A still from "Broforce"
Sony must have been quietly pleased with its Gamescom press briefing. It said much for the format holder's confidence that it prepared fresh PlayStation 4 footage of The Order: 1886, LittleBigPlanet 3 and From Software's much-anticipated Bloodborne to run before the Cologne-held games conference itself started (it runs until August 17th). SCE Europe's Jim Ryan promised something a little different, and duly delivered: beyond the apparently mandatory slot for Bungie's Destiny, and new details on the likes of DriveClub and Far Cry 4, this was a showcase of actual new stuff.
Bookended by Q-Games' strikingly weird The Tomorrow Children and Michel Ancel's ambitious sandbox survival game Wild, the show gave us a brief glimpse at Ninja Theory's newie, Hellblade, as well as a PS4 sequel to Media Molecule's Tearaway, and a closer look at Rime, which somehow looks like Ico, The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker and Journey all at once. If there wasn't a jaw-dropper on the level of Microsoft's Tomb Raider exclusivity coup, creepy horror puzzle P.T. ended up as the day's best surprise, turning out to be an inventive teaser for a new Silent Hill game, with Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and The Walking Dead's Norman Reedus all involved.
Yet while the desire to maintain PS4's momentum was understandable – within nine months it's already clocked up ten million sales – it would be easy to forget that Sony has more than one console currently on the market. While few would begrudge Sony's ignorance of its outgoing PlayStation 3, Vita owners were rightly irritated by a briefing that barely bothered to mention the handheld.
Which isn't, of course, to say that the Vita has no games in the offing. Shahid Ahmad, Sony's indie evangelist, took to Twitter after getting dog's abuse over the apparent no-show, reminding everyone that no, Sony hasn't completely forgotten that it has a handheld audience to cater for. Ahmad is one of the most hard-working and passionate men in the business, but there was a hint of desperation in his barrage of tweets, borne purely of a keenness to reassure. It says something for Sony's messaging – or lack thereof – that he felt the need to speak out.
"Just in case it wasn't clear, Papers Please is coming to Vita," Ahmad began. Then: "[I'm] not sure exactly what I've done to deserve some of the stuff I'm seeing on my timeline, there's tons of great games on Vita and more to come." What followed was a series of posts listing Vita's line-up for the coming months. Minecraft, Velocity 2X, Super Exploding Zoo, Pix The Cat, Nom Nom Galaxy, Volume, Hotline Miami 2, Broforce, Risk of Rain, Titan Souls, Starbound, Axiom Verge and Nuclear Throne. And plenty more besides.
But let's take a look at that list, shall we? A few of these we know are coming soon, but many of them are some way off yet. And let's not forget that several of these are already available on other formats, or will be by the time they reach Vita. If you own a PC in particular, the news that these are coming soon (or soon-ish) isn't much to boast about.
Ahmad's list was subsequently reported by the specialist press, and while some Vita owners were relieved, others weren't so impressed. "Indie games don't count," snorted one IGN commenter. The automatic reaction is to tut and roll your eyes, and in many ways Sony should be lauded for working so hard to welcome smaller developers to PlayStation platforms. But is that enough? Where are the exclusive titles? Where are the games that are specifically tailored to Vita's capabilities? Stylish puzzler Metrico is a fine recent example of a Vita exclusive, while Jeff Minter's TxK – released at the start of the year – remains one of 2014's best games. But there's been very little else to shout about.
And consider those who were sold a Vita on the promise of blockbuster games on the go. Think of Vita's early days: an exclusive new Uncharted at launch, and a brand new WipEout. Gravity Rush might have been a little more niche, but it was evidence that Sony was prepared to invest in creative first-party fare. On the third-party front, we got an exclusive Assassin's Creed spin-off – a little shy of the visual quality of the home console games, perhaps, but still an impressive showcase.
A still from 'Gravity Rush'
Not that the idea of home console quality on a handheld has always worked out. The execrable (albeit mercifully short) Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified and the almost equally awful Resistance: Burning Skies were likely compromised by a rushed development schedule as by the limitations of the format. Killzone: Mercenary fared better, but its inherent weaknesses revealed an unspoken truth – that the games we enjoy playing on our large-screen HDTV of an evening aren't necessarily best suited to portable play.
In some respects it's easy to sympathise with Sony. Yes, plenty of Vita owners do want these kinds of games, but that audience simply isn't large enough to continue investing in. Developing great exclusive games for a powerful portable isn't cheap, after all, and evidently the figures don't quite add up. As the smartphone market continues to eat into the sales of dedicated handhelds – heck, even Nintendo's 3DS is suffering a substantial year-on-year decline – it's easy to see why Sony has repositioned Vita as a capable little indie machine. Even if an audience that wants a portable device for indie games you can get elsewhere feels like a fairly small niche.
But hurried promises of games in the works is hardly the way to convince people that Vita is anything other than an afterthought to Sony at the moment. Right now, it feels like little more than an expensive accessory to PS4, and its absence at briefings like this suggest Sony is content to push it to the margins, even as people like Shahid Ahmad try to convince us its future is bright. It's a machine that urgently needs support from its maker, particularly in a competitive market where a strong identity and sense of purpose is all but essential to its prospects. Vita might not be on life support just yet, but if Sony's not careful, its apathetic approach to promoting its own hardware could end up being reflected by its audience.
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