A few weeks ago, we started a quick poll on /talk, to know what portable devices people in our community would be interested to buy next…
New World Order
The results are clear: 52% of the people who voted plan to buy a PS Vita as their next handheld. Android (tablets + phones) comes second with 25% of the votes, and iOS is in third position with 8% of the votes. I won’t claim these results are statistically meaningful, or that I can analyze them precisely, but here are a few things to take into account. First of all, our community was almost 100% PSP focused less than a year ago, so it is not surprising that we’re seeing lots of people with more interest in Sony products than the average. Nevertheless, I was expecting less success from the upcoming Vita in our community, given how strongly we had reacted after the whole “Sony VS hackers” debacle. I guess 6 months is enough for most people to forgive Sony, and forget that they do the same thing every single time.
The first PSP has been relatively successful, selling more than 70 million units so far. This needs to be compared to 149 million units for the Nintendo DS, and 250 million units for iOS devices (iPod, iPhone, iPad). iOS and Android are of course the “new” competitors to the mobile game market, that need to be taken in to account. This sounds obvious today, but it was definitely not when Apple started introducing gaming on their devices. In 2007, gamers were laughing at the idea that people could ever play on a mobile phone (we still had the N-Gage in mind). In 2008, people started mentioning that phones would have better graphic chips than the PSP. There were still strong claims that the PSP or the DS could never be replaced, but phone gaming was beginning to be taken seriously. Today, my android phone has a 1GhZ chip, a much better screen than the PSP, has hardware 3D acceleration, and smartphone gaming represents a bigger market than dedicated mobile handhelds. Sony claimed the PSP would live 10 years, but let’s be honest, it’s been only 6 years so far, and the hardware is clearly obsolete, Sony is emptying their stocks in prevision for the Vita.
Long story short, the landscape considerably changed for Sony and Nintendo, so much actually that they are now the ones who need to prove they can survive in the handheld industry against iOS/Android, not the other way around.
In a world ruled by finance, this can be easily seen by the stock trends of the four companies behind our beloved handhelds (don’t get these graphs wrong though, they are for entire companies, not for the gaming or mobile sections. As far as I know, Playstation is doing much better than overall Sony).
Nintendo is focusing on gaming with the 3DS, trying to milk their franchises (Super Mario, Zelda, etc…) to the last drop, including game micro transactions, and the possibility to buy and play old games from their store. With the competition of casual gaming on mobile phones, but also facebook and other “in browser games”, I personally think Nintendo will have a very hard time growing from now on. They might stay a good gaming company, but they don’t have any infrastructure to let their market become bigger. A console manufacturer without any money will not grow a large audience, and will not make money, therefore will make less games, etc… The 3DS seems to be overall a failure in sales (although Nintendo seems to think they will sell more 3DS in its first year than they did for the NDS), so I don’t foresee a bright year for Nintendo.
Then again it might be clever from Nintendo to focus on gaming, and I’m famous for being super bad at forecasting companies’ health. Sony is taking a very different approach, they’ve been trying for a few years to compete against Internet giants such as Amazon, Google, or Apple. And they have lots of assets that could make them successful. After all, they own Sony music, Sony Pictures Entertainment, have a fairly well installed hardware base (TVs, mobile devices,…). Overall, they’re probably making way much more money than their competitors.
Repeating the errors of the past?
Until now however, it seems to me they have failed at making a viable ecosystem with all these assets. And I don’t have to be clever about this: again, based on the stock trends, people who have money don’t seem to trust Sony’s ability to win the cloud wars. The PSP completely missed that. It had internet access, but it took too long for the PSN store to have interesting content, QRiocity was introduced too late in the game, etc…
And this is only one facet of Sony’s failure to predict the market. Historically, Sony has been doing great on the Japanese market (this year too, the PSVita preorders got sold out in less than 24 hours), but not so great outside.They’ve been trying to reproduce the success of the Walkman for the past 30 years, without much results. the MiniDisc was a failure, 100 times more SD Cards are sold than memory sticks, the UMD is born dead. The only major format success from Sony in the past 15 years is the Blu-Ray, but it’s also a doomed format, in an era where most people already moved to streaming and non-physical video formats. The PSVita is no exception, with yet again another format of cards that will be forgotten by everybody in 5 years. Overall, it’s a shame for Sony that despite actually owning the content (sony music, sony pictures) they failed over the years in the markets of mp3 players, of mobile gaming, of digital music/video distribution, of ebook readers against Amazon, Apple and Google. Even their protected field, the hardcore-gamer console, is being seriously endangered by Microsoft. And it’s been the same mistakes over and over for years.
Hopefully for Sony, except for the proprietary memory card bit, the PSVita might not repeat all the same mistakes, and Sony will definitely try to leverage their existing services. People buying a PSVita will have access to much more interesting online services than there used to be for the PSP. Sony is also probably taking the right approach with the Playstation suite, which will allow to play some of their games on non Sony devices. About the Vita itself, I’m still not entirely convinced. It seems to offer a great value as a game device, but from my experience, people who have money tend to buy a “classical” console (such as the PS3 or an Xbox360) for their gaming needs, and a smartphone (which now offer good casual games) for their mobility needs.
It is already established that the Vita’s hardware will be great, but history proved us that it’s not what people are really after in this market. I think two factors will determine the success of the Vita: the amount of exclusive games (I unfortunately expect, once again, Sony to focus on Japan for this, and progressively forget about their US/EU clients… the PS Vita will be released 3 months late outside of Japan), and how much money people spend on “additional” services (music, movies, whatever the Vita has to offer). The question is then, will people be willing to subscribe to Qriocity, etc… when competitors in the cloud have better offers? Either way, based on our poll, it seems the community at /talk will be quickly migrating from the PSP to the Vita, and of course we’ll be here to investigate the “less official” uses of the console (come on, how many of us already dream of running Android on the Vita?)
We are constantly looking for guest bloggers at wololo.net. If you like to write, and have a strong interest in the console hacking scene, contact me either with a comment here, or in a PM on /talk!