The PlayStation Vita, Sony's latest entry in the handheld gaming space, is available for general release in the US today. Retail outlets that had any unclaimed units available for sale were swarmed and sold out quickly in my area, so if you didn't pre-order, chances are that you're out of luck for now.
I don't have a PS Vita (yet) but there are already plenty of reviews that detail the high points and the low points of the Vita as a gaming device. But nearly every early review that I have read so far asks the question of why Sony made another portable game system. Is the Vita is a device that consumers will even want?
See, most people think that the PlayStation Portable (PSP) was a fine game system when it was released in 2005. Upon playing with it, I commented that it had the most beautilful screen that I had ever seen on a portable device. And although Nintendo had just released their DS (which people were still trying to understand), the PSP seemed tailored toward a higher-end part of the gaming market that wanted a console-style experience on the go. Simply put, the PSP was the closest approximation of gaming on a PlayStation 2 that could be achieved without being in front of a television.
Fast forward to 2012, and things have changed dramatically. In particular, the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets has altered the way that we think of mobile gaming. The trend started with the original iPhone which not only had a decent-sized, attractive screen, but it had the hardware to run a pretty good 3D renderer, which is the backbone of most modern-day games. Android and Windows Phone followed suit, and now it is generally accepted that any smartphone or tablet will be a large, touch-screen display with the capability of playing games reasonably well. Given the number of dedicated functions that have already been subsumed by the cellular phone, it appeared that mobile gaming would be next.
Look, there's no denying that mobile phone gaming has come a long way since the early days when advanced phones came with a built-in copy of "Snake." Whether it's a casual classic like Angry Birds or an impressive Unreal-engine port like Infinty Blade, modern-day smartphones have made many waits in the bank line or the doctor's office more tolerable than they would be otherwise. But at this point, the smartphone is still best for short-form gaming; there's not much to recommend it for the long-form activities that most die-hard gamers prefer.
What do I mean by "long-form" gaming? Well, consider the things that you can do with a smartphone. Now consider the things that you want or prefer to do with a smartphone. For example, I can watch movies on my phone, but I prefer to watch them on my television. My wife loves to read, and even though she could read on her phone or tablet, she would much rather use her dedicated e-reader, which is less harsh on the eyes over an extended time. And if you hired a photographer for an event and he walked in and started snapping pictures with an iPhone, you would probably ask for your deposit back. These are all examples of capabilities that the typical phone or tablet has, but which are best used within certain limitations. Gaming is no different.
Look in the iTunes App Store reviews for a game like Dead Space or Batman: Arkham City Lockdown and you'll often see comments complaining that the game is too short or needs more levels. Granted, I don't know how much entertainment these consumers expected for their $2.99, but these are usually gamers who want more from their mobile gaming experience than they can get in most apps. They were hoping for long-form entertainment even as they made a short-form purchase.
The iPhone 4S (the top model currently available) is a fantastic device with speedy hardware. Many respected game developers are on the record claiming that the iPhone 4S blows the PSP completely away in terms of sheer computational performance, and that may be true. But the iPhone 4S will always be a mobile phone first and a gaming device second. Some of its impressive CPU power must always be reserved to handle incoming calls, text messages, or emails. It will never have the fluid input scheme that most gamers view as second nature. It will usually require a two-year commitment to a monthly voice and data plan. And as much as we love to play, most of us would rather not run our battery down so low playing Where's My Water? that we aren't able to make phone calls afterward.
The smartphone and tablet are great gaming devices when I'm in line or waiting for someone to end a phone call. I've filled in more five to ten minute gaps with gaming apps on my phone than I can count. And for casual gamers, that's probably all the gaming device that they'll ever need. But those of us who love playing on our XBOX 360 or PlayStation 3 want a bigger experience, something that approximates the gaming experience we get in our living rooms for times when we're on a three-hour cross-country flight or an overnight stay with relatives. We want an experience that draws us in with bigger challenges and an engrossing story and online multiplayer. And for that type of experience, we need devices like the Nintendo 3DS and the Sony PlayStation Vita. No, they aren't devices that everyone will want, but until somebody perfects the marriage between a smartphone and a game controller, there will be a market for dedicated gaming handhelds.