Viva La Vita?
- by Leo Stableford, 18 September 2016
So, I am putting together a look at the state of play in the console market at the moment. It’s undeniable that in the 20 years (ish) since I picked up my first little grey box of joy, there have been some momentous changes to the world of gaming as a whole. As part of my extensive research (which is by far the best excuse ever for playing a bunch of video games), I had occasion to pick up my dust covered PS Vita and wonder why the dust was there.
Well, obviously because it had built up and I hadn’t bothered to wipe it clean, but why is that? It is an often lamented fact that the PS Vita is a machine that is all dressed up, but has no place to go, or very few places to go, anyhow. So as a starter course to the main meal, I have dedicated some thought to why the sophisticated black oblong from Sony remains unloved by gamers, developers and even its parent company.
One: The games for the platform are all wrong.
I’ve heard people moan on about how the PS Vita is an ignored platform. And other people moan on about how the lack of consumer support for titles like AC: Liberation, Uncharted: Golden Abyss and Batman Arkham: Blackgate Prison effectively killed the developer’s case for further projects on the platform.
At first that argument held some water with me, you could issue caveats regarding the high price of the little cartridges that were the Vita’s physical media and you could also complain about some of the touch-screen gimmickry on display in these titles. It did, indeed, appear that blame for the failure could be laid at the feet of unenthusiastic consumers.
That is until you factor in that Nintendo have managed to punt the same sort of stuff on a technically inferior and far gimmickier platform successfully for many years now. In my recent trawl through the PS Vita shop, a stark reality struck me; the software, old, new and indie, that has been crafted for the Vita is all wrong for the console. AC: Liberation, for example, was reincarnated as an HD digital release for the PS3, one that I happily stumped up for and played all the way through.
At the time I remember noting that certain moves that were programmed in automatically in the HD remaster had been changed from a swooshy touchscreen QTE in the game’s original release. I remembered my relief that this “feature” had been cut due to it being impossible to implement. Here is a AAA title that was effectively spoiled before its release because of trying to cleverly implement a feature on the supported hardware.
I like Assassin’s Creed, but I am really not that bothered about playing it on a handheld. The nightmare clunkiness of the PSP’s Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines should have been a warning to Ubisoft that just porting a title from a AAA franchise from console to handheld was no guarantee of success.
It then occurred to me that it wasn’t just the expense or the gimmickry that was putting me off, it was the whole gameplay concept, immersive on a console but way too stodgy for a handheld. If we look back at handheld console gaming’s greatest hits, we find a bunch of rotating blocks, some bouncing plumbers and a whole heap of Pokemon.
What does the Vita have in that direction?
It does have a few puzzle games. The platformers appear to be more of the Metroidvania persuasion. As for RPGs, well, quite a few of the more serious or bizarre JRPGs are represented. In fact, they’re something of a Vita staple.
The problem is that mobile gaming should, in my opinion, maximise ideas of five minute fun. Here the Vita does have an identity crisis in common with its Nintendish rival. That being....
Two: Mobile gaming has become portable gaming.
I cannot comment on how things are in Nintendo-land, but I get the definite impression that in Vita-ville there is an institutional prejudice against “filthy casuals”. There are a couple of mobile game ports, but a lot of the other content is pretty aggressive in its market for “classic, hardcore gaming”.
I have to say I’m not a huge mobile gamer, not just casual but across the board. I find all that touch screen stuff pretty dull. However, I also find a force fed diet of PS One “Classics” and chunky modern fare trying its best to impress to be equally dull. The best stuff I’ve encountered on Vita has to be the racing games, a genre where the idea of quick achievement and pushing the available technology is top priority. looking at Amazon reviews for racing games available for the platform appears to bear this out, proving that people genuinely enjoy racing games.
What if you don’t like racing games, though?
Well, there’s the problem in a nutshell.
Portable gaming has become redefined as mobile gaming for a number of reasons. Not least of which is the opportunity to earn a good return from shovelware. One of the other factors is that mobile devices have aggressively restricted control schemes. It’s all about touching bits of the screen to make stuff happen.
Some mobile games simulate a joy pad with touch screen buttons that represent buttons and directional keys, but most go for a poke-the-screen-to-do-stuff model. This makes for a pleasingly limited control interface design.
Compare this with the Vitas d-pad, two joysticks, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons, select, and touch screens on the front and back. I think this would probably be rightly regarded as bewildering for anybody. Even the most idle QA department at a games company would see the potential time bomb in releasing a game that doesn’t use the buttons properly. So many of the newer handheld games map single functions to multiple buttons (press X OR L or O to…) or just leave many of the inputs dead.
Although everyone has been perfectly happy in the past with a gameboy that has a d-pad and two other buttons, there is, somehow, a sense of outrage that Vita software often doesn’t use every joystick and button seamlessly in every title. It appears disappointing that you don’t often need to use all the buttons all the time. This is nothing compared to the disappointment that when you control your PS4 with a vita, two of the key triggers in PS4 control mapping (L2 and R2) are relegated to touch pads on the lower surface that are incredibly difficult to use properly.
Overall, the PS Vita isn’t so much poorly designed (although it is a bit) as much as it is wrongly designed. If Sony had decided that the handheld should be its own thing, maybe occasionally complimenting a PS4 game (although to me that never really works out), then they could have de-cluttered the controls and gone in one direction. Going the opposite route and trying to make it into a hand held super-console seems to have done nothing but harm.
What it comes down to is that the Vita is a clunky alternative to mobile gaming platforms such as phones and tablets, because the lack of control inputs to map to has actually made the mobile platform look more sophisticated than its technologically overburdened competitor. Recently I had a go at playing a Japanese Import interactive novel. I pressed the X button a lot and jogged the D-Pad up and down to select dialogue choices.
What I realised is that every time you play a game that leaves controls dead, you end up wondering why those controls are even there. Okay, so you may need all the control gubbins to real-time play with your PS4 over wi-fi, but this is a stopgap solution at best, probably not recommended to be undertaken in earnest.
Maybe someone would find a use for all that carapace furniture except...
Three: Innovation is at an all-time low.
Out of idle curiosity, I had a look at what it might take, in terms of resources, to develop for the Vita. Predictably, the restrictions are high, I don’t even need to bother looking into what being a DS developer would take.
Unfortunately for both of the big boys, the barrier to entry for mobile development is to have a PC and the desire to download a framework. Nintendo, at least, have some kind of quality assurance, meaning their ongoing handheld development is still worthwhile. Sony have no such reputation or experience.
There are some decent PSP titles about (but there are plenty of bad ones as well), but once again the PSP market was plagued with this idea that the “gold standard” titles like Syphon Filter - Dark Mirror, Tomb Raider Anniversary and Vice City Stories should be, somehow, legitimized by being “upgraded” to the home console.
This should have been a major clue to Sony before the Vita ever came into being. If your marketing spiel says “you enjoyed this on our handheld platform now enjoy it properly on your home console” you might glean that your handheld efforts are not really working for their platform.
What would be better is if people would sing something’s praises on a handheld platform before complaining it didn’t seem right when they ported it to home console. Game development is an experimental thing; you sit down to have an experience and that experience can be honed for the particular medium.
My wife, for example, was well into that Simpsons freemium game for a bit. The whole game essentially boiled down to tapping the screen repeatedly to make things happen. Mostly things that made exciting noises and little mobile firework displays go off. You could set tasks that would complete over hours and the game would notify your phone from time to time.
The very idea of playing this game anywhere except your phone seemed like torture. For my part I couldn’t even see the attraction on the phone itself. But there are dozens of these things and they’re popular enough to keep making people money.
Given these facts, what’s the incentive to wrestle with the Vita’s complex control scheme, or to spring for a developer's kit? Even big companies like Ubisoft, who have vita development kits, can’t really see the commercial sense in actually using them to produce software.
This is all a great shame, because I really like my Vita, and I wish there were some satisfying and unique gameplay experiences to be found within it. I wouldn’t even mind if these experiences were re-runs of particularly hand-held friendly old school ideas. But at the moment, no one in the commercial world wants to spend the time nurturing the Vita to live up to its massive potential. Thankfully, matters in the other areas of the world of gaming are a lot rosier. The future for console and PC gaming is bright, let’s hope that the light from such enterprises does not completely drown out the potential of the handheld platform.
Is it all she wrote for the Vita? What do you think should happen next to the console? Let us know below!
Tagged: video games.