[Gamasutra editor-at-large Chris Morris looks at Sony's recent decision not to release its Vita portable in the U.S. and Europe this year, seeing potential benefits to the company's cautious approach.
Given the early adopter mentality of the core gaming world, the disappointment over news that Sony's PlayStation Vita wouldn't hit U.S. or European stores until 2012
was hardly a surprise. As a group, we generally like to be the first to get our grubby mitts on the latest and greatest tech toys.
I won't pretend to know the reasons for Sony's decision to wait until next year – but whether the "delay" (which, of course, it wasn't – since the company hadn't actually confirmed a release date prior to Thursday) was intentional or due to circumstance, it's hardly the disaster Wall Street is making it out to be. (The company's stock was down 5 percent in midday trading.)
The possible explanations for the delay are numerous, of course. The Japanese earthquake could have impacted manufacturing of key components. The company could simply be following its semi-standard practice of giving Japanese customers a short period of exclusivity on new hardware. Or it's possible that the software lineup wasn't shaping up quite how it wanted to.
If it's that last reason, postponing the delay was actually a very smart option. Sony may feign disinterest about what's going on with the 3DS, but it's smart enough to realize that the fate of the Vita is indirectly tied to Nintendo's new handheld.
The 3DS, of course, launched without any big supporting software – and as a result, it has fallen flat. It was a clear sign to Sony about the importance of having polished, AAA titles that have their own built-in audience when launching a new system (even one that seems to have a fanbase of its own). Uncharted
certainly qualifies – but the handheld version is going to be heavily scrutinized.
Nintendo, to its credit, realized its problem and slashed prices (along with executive salaries, as a show of responsibility), hoping to build up the installed base in the run-up to its holiday lineup. It's hardly out of the deep end, though. With such a drastic price cut and games like Super Mario 3D Land
and Mario Kart 7
looming, there's enormous pressure for the system to be a hot seller at retail this year.
If it's not, that's gonna be a problem for Nintendo, of course – but there's going to be some uncomfortable throat clearing at Sony's HQ as well. Put simply: The 3DS may well be the industry's canary in the coalmine when it comes to dedicated handheld consoles. And if consumers continue to reject it – or have an overall "meh" reaction – Sony's going to have to make an uncomfortable decision.
Hirai, of course, pooh-poohs the idea that the 3DS and Vita are tied together, when it comes to pricing.
"We packed so much into the device and made it very affordable," AP quotes him as saying
. "There is no need to lower the price just because somebody else that happens to be in the video game business decided that they were going to lower their price."
That's the sort of public quote you'd expect, but if the 3DS is a holiday dud, despite a solid lineup of titles and Nintendo's loyal handheld audience, the Vita's in a world of trouble – and that $250 price that sounded so good at E3 will all of a sudden be an albatross around its neck.
Of course, Sony (and its investors) would certainly prefer for Vita to be in the fight this holiday and do their own analysis in January and February. Missing the holiday season in its two biggest markets is going to be devastating to the bottom line. And at this point, it's not written in stone that the Vita will make it onto Japanese store shelves by Christmas (though Sony did say today the system will hit Japanese shelves by year's end).
At the end of the day, this delay – or whatever you want to call it – is another blow to Sony in a year where it has been a punching bag more than an electronics leader. But if the company keeps its eye on the wider picture – and can resist simply following its playbook, should industry events warrant - it might be able to leverage this setback into wider success for the Vita.