Editorial: Vita needs less imitation, more augmentation
This year was Vita's coming out party. Despite Sony's odd silence at its E3 press briefing, the company showed off 25 games for the device. More importantly, a significant chunk of these games pack cross-platform functionality or otherwise imitate their console counterparts. From PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale to Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time to the newly released tracks for Wipeout, Sony is aiming to make the Vita a portable PlayStation 3. Third parties are lending a hand with projects like the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (complete with transfarring) and Street Fighter X Tekken's cross-platform play.
The only problem? I don't really want a portable PS3. And looking at the stumbles of the PlayStation Portable, I'm not sure the market does either.
Sure, for some game types, it's a natural fit. I'm looking forward to playing Guacamelee on the go, and if I can see its artwork on a big screen from the comfort of my couch, all the better. But in more general terms, console imitation is not what I want from a portable device. Worse yet, it's perilously similar to the missteps of the PSP, which was billed as a portable PS2.
For one thing, the concept is often problematic. The Vita lacks two shoulder buttons and two click-sticks, and the buttons it does have don't feel quite as natural as a gamepad. The system usually makes up for this with touch or gyro controls, which lead to screen smudges and navigation problems when moving in a car, bus, or train. The Vita is still young, but so far I have yet to play a console-like experience that feels completely natural on the device.
The larger problem is more fundamental. While some games do seem like they could naturally fit both devices, most games aren't really meant to cross the streams. Just like shooters on my Vita never feel like they carry the weight of their console counterparts, Angry Birds on a big screen wouldn't be quite right. This isn't a problem the Vita can solve by pushing more polygons than the PSP or the addition of a second stick. The two game types are built differently from their inception. The best portable games aren't console games that make a relatively clean transition to handheld devices; they're portable games, right from the start, and they're imagined and designed that way to their very bones.
So when I hear that a console game is coming to the Vita completely in tact, I'm certainly impressed by the technical marvel, but left wanting something more catered to the device.
Simply put, I use my portable systems to play portable games. I can't always count on ideal viewing conditions, or setting aside an hour, or even having the sound on. More often than not, a portable game is a slight distraction while I watch TV or wait for a few minutes in a mall. The Vita's sleep mode makes it possible to flip on Resistance for a few minutes, with the sound off, and people milling around me -- but why would I really want to? What's the point of compressing a big, bombastic shooter into a platform that almost guarantees compromised play conditions?
Now, lest I sound like a curmudgeon, let me say that Sony is on the right track. The ability to interact seamlessly with the PlayStation 3 is a potent concept. Wasting that potential would be stupid, and I'm not suggesting Sony should. But I'd rather have complementary experiences than identical ones. If I'm playing an RPG on the PlayStation 3, give me a way to get new items or grind a few levels with a simpler interface on the go. If I'm playing an action-adventure game, give me something fun to do that will earn me points toward power upgrades. If I'm playing a shooter, give me side-missions customized for the device that can feed back into the main game.
Most importantly, make these games good enough that they're worth buying separately. The Vita is barely out of the gate, and people already balk at the idea of purchasing a game twice-over for the privilege of playing it on the go. Discounts or PlayStation Plus bonuses are a nice idea, but what we really need is a reason to invest the extra money. Identical experiences across platforms will only attract the most passionate fans; most consumers will choose one or the other. If both games are great in their own way, and both impact the other in some meaningful way, the sales will reflect that.
The PlayStation Vita is a technical marvel and could be a great system. The first step is to let it be itself, and find its own identity with its own games, instead of constantly trying to match its older brother.