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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.

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