Sony had some success when they went into the handheld market with the PSP and, to an extent, the PS Vita.
That success quickly fizzled out, however, when Sony abandoned the market entirely in the middle of the Vita’s life cycle. Sony struggled to compete against the giant, Nintendo, head-on with the 3DS and found themselves falling behind despite a more powerful device. Now, the market has dramatically changed, and changed in a way that favors Sony making a return to the handheld market.
What changed exactly?
The most notable change in the handheld market is that it’s no longer a small “on-the-go” market. That market has swung almost entirely into mobile phones. These games are quick pick up and go experiences, where you can waste a few minutes in the game, turn it off and continue some other time. Nobody really expects mobile games to be some high-end narrative driven experience, and instead app stores are flooded with “gacha games” that waste your time.
The “real” handheld market has shifted gears entirely. Nintendo dominated the market for decades, which made it hard for Sony to jump in with PSP. Even so, it worked. It felt new, and offered deeper narrative experiences. Sony tried to push things further with Vita, but failed to meet their promise of “console quality” games and eventually just kinda gave up on it.
Now, it’s not really unheard of to spend a little more to get true gaming experiences on the go. Nintendo gambled and went fully hybrid with the Switch, so you get your home console on-the-go and can play it on your TV. More recently, the Steam Deck is bringing PC gaming anywhere you want (including PlayStation exclusive games like God of War by the way).
But the biggest change is cost alongside portability. These experiences are several hundred dollars, and players are not expecting a cheap portable console anymore. Portability in general has changed a bit as well. Just look at the battery life of the Steam Deck. it will get you about 2-8 hours of gameplay, while the Switch will land you between 4-9 hours. However, both consoles are built to basically live in a backpack with a power cord and adapter readily available. It’s not uncommon to see people hovering a power outlet when they pull out the Switch. It’s no longer about taking a PSP and throwing it in your back pocket, people will expect it to be a little less portable to be a better experience.
Giving PlayStation A Purpose
Sony needs to find a way to give PlayStation a purpose as bulky, stay-at-home game consoles become more of a second thought. I don’t work with PlayStation marketing, but I’m assuming this is why Sony is having such a big push with the PSVR2. The first VR headset sold just under 5 million units, which is less than the Vita sold, and yet we are seeing a follow up unit with PSVR2. Sony needs a way to stay in the living room, and VR seems like the obvious choice to make people need a PlayStation.
Already, however, sales are seemingly not meeting expectations yet. Sony might need to look at another outlet. What better outlet than diving back into the handheld genre? Like I mentioned, the handheld gaming market has changed, people are spending over a thousand dollars on phones with subpar gacha games, and actual gaming experiences are pushing 600 dollars plus. The only real budget friendly hybrid is the Nintendo Switch, which has its audience already built in and used to the Nintendo brand of games. Sony could blow the Switch out of the water with a PS5 Hybrid, or some variation of the PSP, since the PSP had the success and holds our memories.
But times have changed and while many people will say the Vita was “ahead of its time,” that time has now come. Games are mostly digital, but there are substantial rumors of Sony creating a separate disc drive for the PS5. So even if you are like me and want physical games that could very easily be an option still. Games are running fast and efficiently on SSD drives, and several competitors are pushing boundaries in the handheld world with high end games on the go. Sony has the entertainment industry in their hands and they are excellent producers of portable gadgets for other facets of entertainment. They have the ability to make great screens (Bravia), portable audio (Walkman), and of course are the gaming giant in PlayStation.
Plus, streaming is becoming more and more common with internet reliability becoming stronger. The Vita had some great technology to stream games from the PS4 to the handheld, but taking this a step further and a handheld device could very easily gain some raw performance by being assisted by a streaming service.
A PSP2 with the promises of the Vita that actually fulfills those promises.
The Vita failed for a couple reasons. The biggest problem was mobile was growing rapidly at the time. Phones became a competitor in the market alongside Nintendo. Sony simply didn’t put enough into Vita to separate it from the market and failed on one big promise: big console quality games.
While Vita games were substantially better, they still were not console like games. We were told you could buy Call of Duty (for example) on your console, then take it with you on the Vita. What actually happened was you bought Call of Duty twice, and the version you bought on the Vita was shit by comparison. And playing PSP games? Have fun buying those again, if they ever become available.
Eventually, Vita owners basically got stuck buying subpar console games with no real heart behind it. The vita had some success with releasing actual console games, like the Metal Gear Collection, but we wanted a hybrid formula that never came to fruition. The interlinking of consoles with the Vita was so broken to the point of being useless. Then Sony released a PSTV which was supposed to put the Vita on your TV and it didn’t even work with a majority of the Vita games. The hell Sony?
Sony needs to take the entire PlayStation team and go all in on a new portable device like they did with the PSVR2. If the new console/hybrid is a core release in the PlayStation family we could get just that. A Switch like device that lets me take God of War to my hotel, but then lets me play full fledged performance mode at home when I drop the console into a home base. Hell, this idea is already being used with the VR, where the headset gets a boost from the console.
The second issue with Vita was storage.
Honestly what the Vita offered still felt like a bargain with the initial low price. The unit was cheap at $249, and then a steal at $200, when prices on mobile phones were skyrocketing in the other direction. But then Sony decided to use proprietary storage which launched the price upward fast. A 32GB card would cost you $119 dollars, nearly half the cost of the Vita itself. Meanwhile SD cards with similar performance and storage were less than half the cost.
Sony needs to get out of the idea that everything needs to be tied to just them. The hybrid should utilize the same SSD architecture the PS5 uses, while Sony offers their own controllers and accessories in other departments. Sony makes money off software, it’s why previous consoles were sold at a loss because they would recoup the costs in software sales. Stick to this business, the more people that have a PlayStation in their backpack means more people are buying that software.
It’ll help the entire Sony family
Microsoft has a great safety net around their gaming business because if gaming goes all digital and heads to PC, they have Windows. Sony has a large family of devices that would greatly benefit from PlayStation too. Sony has been branding Bravia really well alongside PlayStation, but with a hybrid console you could easily start pairing up their headphones with it as well. You could argue you can do that now, but that’s mostly from a gaming headset perspective. If the hybrid console was much like the PSP where it functions well as a music player and movie player, then standard typical headphones would pair nicely.
We might all be daydreaming that the PSP might one day make a return, but it seems logical for many reasons for PlayStation to go down this road. I’m sure right now the focus is simply to get PS5 in full gear alongside the PSVR2, but before we start talking about PS6 can we at least make sure it has a screen attached to it?