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‘The little handheld that could’: examining the Vita’s impact a decade later

The story of Sony’s beloved handheld

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PS Vita
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Christian Phillips still remembers the most jaw-dropping moment he experienced on the PlayStation Vita — and it was something that was never actually released.

Phillips, a former senior director at Sony, describes a tech demo that ultimately led to the PS4 game Days Gone. Sometime after shipping Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Bend Studio showed leadership the Vita tech demo that was similar to the famous Jerusalem scene in the movie World War Z

The demo had a scene with a horde of zombies scrambling up a wall. The main character scales a wall and the zombies keep piling up like ants, and then the camera pulled back and you could just see this mass of zombies. What Phillips describes is very similar to the Days Gone gameplay demo shown during E3 2016. Bend was given some latitude to see what else it could do to push the hardware, as it was the team’s responsibility as a first-party studio to showcase what was possible on Vita for the development community.

“Now this is 100 percent speculation on my part. What likely seemed to have happened was that [Bend] was really pushing the PlayStation Vita’s hardware, but then the PS4 initiative really kicked off,” Phillips says. “Then we were all chartered with supporting the PS4, being there with killer content and a game the size of Days Gone takes a long time.”

Ten years on, the Vita remains a cult favorite platform. But even if the handheld wasn’t the big success Sony expected, it eventually led to the mega-successful launch of the PlayStation 4 in 2013.

Sony started working on the Vita in 2007 during the middle of the PlayStation Portable’s (PSP) life cycle. The organization saw a significant market opportunity for handheld gaming and realized that the strategic fit for PlayStation was to place console quality games onto a portable device. Sony had aspirations to go that route with PSP, but the software development kit was hacked and Sony never had the chance to develop certain PSP games how it wanted. 

When it comes to game development, developers look at install base, software attachment, and opportunities for different revenue streams. The PSP’s install base was very significant, so that first check was marked, but the other two weren’t. Particularly, the SDK hack created a fear that studios would lose money because players could easily pirate their games.

As a result, the Vita was seen as the opportunity to surround consumers with console-quality portable gaming away from the home and then invite them to actual console gaming when they returned. While that may have been the initial pitch, the Vita eventually became known for other things like the Remote Play function and its incredible lineup of indie games.

“The Vita was way ahead of its time.”

The Vita was ahead of its time in many aspects. “We built the Vita features accordingly. As an example, the PS Vita had an OLED screen that was spectacular,” says former Sony vice president of marketing John Koller. “We only just saw these screens appear in TV manufacturing recently.” Referencing the “play anywhere” aspect, he adds, “this is where the Vita was way ahead of its time. This positioning has since been utilized by Xbox Series X, Google Stadia, and most mobile platforms.” Additionally, the Nintendo Switch took this concept and made it more popular than ever before.

Sony also saw the Vita’s launch as an opportunity to continue to build its console business. This was still during the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii era, and Sony wanted to bring both the handheld and console platforms together with a “play console quality games anywhere you want” strategy. However, while the Vita did allow for these kinds of experiences, the reality is that there were a lot of asterisks that muted the way Sony could message that proposition. The company thought that the Vita’s 3G model would have helped legitimize this position, but it turns out that consumers much preferred the Wi-Fi model due to out of pocket costs and usage. Consequently, Sony pivoted to a Wi-Fi centric business model which ended up limiting the company’s messaging about the system. This also changed how publishers developed for the platform.

Therein lies the core of why the Vita didn’t take off as well as its predecessor: the desired positioning needed to change because both the overall technology landscape and consumer demand were shifting quickly. While exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, the PSP was estimated to have sold a little over 80 million units over its lifetime while the Vita only managed a fraction of that at an estimated 16 million. (It wasn’t just Sony that struggled, Nintendo likewise saw a big drop in sales moving from the DS to the 3DS.)

PS Vita
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

One of the biggest things that Sony had misread was the impact that smartphones had on the gaming industry. Internally, Sony considered smartphone gaming as “just good enough for gameplay,” and scoffingly referred to it as just something to kill time while waiting for your coffee or at the airport. Philips notes that this attitude was very pervasive in the gaming industry back then. “Tablets were really what we looked at when it came to what is now known as mobile games,” he adds. “We felt like that was a more direct head-to-head potential competitor, because they had the processing power. They had the screen acreage and all of that touch functionality.”

A few people at Sony figured that the technology in iPhones and iPads around 2010-2011 would soon pull ahead of Xbox 360s. However, this wasn’t incorporated into the Vita’s strategic planning. “As a result, I think the PS Vita, while ahead of its time in many ways and has a lot of features and functions, launched at exactly the wrong time in terms of market opportunity,” Koller explains.

The other elephant in the room was Nintendo, which had dominated the handheld gaming market since the Game Boy’s debut in 1989. When developing for Vita, Sony obviously was concerned about how it’d stack up to the Nintendo 3DS and its popularity and install base, though the 3DS’s initial price point was also lower and Nintendo’s game portfolio was much different compared to Sony’s. The organization was worried about Nintendo, but Sony did have some advantages, such as the 3DS having less third-party support and an audience that skewed younger. Nintendo was very biased toward its first-party development; both Sony and other publishers were aware of this.

“There was the opportunity for everybody to win.”

Phillips also thinks that Nintendo’s handhelds were great entries into the portable gaming space. However, there was also room for products like PSP and Vita to coexist, just like with home consoles. “There was the opportunity for everybody to win. But what [Sony] could bring to the table would be a very unique gaming experience that couldn’t be had on a phone or Nintendo 3DS,” says Phillips.

Several sources say that Sony also had to contend with the emergence of digital distribution. Broadband internet was starting to gain momentum but was still underdeveloped in many global territories. Additionally, physical retailers were losing their grip on the consumer, and games were becoming more sophisticated. All of these changes started unfolding as the Vita launch approached.

The PSP utilized the Universal Media Disc, or UMD, for its games and other media. However, the Vita used cartridges and select PSP games were backwards compatible digitally. When it came to which medium for game storage the Vita would use, Sony looked at a few options. The PlayStation Network marketing and operations team was adamant about having the Vita be 100 percent digital. While this would be a reasonable decision in 2021, as seen with PlayStation 5 Digital Edition and Xbox Series S, it wasn’t feasible in 2012. The lack of global broadband adoption at the time, along with extremely long download times, made this path one that wasn’t very consumer friendly.

The exact opposite side of the spectrum was considered as well, with Sony utilizing a physical retail model which would have required consumers to go into stores in order to download content or purchase game cartridges. This 100 percent physical store only option also didn’t seem consumer-friendly as it wasn’t entirely convenient for some people and was quickly thrown out.

There was also the possibility of using UMDs again, but publishers were concerned about the sheer operational costs of them. UMDs were expensive and had a capacity ceiling. If Sony had gone down this route, then it would have had to either increase the price point of games or ask publishers to absorb the cost. The former was obviously not favorable for the consumer, and the latter would result in a decreased amount of games available for the system.

The last option, which is the one Sony ended up choosing, was a hybrid with both physical cartridges and digital downloads. Having both these avenues allowed consumers to make their own choices, kept the costs lower for publishers so game development for the platform would continue, and retail stores would stay invested in the business. At the time, this was considered the best decision available, and luckily, that seemed to turn out to be right in hindsight.

PS Vita TV 1024px
PlayStation Vita TV.

One of the most debated strategies internally at PlayStation was the move to use proprietary memory cards on the Vita. This was one of the most contentious aspects about owning the system, as the memory cards were incredibly expensive. At the time, there was significant concern around the PSP game piracy situation and the 2011 PlayStation Network hack

These events affected a few parts of the Vita’s strategic plans, most notably how to secure content. That was the reason why there were so many options considered when it came to physical media, downloads, and memory cards. Security was a huge priority after the effects of the hack, and third-party publishers needed to be assured that their content would be protected if they were to develop for the platform.

Sony focused on the ideas of proprietary technology and owning all factors of production at the time. The organization mostly didn’t want to be beholden to part shortages and market fluctuations that would harm the business. The proprietary memory cards were expensive but Sony tried to soften that blow with various bundles and retail promotions.

“The epitome of a forced product into a market that didn’t necessarily demand the product.”

Sony was also shifting its focus from being a product and engineering-focused organization to a brand and audience-centered one. This initiative had massive and positive ramifications across many different areas of the business, such as eventually creating the legendary “Sharing Games on PS4” video in response to the fan backlash surrounding Xbox One’s initial DRM policy. Former PlayStation executives Kaz Hirai and Andrew House had huge roles in making this approach a mandate across the company.

“I was leading the brand effort across all of PlayStation and fundamentally shared their view that a shift to a gamer-first approach would have a significant positive impact on the business,” Koller explains. “This turned out to be true and was born out with the PS4 launch.”

There was also quite a bit of resistance internally on this endeavor from entrenched teams. The marketing leadership needed to work out issues in real time as Sony would evolve into a more progressive, consumer-first model that allowed it to succeed in the future. An example of this shift was the release of PlayStation Vita TV, also known as the PlayStation TV, a non-handheld microconsole variant of the Vita that could play most of its games on a television screen via HDMI.

Koller says that the old days of creating a product and then throwing it over the fence to the marketing department to make it a successful launch were over. The PS Vita TV was a part of those final days. The product wasn’t a consumer demanded one, but rather one that was somewhat Frankenstein-ed together.

“This is all background because the PS Vita TV was born of the last vestiges of the engineering and network operations team’s ideals, thoughts, hopes, and dreams. It was the epitome of a forced product into a market that didn’t necessarily demand the product,” Koller continues. “We were able to launch it and sell what we could, but it was going to always be a product that was saved by creative marketing within each territory.”

In 2021, the Nintendo Switch has largely taken the place of where Vita used to be. The hybrid system is a big seller, and it had a few advantages that Sony didn’t with the Vita. First and foremost, the Switch launched in 2017 into a world with much greater broadband penetration that allowed for easier and frictionless downloads and online gameplay.

The second differentiator was the commitment toward first-party titles that Nintendo demonstrated. PlayStation was trying to institute challenging concepts like crossplay and cross-save between console and mobile devices, and even trying to emulate or port console games to Vita in order to realize the “console gaming on the go” vision. However, Nintendo figured out that it could just create “console-ish” games on Switch that are deep, rich, and fun but didn’t necessarily require an expensive box to enjoy.

“With that, [Nintendo] also had an organizational wide commitment to development of those games, which I personally believe PlayStation lacked,” Koller explains. “I never felt like PlayStation’s first-party studio teams were fully invested in development of Vita titles. They wanted to create PS4 games instead and Vita was almost viewed as a secondary platform, which was unfortunate.”

“Launching game platforms is really hard.”

Phillips notes that first-party support moves in the direction of where Sony needs to plant the next flag. It wasn’t just aspects like financial factors or more upside with the PS4 to be had. It was more so that the PS4 business was a huge investment, and first-party studios absolutely needed to be there to support the consumers and developers.

He also thinks Sony ended up happy with the performance of the Vita. Outside the Sony walls, consumers may have perceived it differently, as the handheld wasn’t the same monster in terms of sales that a home console was. “I think that at the end of the day, it was about ‘Okay, now we need to make sure that the PS4 succeeds. So first party, that’s where your resources need to go’,” he adds.

The last distinction is that it was very clear Nintendo was determined to make the Switch a success. The secret to any platform launch is that the first six months are critical. Two things need to be established immediately: hardware sales momentum and game attachment rate. These two factors weigh heavily on publisher and developer decisions to continue investing in game development on a platform over a long period.

Koller says that Nintendo’s dedication was refreshing to see. “I launched six PlayStation platforms, and as the old internal gaming industry saying goes: ‘launching game platforms is really hard.’”

PS Vita
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

When Sony started working on the Vita in 2007, the organization quickly realized that if it didn’t get the product out to the market by 2012, then it would launch on top of the PS4, which was not optimal. The timing really stacked and crept up as the product evolved, mostly because of all of the internal debates regarding its direction.

Koller says that if he could go back in time, he would have done everything possible to get the Vita to launch earlier. It needed to get ahead of the smartphone gaming wave, as the Vita unfortunately released right into the heat of it. Additionally, the Vita needed more time to thrive on its own during the later-stage PS3 environment and pre-PS4 era. “We made the PS4 such a successful launch that it really eclipsed the sun for virtually all other PlayStation products,” he adds.

He also would have put in more effort to co-develop critical franchise titles that Sony needed to get more platform momentum during the first few years of the Vita’s life. Investing in more indie games throughout the system’s life would have helped as well, as it would have allowed it to have an even stronger launch. “This would have built out the game portfolio in a much fuller way and captured a bit of the indie game magic that was starting to bubble to the surface at that time,” Koller says.

At Sony, there was an initiative called #BuildingTheList, which started as a geeky conversation between former Sony head of second -party games, Gio Corsi, and former vice president of third-party Relations, Adam Boyes. Corsi tells me that they were discussing potential partnerships, modern classic titles, and retro titles that would be cool to bring over to PlayStation.

Corsi was shocked at how many people responded to the hashtag on social media and realized that many consumers never had an outlet to talk directly to someone and get their voices heard. He notes that fans of “the little handheld that could” had always been screaming from the rooftops about getting any and all games onto the Vita, whether it’d be brand-new experiences or classics. “When I came onboard, I was already a Vita believer and I just wanted to try and get games onto not only the main consoles like PS3 and PS4, but also Vita, frankly because I wanted to play those games, too!” he explains.

Corsi approached third-party developers and indie teams from a point of passion. He genuinely wanted to help these teams get their games onto the Vita. There were many developers who were fans of the system but didn’t have the time, money, or manpower to focus on bringing their titles onto it. That’s where his team would step in; it wasn’t about enticing them, but making them feel comfortable and helping them out.

There was also the aspect of Japanese games and how well the Vita did over in its home country. Sony knew that the Vita would be more popular in Japan, much like how the organization also knew the console market over there would somewhat lag compared to Western territories. User behavior is just different, and Japan is much more advanced from a mobile gaming perspective. Japanese gamers also preferred local multiplayer in their titles, like in Monster Hunter, while places like the United States and Europe took more to online multiplayer. This difference changed development conversations considerably. 

Numerous developers saw the opportunity in Japan and thought about how to create games specifically for that region even if those games might have struggled in the West. “Ultimately, Japan became an exceptionally strong market for Vita and I think this kept the handheld alive longer than it would have been otherwise,” Koller says.

“It makes sense in the head but not in the heart.”

Corsi also painted a picture of Japan’s sprawling support for the Vita. He remembers walking onto the video game section of a giant shop in Akihabara and there was an entire section dedicated just for the Vita, which he describes as just absolutely glorious. There were lots of physical games, many that he had never even known about, as well as cases, accessories, stickers, and shirts. “I thought, ‘sweet fancy Moses, I wish we could have this back in North America.’ But it’s a different market in a different region. It makes sense in the head but not in the heart.”

PS Vita
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

PlayStation system architect Mark Cerny played a massive role in virtually all of Sony’s console launches. He opened up his work to the marketing department to ensure that the brand, the consumer’s voice, and deep cultural insights were embedded in a launch. Koller says that Cerny is a bona fide genius. “I always appreciated him and his approach,” he explains. “I also really enjoyed the way that all of the regions worked together. Japan’s engineers led the launch, but brought in highly knowledgeable product teams from around the globe to help create a truly global launch.”

The launch of the PS4 was far different from the PS2 and PS3 launches. The sense of product and brand level collaboration ended up greatly benefiting Sony when it had launched the system in 2013. In many ways, PlayStation Vita’s launch laid the groundwork for the PlayStation 4’s incredible start.

Koller notes that those at Sony always said that PlayStation started as an island off the coast of the organization that eventually grew into the primary division and operating income driver within the entire company. “I’m very proud of all of the PlayStation platforms that I launched, but the PS Vita will always be a special moment in my career,” he says. “[It’s] not necessarily because of sales success, which was moderate, but because we were able to marshal the entire organization to challenge itself and try to win in a very difficult market.”

Gio Corsi describes the Vita as imperfectly perfect. Sure, it could have had more games, recognition, and design updates, but in a way that also helped give the system some of its “street cred” along with its persistence and somewhat legendary cult status.

“I love the PlayStation Vita, it remains one of my favorite platforms and I still play it today. Yes, the industry and technology are moving forward and that’s very exciting as both a gamer and a game maker,” says Corsi. “But for a time there was a PlayStation handheld that was making a little noise and it’s commendable that there is a base of fans who celebrate it. I do, too — long love the Vita.”