[Op-Ed] Keeping the PS Vita Vital: 10 Tips For Sony and Their New Hardware

To my mind, Jason did a pretty comprehensive write-up yesterday on what the PS Vita is while also pointing out where the new handheld is problematically not as the follow-up to the seven-year-old PSP. Well, I have some thoughts on where the console needs to be in the coming months if it’s to meet or hopefully even exceed the flawed PSP this generation.

I have to imagine the execs at Sony responsible for the Vita’s rollout have been thinking deeply about how to build and sustain an audience for the new platform—it’s after all, what they’re paid the big dollars to do—but based on the way things like the memory card pricing and lack of support for the PSP to Vita transfer system, the hardware and entertainment giant may have spent so much time looking in at how they perceive the Vita (or how they want to it be seem by consumers, at least) that it might have made them a little myopic regarding how you, me, and everyone else on the ground who’re actually playing these things look at it.

After the break, I have 10 recommendations—take ’em or leave ’em—for the Vita to not only survive but succeed.

10. Keep it up with the social features—and make sure third-party developers are onboard too

One of the features that seems to be garnering the most praise among the hardware’s first wave of reviewers is the Near function which identifies nearby gamers and generally tries to make the new console a less lonely experience than than the PSP tended to be over a network. I’m not saying Sony needs to dive head first into a bunch of Web 2.0 nonsense, plugging social networking errata into games (I can count on one hand the number of gamers I know who’ve Tweeted from a console game).

At the same time, I hope Sony continues to embrace the spirit of something like Near going forward, ways to get get more gamers playing the software together and doing connectedness on par or even better than consoles have in terms of introducing us to players outside of our usual circle.

9. Games: give us something beyond PS3-alikes

This is a biggie, but for the time being, let’s allow it to hang back here near the end of the list. But the software philosophy for the PSP (until the introduction of Minis, at least) seemed predicated on the idea that players wanted the same kind of games they could play on consoles, only on a smaller screen and minus a thumbstick.

Okay, that’s maybe being a little unfair, but it did feel like the prevailing mindset was that the secret to the new console’s success was console-sized experiences on the handheld and along the same lines what were essentially ports of PS2 games (tellingly, quite a few first-party PSP games made the leap to the PS2 eventually). We need games that respect the commute, tuned for a few minutes of drop-in/drop-out play.

8. Don’t be afraid to invite non-Sony software support (iTunes integration, etc.)

I hope I’m not getting too mixed in my messages here, but this is an area where I hope the Vita emulates its console big brother: working with app developers to bring all sorts of interesting tools to the console with its own take on the iTunes App Store. I think it’s unrealistic to hope for something like iTunes integration (you know, since Sony has their own music and video service), but certainly Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, and the like might find their way onto the handheld. Ditto the Kindle app or the New York Times reader, just completely embracing a full, rich marketplace of non-game software.

7. Know what the Vita is (and sell it as that)

Along the same lines, never lose sight that this is a game console. An issue that plagued the PS3 during its launch (and to a certain extent the PSP) was that both were attempting to be everything to everyone. The PS3 was supposed to be a full-scale home media solution, your high-def home video player, your game console, your Internet browser, and on and on. And at this point, we’re comfortable with a lot of these features being in a console (we almost expect it now) but at the time, that was most of the messaging while the game component kind of got lost in the shuffle.

I’ll wager that if you have all of your music in iTunes, the PS Vita will not be your new, default music player and you’re probably not going to be buying The Dark Knight Rises day one when it hits digital download services to watch on the five inch screen. And I hope going forward, Sony is savvy enough to stop trying to sell their new hardware that way, making sure that it leads with the games and, of yeah, it can also do all of these other cool things.

6. Lure in users new and old with some kind of incentive program

Blue sky, wishful thinking stuff here, but I have to imagine there’s been a certain breach of trust for the PSP faithful who thought they might be able to take that stack of UMDs and have some reasonable way of playing them on the Vita. Well, after a complicated launch of the PSP Passport system in Japan that saw inconsistent and erratic pricing for the conversion service, Sony nixed it all together for the U.S. launch. And while I’m sure gamers would have bristled at having to effectively pay some more to play the games they already bought, unless they plan to rock both the Vita and the PSP, their only option at this point is to pay full price for a download over PSN.

With all of that in mind, it’d be great if Sony provided some kind of program akin to Club Nintendo to award gamers who spend their hard-earned money on software, really following though with free game and movie downloads or something similar as a sign of good faith.

5. Find a solution to the expensive memory card problem

As near as I can tell, Sony must have been happy with the response to their last proprietary memory solution with the PSP, doubling down with the Vita (and really all of the hardware for the console, from the USB charger on). The message seems to be: here’s all the stuff you absolutely need to play the Vita, love it or leave it. And that kind of gets things started on the absolute wrong foot. Ideally, whenever the next hardware iteration comes around (two years, mark my words) it’ll have a built in HDD and external memory option. But for the time being, Sony seriously needs to think about mitigating the cost of their memory solutions.

4. Embrace the homebrew community (or at least stop fighting them so hard)

Tricky, but you have to deal with the people who want to noodle with the guts of the system somehow, and lawsuits and constant firmware updates might not be the best ways. I’m not saying surrender to the hacker and pirate community, not at all, but I am saying that protecting the strict integrity of the PS Vita OS might not necessarily be the optimal use of time and resources.

Instead, why not make a space in the software for that independent zeal (and maybe even make a free app market for users to swap some of the likely clever software some of these programmers will certainly come up with)? I know, there are all kinds of logistical traps, the inevitable folks who want to make an easy way to load Neo Geo ROMs or whatever, but that’s all of the boring, limiting “why?” What kind of brilliance might inevitably express itself if you allow the community to keep bringing all of their best “why not” ideas to the table?

3. Come up with a more sane firmware release strategy

Kind of an addendum to point #4, which is to say, please Sony, focus on a more spaced-out firmware update schedule a la the 360 (quarterly would be best, thanks). Playing the defensive game of erratic firmware updates to combat the latest hack of the previous firmware always seemed like a losing prospect in the PSP days, and it also meant that the release of the really cool feature updates for the PSP kind of came in under the radar.

It also meant more time spent not being able to play the handheld as you’d pop in a new game and promptly have to load the new software.

2. Find a vision for of the console for gamers to embrace

This is marketing, big picture stuff that also kind of goes back to #7, but I think bears exploring: what the hell is the Vita and why do I want one? I mean, I know why I want one, but what about the person who’s almost habituated themselves to playing games on their iPhone and iPad? And I think Apple’s brilliance is that they’ve been able to position their i-devices as these dream machines that allow you to be entertained at five minutes a pop via beautiful, fairly reliable hardware.

So what’s Sony’s vision for their console? I don’t know what it is yet, but I sincerely hope it’s nothing as limiting as “It’s a thing you can use your PS3 with” or something similar. The folks at Sony are, I’m confident in saying, pretty smart, but one of the most vexing things with new hardware is usually trying to explain what it is to consumers, particularly when you’ve got a bunch of successful competitors on the field who’ve been doing more and better for a while.

Convincing us of why the Vita is worth carrying around (and sticking to that message) could very well be the secret to the the system’s longevity.

1. Seriously, more games… but don’t just think in terms of big, expensive franchise releases

That “entertainment at five minutes a pop” I was talking about up above—Sony needs to figure out how to harness that with medium-range titles and not just the usual crop of console ports. I’m not saying Sony needs to abandon the hardcore, in fact, I think there’s a way to speak to hardcore gamers by finding ways to break down gameplay experiences into smaller chunks. So if, for instance, you’re in a shooter, keep the matches limited to three to five minutes to keep things moving. More RPGs like Half-Minute Hero; go ahead and encourage third-party devs to exploit the heck out of the touch functionality as long as they’re willing to do more than make it a secondary control scheme (a major failing of Sixaxis implementation in the PS3).

I have no idea what would constitute a system seller in the U.S. for a Sony handheld, but they need to be able to grab people here the way they once could with the regular Monster Hunter releases (a game that benefited from being lengthy, but allowed you to enter and exit its world easily).

And that’s what I’ve got. Any thoughts or suggestions? Have you already picked up your Vita? What do you think? Tell us on our Facebook page.

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