With the general masses now able to get their hands on the PlayStation Vita, I thought I’d provide my initial thoughts after a week with of playing with the device. There are lots of reasons to love the device, and many reasons to not love the device. And perhaps the bigger question (which we won’t answer here) would be how relevant the PS Vita is in a mobile gaming world dominated by a stallwart incumbent (Nintendo) and relative newcomers who are dominating with something different (iOS, Android). I’m going to try to keep this focused on the stuff you’ll care about as a parent who might be considering getting one for their kids.
Form Factor and Controls
The PlayStation Vita is the first handheld gaming system to feature dual analog control sticks (we refuse to recognize the 3DS Circle Pad Pro since it’s an add-on). This opens the door for games that couldn’t make the leap to handhelds in the past, like shooters, and makes other games more palatable to bring over, like action-adventure games or anything else that uses the right analog stick to look around. The screen is large, and is now touch capable, along with the innovative rear touchpad. The screen itself is impressive, with a size of 5 inches running at a resolution of 960×544. Compare that to the iPhone 4/4S’s 960×640 and the resolutions are essentially the same due to the difference in aspect ratios (Vita runs 16:9 like a widescreen TV whereas the iPhone uses a 3:2 ratio typically found on most smartphones). Of course, the iPhone Retina Display has a pixel density 50% higher than the Vita which results in crisper visuals. So Sony put an OLED screen on the Vita and I will say it looks amazing. The colours are ridiculous and really pop out at you. A shame that the touch screen will gather fingerprints and diminish the experience at times.
Also added are a gyroscope, accelerometer, and apparently a compass. With all these options, Sony is really striving to offer all sorts of gaming options to all sorts of people. Of course, if not used properly, this can also be overwhelming. To recap, the Vita has the following control mechanisms:
- Dual analog sticks
- Four face buttons
- Two shoulder buttons
- Rear touchpad
The unit is large. It feels almost comfortable in an adult’s hands, though it can get quite cumbersome if you’re forced to use a combination of stick/button and touch screen commands given all the real estate you have to cover. Also, it is very hard to hold on to the system and have two fingers available for that rear touchpad. In Little Deviants, there were some instances where I had to stretch, twist, and contort my fingers to be able to use both the front and rear touch panels simultaneously. I hope once we get past the initial “shoehorn all the control mechanisms into a game” phase that developers will account for the accessibility of the various controls and find ways to not overwhelm the player.
Now, imagine a younger gamer trying to do all of this. Smaller hands will likely find the unit cumbersome. It’s a LOT bigger than an iPhone, and although it’s smaller than an iPad, the latter can still be utilized fairly easily by tiny hands, where the Vita will not be. It does feel like the Vita was designed with an older audience in mind.
Big games. Teeny tiny cards.
The Vita has replaced the ill-fated UMD with cartridges to hold the games. The Vita’s cards are similar to the cards for the 3DS, though a bit smaller. But not nearly as small as the tiny proprietary memory card that you’ll need to to buy if you want to store game saves for most games, or download anything from the PlayStation Store. It could be really easy to lose these things, and the multiple card input slots could be confusing, not to mention that bigger fingers will have a hard time inserting them (one rare instance where smaller hands are better with the Vita).
With the touch screen, Sony have gone away from the traditional XMB found on the PS3 and PSP in favour of what they’re calling LiveArea. All navigation is done with touch controls, letting you play games, see your trophies (Trophies!), or hit up various applications. If the look reminds you of your favourite smartphone OS, I doubt that’s a coincidence. Even when you load up a game cartridge for the first time, it will create a permanent place for the game on your screen. You’ll still need the cartridge, but ejecting the cartridge doesn’t get rid of the placeholder. You can see the smartphone inspiration in the Vita’s OS for sure.
I found that there was a slight learning curve to figuring out the Vita’s interface. Nothing significant, we’re talking about 5-10 minutes to figure most of it out, but coming from an iOS world it’s comparatively a bit more challenging. Not only do you scroll up and down between screens for all your games, apps, settings, etc., but when an app or game is started, it creates its own subscreen. You then scroll left and right to navigate these. Closing an app requires you to “wipe” your finger like you’re peeling a sticker off the screen. Not as intuitive as some touch screen systems, but it doesn’t take too long to get the hang of it, and your kids would probably figure it out before you do.
Social Functionality aka Stalking Tools
With WiFi and the option for 3G, and a number of new social functionalities, the Vita is following a popular trend of trying to be as much about the social aspect of gaming as the gaming itself. Which is great if you like to be “connected.” But if you’re a parent, it’s just more things for you to be worried about. Perhaps the scariest of all these is “near”, a feature that lets you share your location (yikes!) with friends and allow other Vita users to see what you’re playing. You can rate games and enable location-based gaming features such as sharing virtual game items by checking in at certain geographic locations.
Party is another feature that finally brings the much-requested cross-game chat to a Sony console, though it’ll be Vita-only. You can communicate with up to eight friends either via voice or text. Parties will be like lobbies you can join and see what everybody is talking about.
And of course, you’ll eventually have apps for the seemingly now mandatory Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare integration, among anything else that comes out.
So, if you like being stalked, Vita will be a terrific enabler. Luckily, all this stuff can be disabled. Speaking of…
The good news is that Sony included a good number of parental control capabilities in the Vita. You can disable the use of the built-in browser (which I would do on principle anyways since I get a better browsing experience through my phone) and also the use of location-based data. If you do choose to keep the browser available, you can set up web filtering to block certain sites using Trend Micro Web Security, though that might come with an extra cost. You can utilize sub accounts to limit usage of features like Party, chat sessions in games, and Facebook publishing. Sub accounts, of course, can also be used to limit what PlayStation Store content will be shown, and also limit how much a user can spend in a month on the Store itself.
The bad news is that Sony continues to use that mind-boggling 11 point scale for limiting what apps, games, and videos can be played. You know, the one that they don’t document that well? And by “that well”, I mean “at all”? Other consoles let you restrict games based on the ESRB rating (one of the few benefits of different firmware for different regions). But Sony’s all-in-one approach means you’re stuck with a scale that makes no sense to pretty much anybody. For reference, I found the ESRB equivalents on their website:
- 2 – EC (Early Childhood 3+)
- 3 – E (Everyone 6+)
- 4 – E10+ (Everyone 10+)
- 5 – T (Teen 13+)
- 9 – M (Mature 17+)
- 10 – AO (Adults Only 18+)
For all the great things that the Vita can do, Greg did ask a pertinent question: “But does it phone?” Well, unless you count the eventual Skype app, then no, it doesn’t. And that’s going to be a big challenge. In an age of device convergence, portable gaming systems are becoming more of a niche, especially with iPhones and Android phones providing their own gaming experiences. Now, to some folks like myself, the iPhone will be good for certain types of games, where the touchscreen control doesn’t hinder gameplay, whereas you’ll want something with more sticks and buttons for more involved gaming. But a lot of folks just want one device that does everything, which the Vita can’t do. Which is a shame, because the technology is great on the Vita, certainly better than 3DS I think, and the launch lineup actually has some substance to it, and will make it much more compelling Week One purchase than the 3DS was. This will be one of Sony’s biggest challenges.
Another thing is the kind of gamer that the system appeals to. Whereas you’ll see lots of kids with DSes and 3DSes, we really think this device is more designed for the thirty-something gamer. That’s not to say kids couldn’t play the system, but with all the bells and whistles, and the sheer size of it, I can’t see it catching on with the younger crowd so much. It’s not all that portable either (try putting it in your pocket with two analog sticks sticking out). It’s delivering a console experience on a handheld device. That’s great for a gaming dad. It’s not so appealing for kids, or the parents who’d have to deal with it. The question here is, is this market enough to support the Vita?
In the end, the Vita’s success will come down to one of my old mantras: It’s about the games. The launch lineup is solid, and can give the Vita the momentum that the PSP never found. If outstanding games can come out for the Vita on a regular basis, it can help improve customer perceptions, especially those who might have been disappointed with its predecessor. But they don’t have the stable of automatic hit franchises that Nintendo has, so they’ll need to keep developers and publishers onside and making games worthy of investing in the system. Maybe Sony doesn’t have to concede the younger demographic to the 3DS and iPod Touch, even if that will be a slow and uphill battle. Sony’s sitting on potential here.They can’t mess this one up, or it’s probably the end of Sony in the portable gaming business.