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As Vita languishes, why is Sony still gunning for indies?

OPINION With Sony predicting sales of 5 million for the Vita this year, you have to wonder whether the publisher's indie push is working. But Sony has a longer-term plan for indies.

Mike Rose, Blogger

May 9, 2013

6 Min Read

Gamasutra's UK editor Mike Rose ponders the larger role of his beloved PlayStation Vita in this opinion piece. There's a running joke in the Gamasutra office, in which I suggest that the PS Vita may turn things around in the coming months, and EIC Kris Graft laughs at me for believing that the Vita is anything but doomed. [I love my Vita (and also my Dreamcast)! - kg] It's only a recent back-and-forth, mind you -- up until the end of 2012, I too believed that the Vita couldn't possibly come back from its terrible first year, following dwindling sales and barely any notable game releases on the horizon. But something around the start of 2013 began to sway my opinion. Sony started announcing numerous notable indie games coming to the handheld, at first periodically, then weekly, until the point where it feels like a day doesn't go by without a new indie announcement for the Vita. The Vita's problem is two-fold: It doesn't have many games yet, and it's a tad on the pricey side, especially when it comes to memory cards. Of course, you could (successfully, no doubt) argue that the popularity of mobile devices is also a key thorn in the Vita's side -- although Nintendo's 3DS appears to be selling relatively well regardless. So this new indie pull appears to be working towards solving the former problem -- if Sony floods the Vita with great indie titles, then surely the only barrier to purchase is cash-based? With this in mind, plus a potential price cut on the handheld this year, I could see light at the end of the tunnel for the Vita. laufrausers.jpgVlambeer's Luftrausers Clearly Sony doesn't feel the same way. As part of the company's fiscal forecast for the current year, it predicts that in total around 5 million PS Vitas and PSPs will be sold combined. Although Sony didn't break this figure down to the Vita alone, we know that the PSP currently sells around 10,000 units each week in Japan, and barely sells anywhere else, meaning that we're probably talking around 4.5 million Vitas by the end of March 2014. This is a pretty incredible number, and not in a good way. We have no idea how many Vitas Sony sold in 2012 -- the company is still keeping this figure close to its chest -- but we do know that the Vita and the PSP sold 7.0 million units combined. It's not hard to imagine that this year's forecast for the Vita is essentially flat compared to the previous year. Put it another way -- the Nintendo 3DS, Vita's closest rival, sold 17 million units in its first year, and 15 million during its own second year on sale. That's 32 million sold in two years, compared to the Vita's predicted 12 million max. What the figure also suggests is that Sony has absolutely no plans to boost Vita sales in any way. We're talking no price cut, no sudden surge of "triple-A" games, and no spectacular, as-of-yet unannounced reason why PS4 purchasers would also want to pick up a Vita, as hinted at during the PS4 reveal earlier this year. Otherwise, that 5 million figure would surely be much higher, to compensate for any one of these boosts. As Gamasutra's Christian Nutt said at the start of the year, it seems the Vita is under threat of being "Dreamcasted." These latest figures suggest that, whether Sony had a plan for the Vita or not, it's giving up on mass market adoption of the handheld and concentrating solely on the PS3 and the PS4 launch.

What's with the indie support, then?

This leaves the question, then: Why is Sony pushing so hard for indie games on the PS Vita, if it's about to leave the handheld to die? And also: Why aren't the indie games helping? Why isn't this barrage of announcements boosting sales? The latter may well comes down to various sticking points: in particular, a good portion of the indie titles being announced for Vita and PS3 are not new -- they are ports of existing PC and Xbox games. The prospect of playing titles like Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Machinarium and Limbo on the Vita is hugely exciting, but they are all games that many people have already played. That's not to say there are no unique indie games coming to PS Vita -- far from it -- but the hype is mainly surrounding those titles that have previously seen fame on other platforms. Add to this that the mainstream is generally unaware of obscure indie gems, and you've got a reasonable idea of why indies aren't going to save the Vita. As for why Sony is bothering with indies, this seems easier to explain: The company is preparing its developer relations in the lead-up to a make-or-break console launch. hohokum.jpgHoneyslug's Hokohum By bringing multitudes of developers into the PlayStation fray now, the publisher is making sure that it has reams of support for the PlayStation 4 come Holiday 2013. This isn't about the Vita at all, or even the PS3 -- Sony is taking names for its next big launch. We can already see evidence of this happening. Rocketbirds Vita studio Ratloop is working on a PS4 game, and Thomas Was Alone dev Mike Bithell has strongly hinted at PS4 development. In fact, if you follow particular indie devs on Twitter, you'll no doubt have caught hints at PS4 development from various studios. And then there's the most recent indie announcements for PS4: Hohokum, Doki Doki Universe, Primal Carnage, Blacklight: Retribution... Sony isn't just courting indies -- it's gathering an army. It's a smart move too. The biggest killer of a console launch these days -- well, ever, actually -- is a decent launch lineup, followed by months and months of nothingness (just look at the Wii U, for example). By building its indie relationships now, and showing these devs how easy it is to work with via Vita publishing, Sony is building an early reputation as an indie-friendly publisher, potentially pushing itself ahead of Microsoft before the race has even begun. So whether you choose to mourn the PS Vita or not, be under no illusion: Sony is not expecting this indie push to move its handheld hardware off of shelves. "Saving" the Vita isn't the company's primary objective -- Sony now firmly has its sights set on making the PlayStation 4 the indie developer's platform of choice. [Pictured at the top: HumaNature Studios' Doki-Doki Universe.]

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