No-one was expecting PS Vita TV. There were no leaks. No rumors. The spotlight was firmly focused on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, so the chances of Sony announcing a new piece of hardware were slim.
Yet they did. PS Vita TV might not be a perfect product, but I don’t mind. Even in its current state, I think it looks fantastic.
The system is understated and tiny. Based on the images and promotional videos released so far, it looks smaller than a regular point-and-shoot camera. It makes the Android-powered OUYA look excessive. Bulky even, which is quite an achievement given that the Kickstarter-funded gaming console is roughly the size of a Rubik’s Cube.
When Sony launches PS Vita TV in Japan this November (a wider release is yet to be confirmed) it’ll be sold for just 9,954 yen. That’s sub-$100, which is exactly the same as OUYA, Apple TV and other set-top streaming boxes such as Roku. For new hardware, it’s a highly competitive price point.
A superior gaming experience
The microconsole plays a mixture of both new and classic games. Players will eventually have access to 1,300 titles originally released for the PlayStation and PS One, as well as the more recent PlayStation Portable and PS Vita systems. It’s not a complete library for any of these consoles, but it’s a notable sum of what used to be a full, $60 experience.
The system can play Vita cartridges too, although the list of supported games is restricted. PlayStation Vita TV uses the Dual Shock 3 controller, so any titles that use the PS Vita’s front and back touchscreen aren’t supported. That rules out some of the original PS Vita’s best games including Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Wipeout 2048 and Gravity Rush.
It’s a huge flaw.
Nevertheless, PS Vita TV should have a great library of games targeted at traditional console players in Japan. It’s a true handheld gaming console, but ported to the television for a fraction of the price. Unlike OUYA, it also comes with a comfortable and durable controller that players already love.
The cost of each title is yet to be confirmed, but they’re likely to mirror the current prices for PS Vita digital content. That could be a shock to the average person who is used to spending 99 cents on an iOS or Android app, but it’s important for Sony to emphasize that these are big budget games, without any unscrupulous free-to-play mechanics or microtransactions hidden inside.
Of course, Sony also has the option to offer additional games on PS Vita TV at lower price points. The infrastructure and marketplace already exists, they just need to make it happen.
Regardless, the current pricing model should be a compelling offer for parents. As with traditional gaming consoles (provided they don’t save their debit or credit card details) they can buy a game once and not have to worry about their child or children spending an eye-watering amount of money by mistake.
Movies, TV and music
PS Vita TV can be used to access video and music services such as Hulu, Music Unlimited, Video Unlimited and Nico Nico. It’s essentially the PS Vita hardware and UI, but with a couple of new apps thrown into the mix.
The system supports Remote Play, which means that players can stream PlayStation 4 games and potentially other multimedia content to whatever display the PS Vita TV is hooked up to. So unlike OUYA, Apple TV, Roku and other set-top streaming boxes, the console is capable of true next-gen gaming. Admittedly, this functionality relies on consumers being invested in the Sony ecosystem, but it’s a unique feature for the system.
On its own, PS Vita TV’s streaming capabilities are a little limited. That could change, however, if Sony ever decides to release it on Western shores. If the company can bring on board services such as Netflix, Amazon Instant Video (or LoveFilm Instant, depending on your region), ESPN and HBO GO, PS Vita TV will be a day one purchase for many people, myself included.
A traditional console experience, coupled with some of the best streaming services for less than $100. It’s an easy sell.
Why just Japan?
Why the gap in release dates? Sony wants to prioritize Western markets with the PlayStation 4. These areas are akin to swing states in a presidential election campaign: Sony has always been strong in Japan, so it wants to focus its efforts on these pivotal countries where opinion is still divided.
That decision has already upset some of its fans in Japan though. PS Vita TV could arguably be seen as a peace-offering by Sony, a final safeguard to reassure its domestic supporters over the New Year period.
But there’s another angle here. The PS Vita TV is an unknown quantity for Sony. At this point, it’s difficult to see OUYA and other microconsoles such as the GameStick, Gamepop and NVIDIA Shield ever truly taking off. But if they do, Sony has a platform it can quickly push out internationally.
The system is a line in the sand. An indication by Sony that it can compete with inexpensive, low-end hardware if needed.
The threat from Apple TV
It’s difficult to predict what Apple will do next with its own set-top streaming box. Apple TV has never been a huge product for the company, at least not in comparison to the iPhone, iPad, iMac and MacBook.
Many believe that Apple wants to give the platform a major revamp, provided it can get the necessary deals in place with broadcasters and content providers.
It could also enter the gaming market in a huge way. Apple already has a massive catalog of iOS games in the App Store, many of which users have already purchased. If it were to give players the ability to simply download their library at no extra cost and play them freely on their television, Apple TV would be huge.
If that were to happen, the average family could shy away from the $399-$499 price point of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Gamers will always want the big budget, traditional console experience, but it’s easy to see the casual, Nintendo Wii and Kinect market transitioning to Apple TV. Especially with AirPlay and the existing iTunes storefront thrown into the mix.
A defensive play
Whether or not a next generation Apple TV emerges, Sony is well-positioned to push back with the PS Vita TV. It’s pretty cheap – perfect for new players – and an ideal counterpoint to the expensive, bleeding edge technology found in the PlayStation 4.
But the system is flawed. The inability to play titles that make the most of the original PS Vita’s innovative hardware will be a huge letdown to many players. An easy, inexpensive workaround is vital if the PS Vita TV is to ever become a commercial success.
Likewise, it needs widespread app support. Pulling from the $399 PlayStation 4 isn’t enough, and in many ways derails the original purpose of the system. If Sony is to release the device globally, it’ll need to offer an identical library of apps to Roku and Apple TV, if not more.
Despite these shortcomings, the PS Vita TV has huge potential. The hardware is sleek, the games are compelling and it’s priced competitively. If Sony supports it properly, I see no reason why it can’t coexist with the PlayStation 4 and eventually surpass other microconsoles and set-top streaming boxes.
Published September 10, 2013 — 13:00 UTC