Integrative Approaches to Technology and Society

Grade Received: A
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This assignment required researching and writing about a “failed” technological artifact in the style of a postmortem. However, aside from just revisiting the technology’s design process, this assignment also required questioning the narrative and assumptions about the failed technology (which usually concerns criticism on the technology’s subpar features).

The PlayStation Vita Devitalized: A Postmortem of Sony’s High-Potential Yet Failed Handheld

Sometimes, no matter how technologically superior a product is, it could still fail. An example of such technology was the PlayStation Vita (Vita), a handheld game console developed by Sony Interactive Entertainment whose features and specifications surpassed other handhelds in the market (Shanklin). However, the Vita did not gain enough positive attention from its social groups,[1] contributing to Sony eventually culling the Vita out of its production line a few years after its emergence.

Brief History

The Vita emerged in 2011 with high hopes and expectations (see Fig. 1). In fact, Sony was so confident in their console that they named it Vita, which, according to Sony’s Kaz Hirai, “means life, and [they are] confident that… Vita will be the first product that truly blurs those lines between PlayStation entertainment and… real life” (qtd. in Purchese). On February 22, 2012, the Vita was released on the international market (“Get”).

"I acknowledge that Sony has stumbled quite a few times during the PSP and PS3's lifecycle, things appear to be different this time around. Sony's emphasis seems to be on all the right things, and Vita is primed to do a lot better than people are expecting it to."
Colin Moriarty
Columnist at IGN

Fig. 1: IGN columnist Colin Moriarty predicts that the Vita would be successful (Moriarty).

However, the Vita did not sell as expected. Around a year since its launch, the Vita only sold about one million units in the United States, compared to its predecessor, the PlayStation Portable (PSP), which sold over one million units in the month of December 2005 alone (Orland). In 2015, Sony stopped making Vita games (Stuart).

On March 2019, Sony ceased Vita production (Good). According to Sony’s senior executive Hiroyuki Oda, Sony is not planning on developing a successor to the Vita (Stuart).

Discourse

Many people attribute part of the Vita’s failure to its timing, as it entered the portable videogame industry when smartphone and tablet videogames were booming (Stuart). In fact, between 2011 and 2012, tablets became increasingly used to play videogames, as videogame applications became bestsellers on tablet application stores (Michaud 137). Even with the Vita’s superior games, smartphones and tablets offered users what a dedicated handheld like the Vita could not: versatility. With smartphones and tablets, users can not only effortlessly access the Internet, but also play free to low-cost games. Therefore, for casual players, when choosing between their existing mobile phones that can already play “good enough” games and purchasing a device solely for playing games, they are more likely to prefer saving money by settling for their phones. This shift to smartphones could have also affected how children and teenagers chose to play their videogames. If smartphones were deemed as the “cool” thing to have, children could either conform by asking their parents for the newest smartphone, or they could ask their parents for a Vita and remain at the bottom of the school social ladder (Milner 34, 47; “Young”).

Also present in the discourse is the idea that the Vita did not have enough games that would have convinced people to buy it (Nix). There was a lack of games one would expect out of a Sony console, nor that many games that supported seamless cross-play between the PlayStation 3 (PS3) and Vita (Jankee; Reed).[2] In turn, that could have deterred existing Sony gamers, namely PS3 gamers who wanted to play PS3 games on a handheld and PSP gamers who wanted to play upgraded PSP games. Furthermore, because the Vita’s graphics specifications were so high, surpassing its handheld rival the Nintendo 3DS (3DS), it would have also demanded games that were more expensive to develop (see Fig. 2) (Allan). That could have caused game developers to hesitate developing games for the Vita. Also, the fact that the Vita had not been selling well probably discouraged even more developers from taking the risk with Vita game development. Although AAA game developers probably had the budget to make Vita games, the problem would be meeting their high financial goals. As for independent or small game developers, they possibly ran the high risk of not being able to earn back the money they invested in developing the games.

Specifications PlayStation Vita Nintendo 3DS
Display
960 x 544px
800 x 240px
Processor

ARM Cortex A9 Quad Core
800 MHz-1GHz

ARM 11 Dual Core
268MHz

Graphics

Quad Core
33 million polygons/second

Single Core
15.3 million polygons/second

RAM
512MB
128MB

Storage

No internal storage
PS Vita proprietary card not included

2GB internal storage
2GB SD card included

Fig. 2: A table comparing the specifications of Sony’s PlayStation Vita and Nintendo’s Nintendo 3DS (Shanklin)

The Vita’s expensive price tag and proprietary memory cards are perhaps some of the most dominant topics in the discourse (see Fig. 3). Priced between $249 and $299, the Vita cost about as high as the PS3 and Xbox 360, and higher than the Nintendo 3DS and most smartphones (Lowe). Adding to that were the Vita’s mandatory proprietary memory cards that cost up to $120, as the Vita did not have an internal storage, nor did it accept SD cards (Lowe). This price tag could have repelled not only gamers on a budget, but also parents considering buying their children a gaming device. If parents were to choose between buying their children a smartphone and a Vita, or even a PS3 or a Vita, they would probably go for the more versatile ones like the smartphone or the PS3, which they could also use as a family multimedia device (Klosowski).

Fig. 3: A user commenting on the Vita’s downfall (Tach)

Development Decisions

According to Sony Division 2 software development head Muneki Shimada, one of the reasons Sony decided to use proprietary memory cards was to increase security. Since the PSP was infamous for its firmware hacks, Sony wanted to prevent this with the Vita by having a new proprietary format (Goldfarb). Thus, it became difficult to hack the Vita. As the PSP was commonly hacked for free games, this decision could have deterred existing PSP gamers who were used to that PSP culture, children, novice hackers intimidated by the Vita’s increased security, and budget gamers.

Sony decided that the Vita would only be backwards compatible with some digitally purchased PSP and PS One games (Allan). This decision could have deterred PSP gamers, especially those wanting to sell their PSPs to upgrade to the Vita. Instead of having only one console that could play all their games, PSP gamers were forced to buy and switch back and forth between two consoles.

Solutions

The Nintendo Switch (Switch), released in 2017, is a solution to the Vita. It is also a portable console that offers games one would expect from a PS3, only it sold around four times as much as the Vita (see Fig. 4). What differentiates the Switch from the Vita is that the Switch is a hybrid, 2-in-1 console, but costs the same as the Vita. That means a family can simply purchase one console and have fun with it together on the living room television. Alternatively, if children want to play games while their parents want to watch Netflix on the television, the children can simply take the Switch off the dock and play with it as a handheld.

Another aspect that distinguished the Switch from the Vita was their marketing. Whereas the Vita’s marketing was more about playing solo, Nintendo marketed the Switch in a family-friendly, social, and fun way (Nintendo). It played upon the idea that one Switch console can already become a good source of entertainment for multiple people, and all that for a relatively cheap cost.

Features PlayStation Vita (2011) Nintendo Switch (2017)
Units Sold (to date)
10-15 million units ("PS")
41.67 million units ("Dedicated")
Price

$249-299

$299

Top-Selling Game

MineCraft (2.4 million units worldwide) (“PlayStation”)

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (13.05 million units worldwide) ("Nintendo Switch")

Guaranteed Cross-Play

No. For the limited number of titles that do allow cross-play, the player still has to purchase a PS3 to allow playing on the big screen (Reed).

Yes

Backwards Compatibility

Although the Vita is the PSP’s successor, only with a few digitally purchased PSP and PS One games can be played on the Vita (Allan).

No, but Nintendo did not market the Switch as the successor to its other consoles. According to Nintendo, the Switch is “an all-new way to play” games (“Can”).

Hybrid
No
Yes
Storage
Sony's proprietary memory card (Goldfarb)
microSD/microSDHC/microSDXC memory cards (“Technical”)
Tagline
"Never Stop Playing" (Longworth)
"Play Together Anytime, Anywhere" (Nintendo)

Fig. 4: A table comparing the features and statistics of the Vita, which was considered a failure, and the Switch, which was considered a success.

Conclusion

What determines whether a technology fails or succeeds is not pure specifications, but a combination of multiple factors, including social groups. As seen in Figure 2, although the Vita was superior to the 3DS in terms of specifications, in the end the Vita failed and the 3DS succeeded. In this case, social groups of different backgrounds, including gamers, developers, and hackers, contributed to the Vita’s failure. Therefore, when analyzing technologies, it is important to consider how different factors like social groups and timing could have affected the technology’s fate; it is not all about features.

[1] A group of entities that attach the same set of meanings to the Vita, which include, but are not limited to: casual players, children and teenagers, PlayStation 3 gamers, PSP gamers, game developers, gamers on a budget, parents, and hackers (Pinch and Bijker 30).

[2] The Federal Trade Commission even complained that Sony was not delivering the promises it made on its ads about the Vita’s cross-play feature, as most PS3 games could not actually be remotely played on the Vita (Small; Byrne 408).

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