The Vita Launch From the Eyes of a Japanese Developer

Q Entertainment's James Mielke talks about the state of mobile gaming, the Vita launch, and the promise of Sony's new ultrapowerful handheld.

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Sony's new gaming handheld, the PS Vita, is now available in Japan and while the full North American launch is not until February 22, the Japanese release gives us an early glimpse into the hardware, its games, its technology, and even its early issues. We asked Q Entertainment's James Mielke to give his perspective on where mobile gaming is at in Japan , some early impressions of the Vita, and his perspective on the Vita as a developer.

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On Mobile Gaming

"Mobile gaming is something to occupy your fingers on the bus or train to work, or a means to while away the lunch hour. But as casual consumers slowly but surely allow mobile games and apps to invade their lives, their expectations for audiovisual sophistication and gameplay mechanics will also surely increase as they once did for the first generations of arcade gamers in the '80s and '90s…"Continue reading.

On the Vita Hardware

"The reason the Vita is so cool is that I could imagine a portable Dark Souls or Skyrim running on this thing. Play at home, do a little "transfarring" (transferring cloud saves) to the Vita, play during lunch, and then resume your progress at home. Or just play on the Vita completely…"Continue reading.

On Mobile Gaming

Full disclosure: I'm a game developer. I'm also on the verge of wrapping up my first game on the Vita, which also happens to be my first experience with a launch game for a system. So while it's in my best interests for the new PS Vita to do well, I think it's also important for our video game hobby in general for it to do well, so I'm penning my thoughts here as a fellow gamer first, and as a developer second.

One thing I want to get out of the way from the start is that I don't think "hardcore" video gaming is going anywhere soon. Sony and Nintendo are too big and too stubborn to just lie down and die because low-priced iPhone and Android apps have suddenly grabbed a huge chunk of the gaming market. I do realize, however, that the gaming landscape is indeed shifting, and it's shifting fast. If anything, mobile gaming is like the rebirth of arcade gaming. Quick plays and low cost equal quick fix.

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Q Entertainment's Lumines: Electronic Symphony

That's the prescription for people on the go, and especially for people who aren't dedicated gaming enthusiasts. Mobile gaming is something to occupy your fingers on the bus or train to work, or a means to while away the lunch hour. But as casual consumers slowly but surely allow mobile games and apps to invade their lives, their expectations for audiovisual sophistication and gameplay mechanics will also surely increase as they once did for the first generations of arcade gamers in the '80s and '90s. Even your mom has probably played Ms. Pac-Man, and so it goes today, with Angry Birds replacing that venerable dot muncher.

If anything, mobile gaming is a reinvention of the things we know (games designed for a touch screen have led to a wealth of innovation in which restriction--like "fewer buttons"--has been the critical factor). Consider movies versus television. The motion picture industry once feared the advent of television, believing that having a TV set in every household would negate the need for movies and movie theaters. The same goes for the gaming industry. Just because we love a bargain and have become enamored with high-quality, low-priced games does not mean the $40-to-$60 triple-A behemoths are going anywhere soon. But the gaming industry certainly needs to adjust.

My mentor at Q Entertainment--Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Lumines, Child of Eden)--told me about how he had once viewed video game consoles, such as the NES and Genesis, as kids' toys. He could afford that view at the time since he was working at one of the game industry's most successful arcade development divisions, Sega AM3. But it wasn't long before high-powered, $10,000 arcade boards and cabinets gave way to $200 consoles with low-priced chipsets. People no longer had to trek out to arcades to get their gaming fix. That fix was now invading living rooms across the world.

"I know that anytime I pick up one of those handhelds I'm basically shifting to a stylistically different, slightly less capable gaming platform, and I'm totally OK with that…"
What I'm getting at is that while dedicated gaming machines (and by extension, dedicated portable gaming machines) are not yet dead, they are in dangerous need of refocusing, and Sony surely knows this. It's the truth when I say that my iPhone and iPad dominate my commute to work each day. I routinely scan Facebook and Twitter before checking my email (personal and work), before sliding over to look up the latest sports scores on ESPN's app, before viewing some pics on Instagram, and before rounding back to Twitter to see if anyone has responded to my latest barrage of nonsense. If I fire up a game, it's a quick one. I'm usually loading up Plants vs. Zombies (and wishing it had a kill counter) or plowing deeper into Infinity Blade II.

My PSP and DS usage (I don't own a 3DS, yet) varies, but I occasionally invest serious time in either of those devices when an anticipated new game comes out. With the PSP and DS, I knew that I was basically going to be settling for less. That's not a knock. It's just a fact. I know that anytime I pick up one of those handhelds I'm basically shifting to a stylistically different, slightly less capable gaming platform, and I'm totally OK with that, because I know what to expect. But the PS Vita is different.

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In Japan (where the PS Vita just launched), up until about a week or so before launch this past weekend, it was almost impossible to secure a preorder for a Wi-Fi model. The combination Wi-Fi/3G model could be found, which is most likely due to its higher price and added 3G service costs. Stories circulating around the Internet suggest that 700,000 units have shipped at launch, even though "shipped" and "sold through" aren't quite the same things. Still, considering how successful the PSP has been in Japan (during 2011 it was frequently the highest-selling game system, week after week), I wouldn't be surprised.

I'm also not surprised about the timing of the release of Monster Hunter 3G for the 3DS. Despite whatever corporate stances companies take, actions speak louder than words--everything Nintendo has done in 2011 regarding the 3DS seems like a fortuitously timed intervention of all things Vita, which reveals just how seriously Nintendo takes Sony's new portable. The PSP is, after all, the only handheld gaming system to step onto Nintendo's turf and win. Take Nintendo's timing in announcing its startling $100 price drop for the 3DS. Sure, it was to boost lagging sales of the struggling system, but the drop also came after Sony had already publicly committed to a $250-to-$300 price range for its two Vita models.

Less obvious, but no less significant, was Nintendo's pre-Tokyo Game Show media event, which took place a day before Sony's eventual, tedious Vita event. Was it a coincidence? And then this month, Nintendo announced only two weeks before the Vita went on sale that the 3DS had surpassed the first-year sales accomplishments of the original DS. It was a dubious distinction for sure, but a notable announcement nevertheless on the veritable eve of the Vita's impending launch. Despite how far the PSP has sunk saleswise in recent years in the States, it actually outlasted the Nintendo DS on its home turf. Monster Hunter was pretty much the reason for that, but even when you take Monster Hunter out of the equation, there's still a whole ream of factors that explain why a PSP is a common sight on a Tokyo train.

"The PSP succeeded here in Japan for reasons that just don't translate to other territories…"
The PSP is actually a pretty cool device. While I personally stick to an iPod for my music listening (because having a 160GB iPod is better than carrying around a ton of Sony memory sticks), the PSP does a lot of cool things. It stores photos, movie files, and music; connects to the Internet and PSN Store nicely; and plays games in a variety of formats (UMD and downloadable). Plus, people in Japan look at the PSP as a much more stylish accessory than the DS. Boys, girls, men, and women can be seen carrying PSPs around on trains and buses in Tokyo, whereas other portable gaming devices are seen much less frequently. From what I've heard in the industry's back alleys, Sony Computer Entertainment Japan is bullish on the Vita's prospects. However, Japan is much different from the rest of the world. The PSP succeeded here in Japan for reasons that just don't translate to other territories (Monster Hunter and proximity to other people playing Monster Hunter). The Vita may change all that thanks to ad hoc, Wi-Fi, and 3G capabilities.

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Nintendo's not-so-secret weapon.

Working on Lumines Electronic Symphony has been an eye-opening experience, mostly because of a tight timeline and ever-evolving firmware, but also because the Vita presents some interesting challenges. Most of the industry is allocating its development dollars to smartphones, because dev costs are cheaper, dev time is shorter, and profits are potentially enormous since so many people are carrying around an iPhone. You don't spend over $2 million on development for most iOS games, but you can--if you get the right exposure--make your money back exponentially via a slew of business models, like free-to-play or low-cost price points, and in-game purchasing.

While these models aren't excluded from Sony's policy on Vita game sales, the first few waves of games will stick to the tried-and-true practice of "you give us money, we give you the game." That's a harder, riskier strategy with every passing day. If you spend one to two years working on a game, and your make-or-break period is in the first two to four weeks of sales, that's a huge risk. Games designed to get into the hands of as many people as possible (free to play) with postlaunch monetization have a better chance of profitability, which is how developers stay in business. The trick is that most people view free games as bad games, so to overcome that stigma, we're going to have to create better, more-compelling games that are fun to play, regardless of price, and hope the masses come.

In terms of strict hardware power, the Vita is a good machine. We can do a lot of things with it, whether they're solitary experiences or games designed to connect lots of people. It's hard to predict how any of this will pan out, but I always hope there's a place for beautiful games for core players. But it's on developers and publishers to create the experiences people will want to play, and that's going to be the key to success for the Vita, and for gaming going forward.

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The Vita Hardware

The Vita sticks to the widescreen dimensions of the PSP, although it is a little bigger. For people who would complain about its bigger-than-PSP size, I implore you to recall the Game Gear or Nomad, and let us not forget how big the iPad is now (even though it's not a dedicated gaming device). In other words, the Vita is still a very portable device.

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Line at the Bic Camera.

So how do I feel about the Vita now that I have one in my hands? Well, for starters, despite the preorder madness for Wi-Fi Vitas in Japan, I was able to walk into a Bic Camera (which is a large electronics chain in Japan) and simply buy one. Still, the Bic I went to in Shin-Yokohama had fewer than 10 of the Wi-Fi models left. I wanted to buy a 32GB memory card--which is exorbitantly priced at over $150--but those are impossible to find unless you preordered one months ago. So I settled for a 16GB card, which came out to approximately $70. I know these memory cards add a lot to the base price of the Vita, but at least the Vita is region-free, so you don't have to buy one for North American games and one for Japanese games. Speaking of games, I bought two: Everybody's Golf 6 and Shinobido 2. My friends asked me, "Why didn't you buy Uncharted?!" to which my answer is that I will, but I'm waiting for the North American version.

Everybody's Golf 6 is one of those games that I can play forever. It's relaxing, bright, and colorful, and it's easy to play. Clap Hanz has kept the ship that Camelot started sailing smoothly for a long while now, and although it feels like a typical launch title (and a tad sluggish at 30fps), it's still good fun. Since I operate on a dad's budget, I could afford to get only one other game, so I chose Shinobido 2, a Tenchu clone.

Shinobido 2 is definitely not in the same visual league that Uncharted for the Vita is. Though it runs at a high frame rate and is fun to play, it looks more like a high-resolution PlayStation 2 game. Still, it's more Shinobido, so I'm happy about that. This is not an import-friendly game, though; it is menu-heavy, and the menus are completely in Japanese. If you're interested in this game, wait for the English version being published by Namco Bandai as Shinobido 2: Revenge of Zen.

At a recent Vita event for the media, held by Sony in New York City, I had a chance to try two games that I'll definitely be picking up soon: FIFA and Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Both games look absolutely beautiful on the Vita's large high-def screen, but they play as well as their console counterparts. You can thank the two analog sticks in the case of FIFA. For UMVC3, I was conditioned to think of handheld versions as the bastard ports of the console versions. But after trying the Vita version of Capcom's fighter, I think this is the version (for me at least) to get. Since I don't really get to play games with my friends, I never sit down and devote lots of time to fighting games in front of my TV anymore. If I'm playing at home, it's usually something like Dark Souls or Skyrim.

And that's an important aspect of the Vita. The reason the Vita is so cool is that I could imagine a portable Dark Souls or Skyrim running on this thing. Play at home, do a little "transfarring" (transferring cloud saves) to the Vita, play during lunch, and then resume your progress at home. Or just play on the Vita completely.

In terms of hardware, the Vita is pretty much the perfect gaming console for me. It's a powerful machine--one look at it running a high-end game should convince any gaming enthusiast to want one. The screen is big and beautiful. If you're not excited for this piece of hardware, it's because you haven't seen one in person. I appreciate what this system does simply because I'm old enough to remember when we couldn't even imagine a machine with high-definition visuals like this. Technology is amazing, and the Vita is the peak of handheld gaming tech.

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The Vita's two analog sticks are a necessity, in my opinion, because I've suffered long enough with the PSP's sole analog nub. I don't believe that touch screen controls will ever satisfy me as much as sticks and buttons do, but it's nice having the best of both worlds on the Vita. I think to myself, "Wow, I can play a real first-person shooter on this." It's also nice not having to fumble around for peripherals, like a stylus. The Vita's face buttons (X, square, circle, and triangle) are a bit smaller than the PSP's, but they're much "clickier," so the response is more satisfying. Their placement is a little cramp-worthy for bigger hands, though, in particular the thumbsticks. Also less than optimal are the L and R shoulder buttons, which feel "soft" when pressed and don't have a satisfying click to let you know you've pressed them as far as they will go.

"If you're not excited for this piece of hardware, it's because you haven't seen one in person."
If you're thinking about picking up an import Vita, I'm glad to say--at least in regard to the Wi-Fi version-- that there's nothing that should hold you back if you can't wait. I have no idea if the 3G models will be compatible with carriers in the States, but you can switch all of the language and menu options to English, read official Sony English documentation in the Vita's Web browser (yes, the English language links are already live), and register your North American and, presumably, your European PSN accounts with the system. I have both Japanese and North American PSN accounts, but I registered the Japanese account since there's nothing on the North American PSN store relevant to the Vita just yet. I then registered my Vita to my PlayStation 3 and transferred PSP games like Monster Hunter Portable 3rd, and my game saves (conveniently stored there from my time with Monster Hunter Portable 3rd HD), from my PS3 to my Vita.

Since it was nice and sunny in the house the morning after I bought the system, I took some photos of my daughter and me with the Vita's built-in camera. The pics ended up being around 67KB in terms of file size, and they were passable, iPhone-quality shots. You won't be replacing your DSLR anytime soon with your Vita camera, but it's sufficient for taking snapshots and for gaming applications that make use of augmented reality. One thing you'll definitely want to invest in if you haven't already is a good pair of headphones. The Vita's built-in speakers aren't bad for what they are, but having firsthand experience developing a game in which the audio experience is key, I can tell you that what the Vita may lack in external audio punch, it more than makes up for with its in-headset audio. The Vita also sounds a bit louder than the PSP did, which is good because the PSP always sounded too low.

One thing I really like in the Vita's features department is the Near functionality. I didn't think I'd care about it much, but now that I've tried it, it's actually quite addictive and shares some characteristics with the 3DS's StreetPass feature. Near shows me who else is playing within my vicinity, and when my vicinity is Tokyo, that turns out to be a lot. One day after the Vita went on sale, I saw more than 30 people in my neighborhood via Near, and I live in a high, mountainous area filled with old people and families with young kids (as opposed to a more densely populated urban area like Shibuya). It's fun to see what those people are playing, especially when they're playing the same things I am, and I'm going to check out how many people I can connect with in central Tokyo soon.

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The other big connectivity plus is how the Vita suddenly makes your PSN friends list infinitely more useful and enjoyable. Compared to Xbox Live's well-designed friends list, my PSN friends list on the PS3 was much less meaningful. Although I could see what they were doing online--at least those who live in the same time zone--I never played online with them, and the amount of information PSN shared with me about my friends always seemed more of a hassle. For instance, why is the act of loading trophies always so slow? The friends tab in the Near feature on the Vita suddenly transforms my almost pointless PSN friends list into a live feed of what my pals are up to, which is exponentially more interesting, and I'm guessing it will only improve with time as Sony refines the firmware. One other thing I like about the Vita over the PSP is that you can now update the firmware as long as your Vita is plugged in. No more waiting for your battery to charge to full before you can update it.

One thing that I hope will improve over time is the overall Vita interface. I don't have any real, sincere issues with it, but I get the feeling that Sony was going out of its way to avoid replicating an iOS, Windows Phone, and Android block-based icon style--to its detriment. As a result, Sony designed something that was possibly--if I may romanticize it for a moment--designed to simulate the game pieces of the classic Chinese game Go. But in reality, they look like Mentos. [Editor's note: Ah yes, the Freshmaker.] Now, I like Mentos' minty charm as much as the next dude, but using spheres as opposed to rectangles gives you about 25 percent less space to communicate your game or app's identity on the Vita's screen. It also makes the menus look more haphazard than organized (although you can rearrange icon order and page color as you wish). I also think that the Vita's Mentos icons could use some polishing. Right now they look a little unfinished, if not quite jaggy. The ironic thing is that Sony practically pioneered square, grid-based icons with its original PlayStation memory cards. Maybe Sony just wanted to break from the standard, but I think the Mentos icons have room for improvement.

One other annoyance worth mentioning is the new PC-based data manager, creatively titled Content Manager Assistant. I still have bad memories of Sony's switch from its PSP Media Manager to the clunky MediaGo (to accommodate the PSP Go). I don't mind the Content Manager Assistant as much, but it annoys me that it's only on PC. That's probably because much of Japan still uses Internet Explorer and Windows XP, but come on--is it too much trouble to get a Mac version?

"The other big connectivity plus is how the Vita suddenly makes your PSN friends list infinitely more useful and enjoyable."
A few other random tidbits: LiveTweet for the Vita--a free, day-one launch app on the PSN Store--is one of the nicest Twitter apps I've seen, and it's fun to use. Second, although it is not as nice-looking as the HD version on the PS3, Monster Hunter Portable 3rd looks great running on my Vita. I'm looking forward to taking it for a spin with the other Vita Monster Hunter junkies at work to see if the right analog stick makes a huge difference. Third, the new peel interface (in which you press the PS Home button to exit an app and peel the page down to close it) is very nice and is intuitive to use. The D-pad is also a nice improvement over the PSP's, which felt stiff. I attribute this to the fact that the entire Vita D-pad is exposed, so your thumb doesn't feel like it's fighting with the surface of the device, which plagued the PSP's D-pad. It's also less likely to get gummed up as a result of heavy use, hopefully.

The power cord on the Vita debug units I have at work feature a conventional plug, similar to the PSP's power cord. But the retail Vita units have a proprietary two-part power cord; one end fits into your AC outlet, while the other half--which plugs into your Vita--has a unique connector, which is roughly the same size as a mini-HDMI jack. The opposite end of this cable is a standard-size USB connector, which fits into the AC plug to recharge, and it also doubles as a connector to your PS3 (which, based on menu options, can also recharge your Vita via USB power).

The pricey memory unit came packaged in a tiny plastic blister pack, within a disproportionately large cardboard sleeve. The memory unit is so small and so tough to get out of the plastic enclosure that I was sure I'd unintentionally launch this thing across the room, never to find my $100 investment again. Luckily that didn't happen, and I was able to slot it into its tiny compartment at the bottom of the Vita. The game cartridges go into a compartment at the top of the system, under a small attached compartment cover. The cover keeps dust out and maintains a nice look to the unit overall, but I wonder if it will hold up to repeated openings over the years. After all, no Nintendo portable device has ever needed a cartridge cover, so I wonder why Sony felt the need to cover these slots.

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Picking up some extra goods.

Speaking of cartridges, I'm personally glad that the Vita uses either cartridges or digital downloads to deliver its games and not leftover MiniDiscs doing double duty as UMDs. In theory, this reduces loading times (although loading times still do definitely exist on the Vita), but more importantly, it reduces the number of moving parts in the system, which makes Vitas more durable and subject to less wear and tear as well as fewer breakable parts. That trapdoor for UMDs on the PSP always seemed so fragile, and if I was playing a game in bed in the middle of the night, the whirring of the disc drive always annoyed my sleeping wife. Carts come in standard sizes of 2GB and 4GB, which should be plenty for any game created for the Vita. I can't imagine that a game that would require a double-cartridge set would ever be profitable.

One of the smart things Sony is doing is making sure that all retail games have digital download versions. This offers consumers convenience if they want a game quickly and don't care about packaged goods. It keeps titles available long after the physical print run has dried up, and whether you agree with this sentiment or not, it helps offset the losses created by piracy and the used-game market--both of which hurt the industry. As a result, you can expect to see lots of North American game publishers--like Xseed--bringing over some cool, niche Japanese titles as digital downloads with no physical versions, to cut down on manufacturing costs. I don't know how long it will be until physical cart- or disc-based games go away completely, but we're heading in that direction.

Ultimately, I bought a Vita because I still value high-quality games that I can control with buttons and sticks, as well as touch screens. It has a beautiful screen, and while it does all the social networking things, I like that it's designed as a game system and not as a smartphone. Maybe few people care about this distinction, but I'm one of the holdouts.

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