PS Vita set for launch on Wednesday — but will it sell?

sony playstation vita video reviewFor those itching to get their hands on Sony’s new handheld gaming system, the PlayStation Vita, the wait is almost over. The device launches in North America and Europe on Wednesday.

The machine, which is already out in Japan, features a 5-inch (12.7cm) OLED touchscreen and a quad-core graphics processing unit. The back of it is also touch sensitive. It incorporates both Wi-Fi and 3G functionality, has front and rear cameras, can play music and video, and has a web browser too.

In his recent review, DT’s Ryan Fleming described Sony’s new offering as being “clearly the most technically superior gaming device that you can throw in your pocket.”

By all accounts, it’s a neat package, and will sell in the US for $250 (Wi-Fi only) and $300 (Wi-Fi and 3G). In the UK, gamers will be able to pick up the device for £229 (Wi-Fi only) and £279 (Wi-Fi and 3G).

Challenges

There’s little doubt that the PS Vita faces some big challenges. For a start, it doesn’t come cheap. Here, we can make a comparison with Nintendo and its 3DS machine — when the Kyoto-based company launched that handheld gaming device last year for $250, sales were initially good but quickly fell away, forcing the Japanese company to slash its price to  $170 in an attempt to boost sales and keep developers on board. It seems to have done the trick, with the company this week announcing that in Japan the 3DS has reached five million sales faster than any of its other devices.

Sony’s PS Vita also sold well upon launch in Japan in December last year, but in a matter of days sales plummeted by some 80 percent. No price cut has been forthcoming and such a move still looks unlikely.

Price cut ‘not on our radar screens’

In a recent interview with BBC Click, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, Jim Ryan, commented on the prospect of a price cut. “It’s not on our radar screens at all at the moment,” he said. “We have our launch plans in place. We’re in the middle of a very vibrant pre-order campaign. The demand that we see coming through in our part of the world is strong and a price cut, to be honest, is the last thing on our minds right now.” The question is whether that demand will fall away soon after launch, as it did in Japan. Then Sony may be forced to take action.

Ryan claimed that Sony is happy with sales of the Vita so far, and that anyway the company is focused on looking at things in the long term. “We’ve just announced sales of 500,000 units in Japan after what is really a short period of time and that’s a figure we’re extremely comfortable with,” he said, adding, “We measure the life of our platforms in units of years and typically we look to thrive and prosper over a ten-year cycle.”

Smartphones and tablets

Analysts have also pointed towards the proliferation of smartphones and tablets as being a challenge for the likes of Sony and Nintendo, with these more versatile devices having access to app stores containing hundreds of thousands of cheap, or free, games.

A study last November by mobile analytics firm Flurry found that iOS and Android had tripled its market share over the previous three years, and in 2011 both platforms ended Sony and Nintendo’s combined mobile gaming market dominance.

If you have a smartphone, do you really want to have a Vita or Nintendo 3DS too? If you’re a serious gamer, quite possibly. But are there enough serious gamers out there to keep the Vita selling week after week?

Jim Ryan recognizes that his company needs to pull in more casual gamers for the Vita to truly succeed. “We will quite subtly but very deliberately and quite steadily broaden the demographic, go younger, bring in the more casual consumer, and hopefully also the female consumer, and really grow that potential target that’s available to us,” he told BBC Click.

No doubt this week the Vita will sell well, but Sony will be waiting and wondering how things go from next week and beyond. If, as in Japan, a slump occurs, the currently off-the-radar price cut may well move into view.

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