaming buttons all over the device. Although it’s designed for games, it’s a multipurpose device, with a camera, web browser, video player, messaging and other features.

Playing the unreleased “Unit 13″ third-person shooter from Redmond’s Zipper Interactive on the PS Vita yesterday, I was reminded how nice it is to have those dedicated sticks and buttons. Zipper has also been thoughtful about integrating the software controls in the game with the hardware controls on the device — purposefully putting key on-screen buttons within easy reach of the analog sticks during gameplay, for example.

As with the Nintendo 3DS, the Vita’s biggest challenge may be the price.

The PS Vita will sell for $249 for the WiFi version and $299 for a version with 3G and WiFi, as much as some living room game consoles.

Fun Bits, a 12-person startup in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, is making a big bet on the PS Vita. Escape Plan, a distinctive black-and-white puzzle adventure game, is a Vita launch title that sells for $14.99 through the PlayStation Network.

Mundy, the Fun Bits creative director, acknowledged that they could have made the game for a phone, but said it wouldn’t have been the same experience.

“There is something exciting about this device,” he said. “This is a gaming machine.”

A limited-run PS Vita First Edition Bundle launched on Feb. 15 in the U.S., and the official U.S. launch is next Wednesday, Feb. 22.

  • http://highlyframeable.com/ Nick White

    Great question Todd. I bet handheld gaming devices are on their way out – question of when, not if.

    • Anonymous

      Have fun playing Angry Birds while I play Uncharted, WipEout, Marvel vs Capcom, Gravity Rush, and Lumines

  • chad

    They have 3 big problems that may be insurmountable:

    Problem 1 – they cost the same as an iPod Touch, and the iPod touch already has a game library that’s tens of thousands of titles strong
    Problem 2 – if their games cost $15 each, they are dead in the water.  iPhone/Android have already trained users that games cost $1-2 each, $5 at the outside
    Problem 3 – Historically, my understanding is that PSx products are notoriously difficult to develop for.  If I’m an independent shop, and I need to pick a platform, PSx isn’t it both from a development cost and audience perspective.  I think they’ll browbeat and incentivize the biggies into developing for it (EA, Activision), but I bet it will cost Sony plenty to make this happen.

    Overall, I think they are screwed.

    • ashton_philip

      I disagree with the whole ‘gaming’ device thing. I have an IPhone and an Ipod touch (Don’t ask why) but I’ve found that my enjoyment of actual ‘gaming’ on them has become less than ‘fun’. While everyone hailed angry birds I ‘loathed’ it as I could not see why a game like this was in such high esteem. Even Infinity Blade the peak of smartphone and tablet graphics, although a technical marvel for the £3.99 price tag attached is hardly a ‘meaty’ package.

      The thing is i’m not the only one that thinks this way, the reason I initially bought an IPhone was because it is an overall package not because it is a gaming device and many would agree with me.

      This is why I bought the N3DS and have my PS Vita pre-ordered for collection on wednesday as I believe the PSV will be an ‘all- around’ gaming device in the sense it has all the features a gamer could possibly need and with the PS suite coming to it for casual games as wll if someone enjoys games they’ll enjoy the Vita. Yeah its pricey but its also value for money I;ve spent money on app store games with 5 Stars played them once and never again. Its telling that my favourite app store game is a game originally on a Nintendo console ‘Phoenix Wright’.

    • SeattleBoB

      In alot of ways your right but the cost of a great game is a good deal but iphone and android games there is a few great games and i bet with the way vita is setup they are going to open it up for these devs to put their games on the vita as well at a low cost but the problem is the cost of the media for the vida is really $$$$

  • http://twitter.com/toddhooper Todd Hooper

    There is no doubt that smartphones are now the dominant mobile gaming platform in terms of revenue. Sure, there is a legacy audience of players who want physical controls and titles which aren’t available on phones, but that market is static or shrinking, and pales in comparison to the juggernauts of iOS and Android and their broad reach.

    The smartphone market is also more attractive to studios and developers because it provides the ability to control your own electronic publishing and distribution, which is not possible on traditional mobile gaming devices.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kody-Clark/100001824255356 Kody Clark

    This is for real gamers. Let those little kids play there 10 minute pocket games. We got so much more.

  • SeattleBoB

    I like games on my windows phone alot.  But the vita will fill the hole where i can play games like COD online shooting other people in a way that phones can’t do or playing games like final fantasy.  yes i know iphone has some of the older games on it but i will like being able to pull my vita out and play the newer games like FFX that is comming out but i feel that if sony wants to get those smaller gammers that use ipods they will open up the sony market to them.  but an ipod touch is 195 and a vita is 249 it’s kind of a no brainer then it comes to cost and what you get. 

  • jonas

    “Mundy, the Fun Bits creative director, acknowledged that they could have made the game for a phone, but said it wouldn’t have been the same experience.” 

    Eventually, they will..

  • mayberry

    PS VITA games are literally 10x as great an experience than ANY ipod,tablet game for the simple fact it has sticks! VITA-LIFE AMIGO! ALL DAY:)

  • Bill

    Handheld gaming devices bring a unique experience, better graphics, generally better battery life than mobile phones. Similar arguments could be made for cameras and stand-alone camera unit sales that have been flat or down for an extended period, and few think they are likely to rebound.  The phone/iPod touch market killed the low end, high volume end of the camera market and is doing the same in gaming. 

    The question ends up whether the volume is large enough in the handheld gaming device market to support an ecosystem of devices and games that motivates purchasers. I tend to doubt it. The volume is also likely to decline when you consider that a decent chunk of the handheld gaming devices are purchased by parents looking to entertain kids and parents will be more comfortable buying a Touch and some $1-10 games versus a $150 (DS 3D) – $300 device plus $20-40 games, and it is likely the lower quality but cheaper and more adaptable devices will win. For parents, each game for a DS seems like a big purchase, but games for a Touch are throw away–if they work for a single plane ride that is ok. 

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/IUZD2XPUZBBSMJTAT62VE4DLPM The Matrix