Fans of The Simpsons know the episode, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” where Homer receives the green light to design his own car, an opportunity that proves disastrous when he throws practicality out the window in favour of bloated excess.
The point? Less is more. That, and Homer should keep his day job at the power plant.
It’s a memorable scene (Homer grinning from inside the automobile, his brother’s successful career evaporating before our eyes), one we cannot shake since experiencing PlayStation Vita, Sony’s new portable system. It’s without question one sexy piece of hardware, but the chance of Sony overextending itself is quite real.
Consider the laundry list of features. A touch screen, rear touch pad, two analogue sticks, two cameras, tilt, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 3G, features any person would want, right?Perhaps, at least until they realise the rear touch pad runs the length of the screen, meaning players must hold the outer edges of the system while playing games that use both it and the touch screen in tandem; expect interference.
Then there’s 3G, which seemed like a decent idea until Sony chose to partner with AT&T, one of the most despised carriers.
With Vita, Sony hopes to appeal to two audiences: the dedicated fans (the system won’t sell without them), and the casual mobile crowd interested in a device that has more horsepower, as well as tilt and touch controls.
Whether or not the company succeeds remains to be seen, and we don’t envy its position. The publisher has the mammoth task of pitching the most ambitiously featured device to millions of players that demand the utmost simplicity from portable games.
An iPad game, for instance, will feature d-pad and tilt controls, but it’s one or the other. The developers behind the highly anticipated Vita title, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, on the other hand, want folks to climb and toss grenades using the touch screen, then go back to using the standard d-pad and face buttons to fire weapons and manoeuvre hero Nathan Drake through the world. It’s an experience that takes a while to get used to, especially coming from the App Store universe. At times, we instinctively tapped the on-screen weapon icon to cycle Drake’s weapons, something par for the course in iPhone/iPad games, but nowhere to be found in this touch heavy experience. This may change before the game debuts, but come on, Sony. Go all the way, or don’t go at all; to be fair, gamers can play Uncharted strictly using the d-pad and face buttons.
Thing is, that’s one of the best examples of touch gaming when it comes to Vita. Other titles, like Virtua Tennis 4, don’t fair nearly as well. Sega would love people to serve, hit and move by pressing the screen, but for that to happen, the publisher will need to make doing so enjoyable. During the demo, we ditched the screen and switched to the buttons, much to the dismay of the Sega rep insisting we do the opposite.
To be clear, Sony’s success is of key interest, only because innovation helps push the industry forward. At the same time, the company must communicate the system’s wealth of features without overwhelming (and confusing) the audience.
That puts the company in a tight spot. Vita is essentially the Swiss Army Knife of portable gaming systems, and like a Swiss Army Knife, the majority of consumers won’t make use of all its features on a daily basis; unlike the knife, Vita’s monstrously large.
In the end, Sony may finally put an end to Nintendo’s handheld dominance. By that time, though, Apple or Android may own the throne.
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