PlayStation Vita's Rebirth as a Boutique Platform

PlayStation Vita's Rebirth as a Boutique Platform

Glixel

Sony's moribund handheld device is still proving profitable for indie developers and niche publishers

Sony's moribund handheld device is still proving profitable for indie developers and niche publishers

At the recent E3 conference, Sony announced that the delightfully quirky 2015 indie RPG Undertale, which has sold millions of units on Steam, would be coming to the PlayStation 4 later this year. A video extolling the merits of the game dropped, and it enumerated the bonus items that would come with the deluxe Collector's Edition version of the PS4 port. (Soundtrack CD! Heart-shaped musical locket!) And then, a few seconds before the promo video ends, a pixelated lo-res dog pops up and says that the port is "also coming to PlayStation Vita."

That sad little afterthought of an announcement was the biggest news of the show for Vita owners. But at this point, they're used to being overlooked. "That's more time than Sony has given to Vita in one of their E3 press conferences in two years," says Josh Fairhurst, co-founder of Limited Run Games.

The device, which launched with great fanfare in 2011, now barely merits acknowledgment from its maker. Sony execs seem to have cut the handheld device loose, and big first party developers like Naughty Dog and Guerrilla Games no longer make games for it. "The Vita still sells in Japan and some parts of Asia, but it's not an active line for us in the west," Sony Europe boss Jim Ryan told us in a recent interview. Sony's global game development boss Shawn Layden recently told Time magazine that the device simply didn't hit critical mass, and he told tech site The Verge that it "it didn't garner a large enough audience here for us to continue to build for it."

Any time you have a system that gets kind of neglected by its parent company, you find this hardcore passionate fanbase ready to support anything that's coming out for it

But as the Vita has faded as a mass market device, it's experienced a different sort of success as a niche boutique phenomenon. Indie developers who have trouble standing out amidst the hundreds of new titles competing for attention every month on Steam and mobile app stores have discovered that they can find a small but reliable audience through the Vita.

"Even if you just release an indie game on PS4 or Xbox, you get drowned by other stuff," says Luc Bernard of Arcade Distillery – the studio behind action-RPG Death Tales and upcoming turn-based strategy roguelike Plague Road. "Most mainstream game news sites don't even have a Vita section anymore, but it's still a great platform for a small independent developer. It's not making us rich, but if you make a decent game that's targeted for the device, you can make a predictable number of sales, be profitable, and continue to employ people. In this day and age, that's huge. We have around nine people working at Arcade Distillery, and that's because of the Vita."

Vita owners have also proven eager to snap up limited edition physical releases of games for their beloved handheld. There's still a certain subset of Vita owners who make releasing games on the device viable – like vinyl snobs in the age of iTunes.

Limited Run Games caters to this niche audience, producing physical copies in small batches that wouldn't be worth pursuing for a big retailer like Gamestop. The company has 13 Vita releases in the pipeline, including physical releases of Oceanhorn, Salt & Sanctuary, and Ys Origin, and they announced seven additional titles for Sony's handheld during E3 that included Mercenary Kings, 2064: Read Only Memories, and VA-11-Hall-A. "Any time you have a system that gets kind of neglected by its parent company, you find this hardcore passionate fanbase ready to support anything that's coming out for it," says Fairhurst. "Earlier this year, we did premium Vita release of Mike Bithell's indie stealth game Volume, with a 24-page color manual and a gold foil cover. We sold through all five thousand copies in less than an hour. Today, we're releasing Dariusburst: Chronicle Saviours for $50, our most expensive release yet on Vita, and we expect to sell all four thousand copies today." They did.

THE PROMISE OF A CONSOLE EXPERIENCE ON A HANDHELD
Sony's first foray into handheld gaming devices was 12 years ago, and it began auspiciously. The PlayStation Portable, or PSP, is generally remembered as an also-ran, overshadowed by the success of Nintendo's 150 million-selling DS. But that's hardly fair, because the DS was one of the best selling gaming devices ever released. On its own terms, the PSP was a smashing success, moving over 80 million units – comparable to the sales figures for the Gameboy Advance, the PS3, and the Xbox 360.

But software sales are where the PSP fell short. The device promised solid handheld versions of AAA mainstays like Gran Tursimo, God of War, and GTA. Even taking into account its smaller user base, sales of the PSP installments of those franchises didn't measure up to the success of equivalents like Mario Kart or Mario Bros. or Pokemon on the DS, and the PSP didn't create any new blockbusters equivalent to Brain Age or Nintendogs. The only breakout hit that found a big audience on the PSP was Capcom's passionately-beloved action-RPG Monster Hunter, and that failed to get much traction outside of Japan.

The Vita was released six years ago with the promise of even more console-like handheld versions of popular Sony franchises like Uncharted, Resistance, and Killzone. But the device stalled out at around 15 million units sold, comparable to Nintendo's unmitigated flop, the Wii U. Major first party releases for Vita quickly dried up, and soon even stripped-down ports of games releasing on PS3 and PS4 began to taper off too. For a brief period, Sony supported the release of smaller titles designed for both Vita and Sony smartphones, but that initiative was discontinued as well.

The Vita still gets the occasional exclusive in Japan, where it still enjoys a healthy following – the rhythm game spinoff Persona 4: Dancing All Night and the RPG Caligula Effect were both made specifically and solely for the Vita. But most of the new Vita releases these days are titles that have previously been released or simultaneously released for PC, PS4, PS3, or even mobile devices. The release of the Nintendo Switch seems to have cemented the fate of the Vita. Here’s a portable gaming device that doesn't simply promise almost-as-good versions of the games you can get on a home console – it's the exact same experience on the handheld and the home console.

Still, Sony's device has its ardent fans, including Fairhurst. "I have the original model with the OLED screen, and the colors are crazy on that, it just looks so good," he says. "I play so many games on it. And when I'm not playing Vita games on it, I'm using the remote play feature. I just played through Persona 5 for PS4, mostly through my Vita."

Vita owners who still love the device have shown that they're willing to shell out. "We Kickstarted our strategy game Plague Road, and it was primarily funded by Vita owners," says Bernard. "We almost doubled our funding goal because of people who wanted to play our game on Vita. They love their device, and they will defend it to the end."

Bernard says that Sony is also quietly continuing to support indie devs. While Sony Interactive Entertainment's top executives may talk the device down, many developers we spoke to sang the praises of the people on the front line doing third party outreach for Sony. "I've worked with other platform holders," say Bernard. "With PlayStation and Vita stuff, it feels more like a family. Our Sony account managers are like friends, not colleagues. I can call them on weekends. They give me good advice, they tell me to release this day, don’t release this day. They promote our games in their online store. I know that they help out all kinds of tiny studios with getting dev kits."

Fairhurst says that Sony's third party staff was equally supportive of Limited Run's small batch releases of physical copies, and he says Vita quickly proved to be an important platform even though they are harder to produce than PS4 versions. "Those Vita cards cost a lot more to manufacture than a Blu-Ray disc, like two to three times more. It's this little cartridge that's only applicable to Vita."

Because of the added cost, and the sense that the Vita was fading, Limited Run initially didn't make as many copies for the handheld. "We were releasing Oddworld: New 'n' Tasty!, and we made 5,000 for PlayStation 4, and 2,500 for Vita. And the Vita version sold out in, like, a second. The PS4 version sat there for the better part of a day before it sold out. We started to boost the number of Vita versions we release. The audience is just so passionate, and so thankful for content."

The importer Play Asia also does a brisk business in selling unlocalized Vita games to Western fans. "Limited Run sells a lot of Japanese stuff, but we haven't had a problem selling Western releases as well," says Fairhurst. "The remaining audience of Vita fans just seems to like unique experiences: JRPGs, visual novels, mid-tier japanese indies, innovative Western indies... Just unique stuff."

My biggest fear is that a lot of games are going to be lost if PSN ever shuts down.

Fairhurst embraces the comparison of what his company does to boutique record labels releasing small batches of 180-gram vinyl for niche audiences of hipsters. "There's this yearning among people 20 to 40 years-old, they want physical media again," he says. "They don't want digital music or digital games, they want tangibility back in products. If you buy digital, you're just buying a license."

"The whole impetus for Limited Run Games comes from being a developer myself, and being scared that games I spent the last four or five years working on would go away," he adds. "My biggest fear is that a lot of games are going to be lost if PSN ever shuts down."

He says that his physical releases can still offer tangible value to developers, too. "I've heard from our Sony account manager that our limited run physical release generated more money for developers than the digital release does," adds Fairhurst. "That can be life changing for developers. I like being in position to turn things around for them. We announced the release of VA-11 Hall-A at E3 exclusively for Vita, and it got a lot of people excited about it. I like that we can bring attention to obscure stuff."

VA-11 Hall-A, made by a small team of indie devs in Venezuela, is definitely obscure. And also weird. And also exactly the sort of thing that could find a niche audience on the Vita. "It's a cyberpunk bartending simulator and visual novel with a kind of NEC PC-9800 art style," says Wolfgang Wozniak of Poppyworks, which is porting the game to Sony's handheld. "You are mixing drinks for characters, and how you make the drinks influences the story."

"We're also doing Vita versions of Factotum 90 by Tom Hopper and One Night Stand by Kinmoku," says Wozniak. "I buy a lot of games on Vita myself. It’s just a slick piece of hardware."

Wozniak believes that Vita will continue to be a viable platform as long as there’s a sufficient market around the world for it. “I went to Japan for Bitsummit to show VA-11 Hall-A, and I walked into a game store there," he says. "There's a small portion of the store with PS4 stuff, there’s a tiny little Xbox nook, and then there's huge walls full of Vita games."

Fairhurst is fairly confident that Limited Run will continue to release games on Vita well into the future. "Five months ago Sony announced that they were officially ending PSP production. Five months ago!," says Fairhurst. "That means that was, like, 13 years that they allowed people to manufacture PSP games. It’s safe to say that we're going to keep publishing for Vita it until Sony tells us to stop."