What the Vita Needs and What It Plans to Deliver

When the PlayStation Vita was officially announced, most people couldn’t get over one thing: the name. It was awful. It sounded like a type of sports water. Go back to the NGP label; that was better.

But as Shakespeare taught us, a name is just a name. The actual thing can be sweet, regardless of what we call it. So now that the Vita has walked somewhat shyly down the catwalk of new video game hardware (thanks to those lukewarm introductions), let’s analyze the facts. What does the Vita need to survive in the handheld market, among consoles that are pushing blockbuster appeal and motion innovation? How can it rise above its predecessor, the PSP? Looking at the details Sony has released to the public, we attempt to decide whether the Vita is better than its name suggests or is just another failure-to-be.

A good (battery) life

One of my pet peeves about the PlayStation Portable is the battery life. Not only does the handheld make poor use of it, but whenever the PSP is shut off, the power drains. The problem emerged when developing a smaller battery for the PSP Lite, reducing the energy duration from 8-10 hours to five. Sony stepped forward with special backplates for gamers willing to settle for the bulging look of the older but slightly more efficient batteries.

Sony has declined to talk about the Vita’s battery life so far, but they’re shooting for the PSP standard: 5-6 hours, granted the Vita isn’t running any graphically-demanding games. However, considering Sony is describing the handheld as “a state of the art device with games at its heart” (according to Jim Ryan, COO of SCEE), I wouldn’t count on it being a light machine—especially if it’s loaded down with non-game and social apps like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and Foursquare.

An edge on the competition

The Vita’s main competition is the Nintendo 3DS, and Sony has a few ideas as to how they’re going to build their own audience. As currently planned, none of the Vita’s games will be region-locked, unlike those on the 3DS. That means any game made for the device, no matter where in the world it’s purchased, will be fully playable.

The Vita also brings its own catchy features. For the 3DS, it’s the 3D perspective that makes games pop off the screen. For the Vita, it’s the motion and six-axis sensors, the camera, and the front and back multitouch screens. The specs alone are impressive, but what holds the most attention is how games like Uncharted: Golden Abyss allow gamers the freedom of both motion and traditional controls. Unlike many games for the leading motion console, the Wii, Golden Abyss players can switch between types at their own convenience. Considering what they’re moving, jostling, or waving around is the device itself, there’s no fussing over sensors or putting up with waggle. Sony’s motto at E3 2011 was “play the way you want.” If every game on the Vita is this smart, gamers will be able to enjoy both the future of motion gaming and the older, more reliable constant of button inputs.

A safety net against easy-touch gameplay

As any Uncharted or Tomb Raider fan knows, when you’re running and jumping off of a ledge in a video game, timing has to be perfect. If players can choose to use either the standard button controls or a simple touch commands to perform the same action, do precision and difficulty vanish?

Maybe, but Sony seems to be taking some precautions, intended or not. When guiding Nathan Drake, for example, players draw their finger across the screen to highlight the route they want him to take. Sony calls this “painting edges,” and that’s a good verb. A slip-up with the “brush” could cost gamers, and one is more likely when adrenaline is running high—say, during a critical enemy encounter or chase scene.

A new interface

Judging from the pictures we’ve seen, the Vita is going to have a new home interface. That’s good—we wouldn’t want Sony to keep to the same layout that they have with the PS3 and PSP when the Vita is moving them into the next generation—but it’s also important for the start-up screen to be better. It needs to have a crisp and clean design, and above all, a user-friendly one.

The PS3/PSP home screen isn’t exactly the easiest to work with. It basically consists of multiple lists that break down into other lists. With the Vita, Sony needs to employ a little more creativity and thought, bringing key aspects (games, the Store, etc.) to the forefront while making other features easy to find and use. Considering that the Vita will have more apps, as well as plenty of settings and technical options, a good navigational system should be a priority.

Fewer system updates

Whether you’re playing on the PS3 or PSP, updates demand your attention. We know hackers haven’t made Sony’s business of securing their network and maintaining quality any simpler, but users—especially new ones who are looking forward to trying out their factory-fresh handheld—will appreciate more infrequent updates that cover multiple issues or problems at once.

For updates that aren’t essential to user or system protection, Sony should consider making them optional—and letting gamers know what improvements they’re missing.

More effective marketing and advertisement

Sony doesn’t have the most flawless track record with advertising, but they need to push the Vita forward in the right way. It’ll be imperative for sales, but the efforts shouldn’t stop there. The company should take this chance to polish their image and fill any gaps in programs and services they already have.

One of the most overlooked is the digital service that PSP owners can log into to buy, download, and transfer games from their computer to their handheld device. Sony once reported that the Media Go was underused, and it’s not surprising—they let it surface quietly. Connecting the handheld to a PC and managing downloads from a program may sometimes be easier than syncing the PSP to the PS3 and juggling files on both. The Vita should gently encourage this alternate service.

Moving games between the PS3 and PSP is a complicated and confusing affair in itself, and I’ve never been able to figure out how to move PSOne Classics back to my PS3 from my PSP. Sure, I can transfer them from the PS3 to the PSP, but why can’t you move games and their save data both ways with ease? The Vita needs to make this process clearer, simpler, and more versatile.

A confidence boost

Between technology and games, the PlayStation Vita has a lot to offer. Sony knows it, and they’re treating the handheld with respect and care. They’re preparing a mighty line-up (not necessarily all for launch): besides the new Uncharted game, which has enough appeal to sell out the system, Resistance: Burning Skies is slated, as well as two new IPs called Reality Fighters and Escape Plan. There are other games in the works, too (including another LittleBigPlanet).

Ubisoft will be providing Sony a more stunning force. They have six games in development: Assassin’s Creed, Rayman: Origins, Asphalt, Dungeon Hunter Alliance, Lumines, and Michael Jackson: The Experience. We’ll pretend we didn’t know about that last one.