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.

  • Aaron Lefebvre

    3DS has plenty of games, and now that Fire Emblem Awakening is out, it has a few more system sellers. Fire Emblem is the highest rated game this month, and is a must buy for the 3DS. There are plenty of other games too like Kid Icarus, SM 3D Land, Resident Evil Revelations ( or it was before), Ocarina of Time 3D is what got me to buy the 3Ds in the first place, many of the Mario games like Sticker Star, and there are plaenty more coming out like Luigis Mansion Dark Moon, Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2, Pokemon X & Y is a HUGE system seller, New Super Smash Bros, and i am sure more will be announced soon, and more at E3. 3DS is selling like hotcakes.

  • Joe Onley Jr

    A big problem with the Vita is that it is marketed as having home console graphics on the go. Which is something none of the games have provided yet. They are all either dumbed down because of resource problems, or have minor dips in framerates and the such. They need to just spend the time and money too build games from the ground up for it instead of trying to take something already made and tweaking it enough so it runs. They also have to remember its a PORTABLE system with only 3-4 hours of battery life. You cant put console games that require long periods of play between saves and safe spots.

    While Sony has a crap ton of exclusives, none of them are MAJOR system sellers. Sure Uncharted, God of War, and Killzone all fill a niche, but not one big enough to move enough systems on its own. Zelda sells systems, new ambitious Mario will sell systems, Metroid, Star Fox, Kid Icarus, etc will all move systems because Nintendo knows how to make a game.

    Games need to go back to being fun, which is why as bad as Nintendo may seem with keeping up power wise, they always deliver on the fun aspect.

    • Roger

      Sony = overhype and underdeliver.

    • Johnny Kratos Davidson

      Actually God of War and Gran Turismo are MAJOR system sellers, the last 3 God of War games have sold around 5 million+ and the series is getting bigger, Gran Turismo games sell around 10 million. And Uncharted is more a system seller than Zelda. Killzone, inFAMOUS and LittleBigPlanet sell more systems than Metroid, Star Fox, Kid Icarus, etc which don’t move many systems at all.

      The only system sellers Nintendo has is Pokemon and Mario. The Vita is failing not because the games are ‘dumbed down console games’ but because there’s only a very small handful of great games for the system and its far too expensive. Having console-like experiences on the Vita isn’t the problem, most people play their handhelds at home or at someones else house where they can charge it if they’re playing a long game so battery life isn’t the problem, the major problem is the publishers and Sony themselves are getting B-team developers making Vita games which are just awful compared to their console counterparts, the Vita needs better developers making sure the experience on the Vita is just as good as the home console, the new Killzone game looks great so hopefully more developers make more of an effort with the Vita in the future.

  • N

    Software sells hardware.

    • Roger

      Yeah, Vita’s DEAD. DEAL with it!

    • Dave Scammell

      It’s the classic catch 22 of no one developing games because no one owns the thing, and no one owns the thing because it doesn’t have any games. It’s such a waste of such a fantastic piece of hardware.

      • oo7porscheMGS

        it is sad.. I’ve been following the Vita waiting for a reason to get it… Uncharted and Killzone is not enough, they’re great.. but I already have them on my PS3, so I don’t “need” to spend 300+ to play them there too…. unless there are 10+ MORE games that I want to play like that too… OR if there is actually something UNIQUE on the vita that I want.. and right now there isn’t. I’d rather play Sly Cooper on my BIG screen. They need games that are UNIQUE to the vita. I have a feeling Feb. 20th we’ll see that Phantom Pain (MGS “V”) will actually be MGS Vita…. I hope… THEN I might actually need a vita!! ;)

  • Kamille

    isn’t this a bit hypocritical when Nintendo has been doing the same thing since the first Gameboy? Mario, Kirby, Zelda, ect. dumbed down-versions of franchises from the Nes, Snes, N64, Gamecube, Wii… People just love to nitpick Sony while turning a blind eye to Nintendo.

    Where are the oh so unique games on the 3DS and DS? Mostly games that looks like either outdated Snes or PS1 games. Zelda OOT remake, Zelda the minish cap, Metroid Hunter… It’s the same crap. DS-3DS may have 2 screens and a touch-screen but it really isn’t as innovative or unique as people make them out to be. Vita hardware wise and with software like Gravity Rush and soon Tearaway are much more innovative than anything Nintendo has ever produced on a handheld but what’s killing them is the wrong public perception about Nintendo handhelds being the best (and most likely the price).

    • Erimgard

      Nintendo rarely releases handheld/console versions of the same game at the same time. They get ported/remade a generation or two later, counting on the nostalgia factor.

      Thus, Ocarina of Time 3D sold well on 3DS, because it had been out for 15 years, and got a graphical overhaul. Releasing Sly Cooper on both Vita and PS3 at the same time isn’t going to convince people to buy a Vita. Why buy a whole new system for a game that you can get a better-looking version of on the PS3 you already own?

      The Wii U has a few (planned) 3DS/Wii U releases, like Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate and Smash Bros, but they’re not counting on those games to sell the 3DS. They’re releasing them long after the 3DS got momentum built up with exclusive titles.

      Having ports/remakes is fine, but you can’t expect them to sell a system.

    • Alex Plant

      Oh, don’t worry. I called NSMB2 not being the system seller that the first NSMB was a long time ago.

      Also, I’ve never really seen most of the games you listed as system sellers. The first Game Boy Marios were, you know, back when decent handheld games were brand-new and exposed these games to a new audience. Not as much today, and especially not for Sony, who already has a console market that’s bigger than its handheld market.

      NSMB will still sell a pretty solid number of systems, but if they keep going the conservative route they’ve been taking, it won’t hit a new peak any time soon – we’re starting to see it collapse on Wii U.

    • Rodrigomk388

      Hardware is nothing if bad games are gonna be made TO IT. If nintenod “overuses” (as you call it) is because they well know and have stated that THEY WILL NOT FIX SOMETHING THAT ISN’T BROKEN. By the way, if people like myself are waiting for the Next Zelda or Metroid, it means I WANT THEM, i am going to give them my money because i want it because I am not tired of it yet.

  • Manoj Varughese

    Yeah. I totally agree. I would rather say it was DOA. And if sony can’t pull any Super Mario or Zelda it’s going all down the drain. I believe this console needs to get something from Nintendo softwares

  • Manoj Varughese

    Sony has to project PS vita as anything but a PS3. I would say playing ‘Dumbed’ down port of PS3 exclusives is pretty lame. PS vita should have tons of exclusives with a variety and if the devs start working on them now, probably it could resurrect.

  • darkpower

    ” 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), ”

    I’m sorry, but I can’t get past you saying this. It strikes to me as a statement that anyone who has either done their research or has been around most of this gen would know that these two games have been massive sales giants (just do some Google searches and you’ll see the facts: it’s that easy). Unless you mean that the Vita versions weren’t selling well, but you didn’t clearly state that, and I’m pretty sure you mean that the PS3 versions weren’t sellers, which is….clearly not the case.

    You lost a LOT of cred when you made that stupid, dumbass statement!

    • Alex Plant

      You know how you can tell Uncharted 2 (for example) wasn’t a big hardware mover? Because peaks and valleys of hardware sales for 2009 don’t match the peaks and valleys for Uncharted 2 sales that holiday. When they are correlated, the jump in PS3 sales is much, much higher than the jump in Uncharted 2 sales. This seems to suggest that the forces influencing hardware sales in 2009 had little to do with Uncharted 2.

      LittleBigPlanet is a bit of a different story. It probably sold more PS3s than Uncharted 2. But as we can see from LBP Vita, it’s not selling the Vita. So I’m inclined to think it’s not that strong a system seller either.

      • darkpower

        You’re talking, though, as if the games weren’t good games. They were to many people. You’re saying that since the games didn’t move systems out the door, then that meant that the game must’ve sucked.

        One major happened around August of the same year Uncharted 2 came out: the much anticipated (and much awaited and long overdue) price drop. Now I don’t have raw data in front of me, and I wish that sort of thing was easily available (maybe it is and I’m not knowing what search string to put in Google’s text box to get it to come up), but I’m pretty sure that most of the PS3′s system sells for that year came around when the price drop happened (which was around August and Sep.). Uncharted 2 dropped in October, and while you were seeing sales of PS3 during that month, as well, you might want to consider how many people either bought the system when the price drop happened, and who was also thinking of the system as a Christmas gift (with the game included). There’s way too many factors in that that you’re not putting into your thought process there in that sense (to that point: how many people bought the PS3 because they loved the Kevin Butler character, who also debuted at that point)

        As for LBP, that’s a weird case because, outside of when the first two games launched, you’re talking about a game whose main selling point was how much customization you can do in that game, and the online capabilities the PS3 versions had. Part of the issue some gamers have had with the Vita is that they don’t want to even try to work with what they see as a shoddy wireless network that AT&T has (want to know why people jailbroke their iPhones prior to ATT losing exclusivity to the iPhone? Take a guess). Remember when they announced that ATT would be the exclusive wireless internet provider for the Vita at E3? You remember the groans that were heard in the audience? Take that reaction, pair that with a game which has a wide scope that would be hard for a portable alone to nail down perfectly, then add that one of the franchise’s main selling point was the amount of things you could do with the game online (thus gamers will want to take advantage of that), but then add ATT being the provider with no way around that aspect (remember how anti-jailbreaking Sony is…for whatever reason they have), and you got a game that people would play if it wasn’t for the amount of hoops they had to jump through to get to the parts they want to play. It’s not worth all that risk and trouble, especially when you talk of a game that, fair or not, is going to be judged by its big brothers that are perceived to be awesome games.

        But all of that is assuming you understand that the PS3 counterparts were thought of to be good games by critics and adopters of the system. You’re not judging them as being system sellers in the article. You’re saying that the games themselves are not good by means of you didn’t like the gameplay of the games, and that they didn’t get good reviews or fanfare, which is far from the case. You can probably debate whether or not they moved systems (they didn’t do that on their own: LBP2′s effort was also helped by the price drop but was also released around the holidays), but saying that no one liked the game and that people thought the games themselves sucked is far from the truth.

        • Alex Plant

          I’m sure they’re all wonderful games. I’m not really debating that.

          But what Vita needs right now is not just wonderful games, but games that actually put systems in people’s hands in the first place.

          I say Uncharted and LBP aren’t “super-hot in the first place” because their sales peaks were at levels that now would be considered bare minimum. At present I’d be confident in saying that Zelda isn’t “super-hot” either, simply because the bar rises as the gaming population expands and it hasn’t risen to meet the bar.

          • the man

            LOL the PS3 sold uncharted because it come bundled to it HAHA!

      • oo7PorscheMGS

        Just because people didn’t buy a PS3 right away when Uncharted 2 came out… doesn’t mean Uncharted 2 isn’t a system seller…….. Seriously man, saying Uncharted 2 didn’t sell ps3′s is one of the dumbest things you can say about the game industry. Any xbox gamer that bought a ps3 was likely to do so because they saw games like uncharted, MGS4, and Gran Turismo.. and had to have them. Doesn’t mean they had to buy the PS3 RIGHT when those games came out… use some common sense.. especially if you’re gonna write stuff (you want other people to read) for a living.

        • Alex Plant

          The bulk of the people who bought Uncharted 2 en masse when it came out ALREADY HAD PS3, and then the big holiday boosts in PS3 sales came later, when Uncharted 2 sales had dipped. There was a HUGE gap between the sales numbers for Uncharted 2 and the sales numbers for PS3 – like 6-7 PS3s (or more) sold per copy of Uncharted. Uncharted wasn’t selling those PS3s, because people weren’t buying Uncharted with those PS3s.

          Again, compare that to NSMBWii, where the big boosts in Wii sales in the holiday period of 2009 were almost 1:1 with the number of copies of that game being sold. Now THERE’s an indication that a game is selling systems. Not just a general increase in system sales, but system sales that mirror the game sales.

  • brianc6234

    This is dumb. LPB on the Vita is a great game. It’s not dumbed down. Some people say it’s better than LBP2 on the PS3.

  • Josué B. Hernández

    WiiSports a System seller? Sriously?! It was bundle with the console.. almost with EACH bundle there’s a WiiSport..

    • Terrak

      It IS the best selling game of all time. Im sure if sony or microsoft had a game they knew would move as many consoles as WiiSports has they would have packed it in with the system. It had mass appeal and was simple and fun. No game before and probably no game to come will match it for selling systems (IMO)

  • KongRudi

    Obviously the article-writer didn’t play those games he’s supposedly looking at.
    LBP-Vita, and Uncharted: Golden Abyss is not dumbed down versions of anything, it’s a superior port of LBP, with lower resoplution to get it on the screen, and a standalone version of a popular PS3-franchise, wich is not as good as Uncharted 2 and 3, but better than all other games in the same genre on consoles, including the first Uncharted, in my opinion. Wich is shocking for a launchgame on a handheld.

    There are plenty other exclusives aswell, Unit 13, Army Corpse of Hell, Gravity Rush, AC: Liberation, etc. Aswell as puzzles/platformers such as Dokuru, A-men, Mutant Blob and Escape Plan.
    Upcoming bigger games Killzone: Merc, and Soul Sacriface..

    If dumbed down newer versions of the same game were what gamers wanted, they’d buy 3DS and New Super Mario Brothers, oh wait..

  • bonezai

    Nice article!
    Vita needs the right kind of games for it.

  • teets

    Persona 4 Golden = system seller. That’s why I bought a Vita.

  • Logii

    All the Vita needs is FF:V, MGS:V, GT:V, and a decent shooter (KZ hopefully takes care of that) …. Thats it… No more remakes… Effin A with the remakes…….. (Unless they add more content like Persona4 but shouldnt charge full retail..) Those are system sellers… No ones going to run out and spend $300 for games like Little Big Planet and Lego Batman…………….