Weekend Response: Sony Doesn’t Seem Interested in Bringing System Sellers to Vita

This is a staff response piece to this week’s “Weekend Wondering” community poll question: “Which Should Come First for Vita, a Price Cut or More Games?” Feel free to share your own thoughts on the subject in the comments!

A big part of the identity development process for a new system is hitting a stride in terms of system-selling software. For Nintendo, that means Mario, Pokémon, and The Legend of Zelda – all games you can’t find anywhere else but on Nintendo’s platforms. And Nintendo’s historically been good at changing up the experience between consoles and handhelds, so the Zelda you play on your handheld is going to differ in meaningful ways from the Zelda you play on your TV.

It’s clear from the sales of PS Vita across its first full year on sale that the system hasn’t found its big system-sellers yet. Let’s take a look at some historical system sellers and see what’s missing.

The One that Started it All

Super Mario Bros. released for the NES in 1985, and went on to become the best-selling game of all time, a title it held onto for over 20 years. Why? Because Super Mario Bros. was a revolution in its own time.

smb-systemsellerWhile most games at the time featured black backgrounds, Super Mario Bros. added in a blue sky. The result was a game world that looked and felt more like a “world.” It also featured a semi-persistent world – players would travel to a castle at the end of each stage, which then became the starting point for the next level.

Its different level varieties are the stuff of gaming lore now, but then they were an innovation. You could move between above-ground and underground areas via pipes, with drastically different atmospheres for both – from the graphics all the way down to the music. Surprise underwater levels, Cheep-Cheep bridge runs, and giant mushroom caps, as well as the end-of-world castles, further diversified. Plus, each world had its own theme: some were daytime worlds, while some had a night sky in the background; some had snow on the plants in the background.

Now these kinds of things are commonplace – then, they were a peek at what the future of gaming could be like. And as we can see, those ideas definitely had a ripple impact on the industry.

What made it a system seller? The fact that it was only available on the NES, of course! The Super Mario Bros. experience couldn’t be had anywhere else.

The One that Tried to Beat it at Its Own Game

That’s right: next on the list is Sonic the Hedgehog. The first Sonic took the stage on Sega Genesis in 1991 as an effort for Sega to establish its own mascot to run against Mario – and the series certainly did give Nintendo a run for its money. Even though it was bundled with Super Nintendo hardware at launch, Super Mario World didn’t come close to the over 40 million copies that its NES predecessor achieved. That’s in large part because of the strong sales of Sonic on the Genesis.

sonic-the-hedgehog-systemsellerWhat gave Sonic so much strength against the biggest gaming revolution in history at the time? It was Sega’s effort to out-do Mario at his own game. Sonic‘s levels featured now-famous branching pathways that were more than just pipes to hidden areas. The entire levels were designed around finding the most efficient or in some cases the most bonus-filled areas in order to rack up high scores, perform speed runs, or get the necessary Rings to capture the Chaos Emeralds.

Combine that with a rich game universe, more vibrant graphics, and a more intriguing “story,” and Sonic became one of the games that epitomized the phrase “Sega do what Nintendon’t.” Sonic was the face of the Genesis, just like Mario was the face of Nintendo.

The One That Made Rock-Paper-Scissors Obsolete

I don’t think the world was ready for Pokémon when it debuted in Japan in 1996. In fact, I still don’t think the world is ready. The Pokémon craze was unparalleled.

pokemonrb-systemsellerWhat made Pokémon so successful was that it set out with everything in place to become a mass market phenomenon: tons of monsters, each of which had the potential to gain a following, a massive TV and merchandising campaign to keep the mania going for as long as possible, and best of all, easy-to-understand and seriously addictive on-the-go RPG gameplay driven by the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” drive and the ability to link up and battle or trade with other players. Again – all revolutionary, and only available on Game Boy.

It was one of the first truly “social” handheld games, and for that, it became a huge discussion piece – more so than the other popular multiplayer games of the time. Even five generations later, it’s still going strong.

The One That Sold Millions and Millions

I’m talking about Wii Sports, the current best-selling game of all time and the game that drove Wii to two solid years of sell-outs almost everywhere.

wii-sports-systemsellerThere’s a lot that went in to making Wii Sports successful: it was an effort at capturing lapsed gamers and non-gamers, both audiences that had been ignored by the industry as games moved toward being more niche, more specialized, and more complex; it was visually a very neutral and identifiable game due to emphasizing the sports as the central theme and not characters, story, or setting; and perhaps most importantly it teamed up with a new motion-based control scheme, one that tapped into many people’s dreams for a “virtual reality” experience in their living rooms.

And, of course, it was the game at the forefront of Wii – only available on Nintendo’s new home platform. Of course people were going to rush out to buy one.

Other games have done a similar job of reaching across the aisle to less traditional gaming audiences – Guitar Hero, Just Dance, and so on – but they’ve all gone multi-platform. There’s nothing that can compare to being the front-man for a new game console in terms of system-selling power.

The Ones That PlayStation Built

Final Fantasy VII had an incredibly turbulent development period, but in the end it became the face of the PlayStation and one of the best-known games in the franchise. How? Because it capitalized on the fact that it was a PlayStation game. It made extensive use of pre-rendered environments and movie scenes and featured a deep and engaging character-driven story that filled up the space on the old PSone CD-ROM discs. It’s not as though these things hadn’t been attempted before, but they’d never been taken on to such an ambitious extent.

ffvii-system-sellerMany consider Final Fantasy VII to be the game that popularized the use of strong narratives in video games. It was the first truly “mainstream” Final Fantasy success, with over nine-and-a-half million copies sold worldwide – beating out even Nintendo’s own narrative marvel from the time: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

The game wouldn’t have been possible without a hefty investment from Sony, either. Beyond Final Fantasy, one of Sony’s key strategies with PlayStation was to seek out a wide number of third-party games with potential to populate the system. Many of these were worthy competitors against Nintendo 64’s own characteristic franchises: Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, and Tomb Raider come to mind.

The Vita Problem

Today, Sony doesn’t seem interested in grabbing (or making) games with real potential to become the face of Vita. So far, what are the best-sellers for the system? They’re dumbed-down handheld versions of games that haven’t been super-hot to begin with (I’m looking at you, Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet), dumbed-down third-party multi-platform games that are by that very fact unlikely to become front-line titles for a new system (Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty), or quirky little experimental games. It’s no surprise that they aren’t pulling sales – none of these games is an adequate substitute for real revolutionary game-changers.

The answer’s not, as Sony’s Masaru Kato said, not simply to “put a lot more resources” in order to make “more attractive software.” It’s to make the right software for the system. What Vita needs right now is to revolutionize at the games level, not just at the level of taking everything that’s been done before portable. That’s going to require a serious change in the way Sony does its handheld games business.