Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 can’t save the Vita

Article first published as Call of Duty: Black Ops II can’t save the Vita on Blogcritics.

Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 released Tuesday for the top home consoles and the PC.  A version of it has also been released for Sony’s Playstation Vita but, as popular as Call of Duty is, it is unlikely to save the handheld console.  The writing is already on the wall.  Last month, I went to IndieCade here in Los Angeles to see what was new and fresh in gaming and while there were some really cool new concepts, entertainment behemoth Sony’s tent dwarfed the Indie games showcase.  Granted, the IndieCade needs sponsors and Sony wasn’t showing off their huge blockbuster games but instead they were highlighting smaller downloadable games for the Playstation 3 and the struggling Vita.  That raises a question. Are smaller, simpler indie games really the salvation for the Playstation Vita or handheld gaming in general?

It’s not just Sony’s new Playstation Vita that’s struggling, though even in Japan the Vita is getting outsold by its seven year-old predecessor three to one.  Longtime handheld king Nintendo just lowered its sales forecast for their two year-old 3DS by a million units.  Between the fading of the social gaming phenomenon that was the Nintendo Wii, aging of the other home consoles and declining handheld console sales, the video game industry as a whole is looking pretty bad.  Nintendo does have a new home console, the Wii U coming out soon that should spark at least some improvement for the category’s overall numbers.

Handheld gaming still has a problem and while it’s pretty much agreed that mobile gaming is severely cutting into the console business, there are other contributors.  Nintendo’s 3DS though performing better than its Sony rival has a Nintendo problem.  That problem is that Nintendo seems content to ride their 20 and 30 year-old franchises all of the way until the end and their current games are pretty much just better looking versions of their old games.  While a hit with nostalgists, new gamers can’t differentiate retro from simple and anyone with smart phone knows that simple games should be free.

Sony’s Playstation Vita held quite a bit of promise but as of yet has failed to deliver.  The longer that continues, the more it will become a snowball effect.  Though Sony already had a Playstation Portable, the original PSP, the Vita was supposed to be a Playstation 3 in your pocket.  Sony said you could communicate with your Playstation 3 and even play those games on your Vita.  If that had really been the case, the Vita would have been able differentiate itself from the casual and more simple games of its competitor.  Unfortunately, those games and the promised functionality haven’t yet been realized and instead, the Vita seems to be having an identity crisis.

This is the deal.  I am a gamer and somewhat of a technophile and have been for over 30 years.  That makes me a pretty easy sale for console makers but at this moment, I no longer own either a 3DS or a Vita.  I did own both and even bought two Playstation Vitas when they came out but, at present I can’t recommend their purchase.  My complaint with Nintendo’s 3DS is that I grew up playing those games and don’t need to keep spending money to continue playing those same games I played as a kid and teenager.  The Vita on the other hand is a beautiful and powerful piece of hardware with nothing to play on it.  Sure, I could download a bunch of older games but wasn’t the point of buying it, to be able to play the really cool new games?

I understand that there are quite a few people that will disagree with my generalizations but the sales results say that something is going on.  Both Nintendo and Sony point to their online marketplaces for the handheld consoles but, the prices and selection are inferior to their Apple and Google competitors.  Mario, Pokémon and Zelda have a lot of fans and that’s why Nintendo’s decline is slower than Sony’s but fewer and fewer consumers are finding a reason to carry around an additional electronic device in addition to their phone, iPod and tablet or laptop.

The Playstation Vita’s failure to capitalize on its opportunity to offer home console quality games is disappointing and with an abysmal install base is unlikely to be able to provide more in the future.  The games on 3DS are having a hard time differentiating themselves from the quality of games on phones and tablets.  Tell me Pokémon wouldn’t be better on an iPad or that most DS games wouldn’t be better served on the larger screens of the current phones and tablets currently on the market.

Phones and tablets are the only possible future of mobile gaming.  Amazon’s Kindle Fire is already geared toward children and more versatile than consoles at a similar cost.  The screens on most current phones are significantly larger than either of the screens on the 3DS and many of the current phones and tablets now feature dual and quad core processors.  The only problem is that Nintendo as of yet refuses to bring their IPs to other platforms.  Though if the Wii U isn’t successful, don’t be surprised if Nintendo has to follow Sega’s exit from hardware.

The objection many developers and publishers have to embracing mobile devices is what they perceive as an undervalued marketplace. Why would they spend a couple of millions of dollars making a game that they either have to give away or sell for a dollar particularly when they’ve been selling those games for $40 and $50?  Part of that is their fault though.  In the move to digital downloads, publishers have been intent on maintaining the physical game price points.  That is unrealistic and needs to give.  If I can’t hold it, put on my shelf or let my friend borrow it, it’s not worth the same amount of money.

Most games available on Apple or Google’s market are worth a dollar.  They’re time wasters and the equivalent of dollar store toys but, if you offer something better you can charge more for it.  The studies all show that everyone uses tablets most at home and on the couch.  A couple of well known publishers are starting to dabble with mobile but, haven’t yet really taken the plunge.  As a lifelong console gamer, it took me awhile to come around to this realization.  It’s not really that profound but, like many gamers, it took me awhile to let go.  The bottom line is that I want better games to play without monopolizing the TV in the living room and that’s why I’ve recently gotten involved with Crash Dummies: Escape Velocity, an indie project currently on to bring a console quality game to mobile platforms.  You’ve got to put your money where your mouth is, right?

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