March 26th, 2011. I was the store manager of a GameStop in Northern Virginia, and although the store had closed an well over an hour ago, at 9:00 PM, I was still there. The wall of the store’s back counter was a symmetrical canvas of black and blue boxes. Piles of new games sat on the countertop, far away enough from the display to not distract, but well within reach. Hand-crafted signs trumpeted the following day, despite corporate’s stringent insistence that hand-crafted anything was a no-no. Finally, I stepped around the counter and looked at what the customers would see the following day. I was satisfied, and I left - with any luck, I’d get home by midnight so that I could sleep for seven hours before returning to the store in the morning.
March 27th, 2011. The 3DS launched. My store did fairly well with it, although the same couldn’t be said for many other stores in the area. The vast majority of our pre-order customers came in to pick up their system, and most of them purchased games to go with it. The most popular choices, far and away, were the Nintendo-published titles, especially Nintendogs & Cats. Several third-party games did fairly well, especially Madden and Street Fighter, but it was fairly clear that people had put their trust in Nintendo to deliver on quality games. ... Suffice to say, in the weeks and months that passed, that people found themselves disappointed. I was one of those people. I had debated about whether or not to buy a 3DS, but my time playing with the AR cards included with the system sold me. I purchased the blue model, along with Street Fighter and Samurai Warriors. Within a couple of months, my new 3DS had become my system of choice... for playing old DS games.
To say that the launch of the 3DS was not the best would be a gross understatement. I had regular customers who made it a point to come into my store to debate how long it would be before the 3DS failed completely. They brought with them talk of a new Sony handheld; one that would completely blow the 3DS out of the water. I watched the promotional material for the Vita, and the footage of games, and wondered if Nintendo had rushed things on their end. Even the re-release of Ocarina of Time didn’t seem to make much of an impact. But then came, in my opinion, one of the best ideas that Nintendo ever had - the massive price reduction.
On August 12th, the 3DS dropped in price significantly - from $250 down to $170. People panicked. A brand-new system dropped over 30% within six months of being released? The only news that seemed to circulate for the next few months that wasn’t Vita-related was that the 3DS was doomed. But something curious happened - the games that were released as part of the Ambassador program seemed to get people playing their 3DS again. Star Fox 64 sold far better than I imagined it would. This little game called Skylanders did well on the system, too, and then when a new Mario game was released in November people ate it up. All of a sudden, the 3DS was a hot item again. Nintendo’s risky move paid off.
Looking back now, it seems almost like another time when the 3DS was floundering. The game library for the system has grown by leaps and bounds, and the third-party support for the system has grown massively. I spent way too many hours playing Monster Hunter 3, farming for weapon and armor components - that was the first of the entries that I had ever played (and I’ve managed to keep away from 4 so far), but the amount of time and polish that was in the game was phenomenal. The Nintendo-published titles still sell extremely well. At this point, I think it’s fair to say that the 3DS is thriving.
But it wasn’t alone in this generation of handheld games.
In February of 2012, Sony’s answer to the 3DS launched. In my eyes, Sony’s marketing campaign for the Playstation Vita seemed fairly simple - the message that I got was along the lines of “This is a handheld console for grown-ups”. The system itself looked sleek as hell, and the game trailers promised graphics far and away above what the 3DS could pump out. It promised to be a system that would foster connectivity anywhere you were, and that would interact with you in a multitude of ways beyond gaming. It looked like the kind of thing that people would eat up, especially those who had to have the newest technological marvels.
The launch of the Vita wasn’t a disaster, but it was nowhere as smooth as it could have, should have been. The confusion started with the two models that Sony offered. One would only connect through Wi-Fi. The other model looked exactly the same, but would also connect through 3G. If you wanted to connect through 3G, however, you had to pay for the access. My memory isn’t the clearest, but I want to say that Sony had bundled items in with the 3G version (a memory card being the foremost among them - and we’ll get to those) to make it more appealing. What it did, essentially, was to make people view the Wi-Fi model as inferior. We had questions about the differences between the two models, enough of them that we created a sheet with the differences - or, in this case, difference. Singular. Sony’s marketing did a terrible job of explaining the difference between the two packages, and while my store covered it, I’m sure other stores didn’t.
Then, the memory cards. Oh, the memory cards. These little things were a giant pain in the ass. People asked us why they were so expensive. The best (and only) response we could give? “Because that’s how Sony decided to price them.” People balked at the idea of paying through the nose for a memory card, and we couldn’t blame them. My most regular customers (with the deepest pockets, as well - because my store was in an area with a pretty high median income) purchased the larger cards; most customers settled for a smaller one and the inconvenience of dealing with them. We groaned about the memory cards and their pricing, and assured ourselves that Sony would come to their senses and drop the prices on them.
As of this post, Amazon is still selling 32GB cards for $62. List price is still $100. A 32GB thumb drive is $11. A 32 GB Micro-SD card is $13. It’s been three and a half years. We’ve moved past “ridiculous”, and into “absurd”. I don’t think you can say that the memory card snafu killed the Vita, but it sure caused damage.
But the games! The games showed such promise! Sony told us about the Vita versions of games like Uncharted and Killzone - games so good that you would forget you were playing on a handheld system! ... That didn’t quite pan out. The problem with having too many “gimmicks” on a system is that the developer can be forced to shoehorn ways to use them into their games. The 3DS’s main gimmick, typically, was the touch screen - not always the most intuitive option, but it was generally the only one. The Vita, though, had dual analog sticks, a touch screen, and a touch pad on the back. Sony seemed determined to make sure that the games utilized as many of these features as possible, even when it didn’t fit smoothly into the game. Some games did it quite well; most did not.
In addition, while the system hit the “after-launch” lull that most new systems do in terms of new games, it never really seemed to recover from it. Sony’s first-party game release calendar for the Vita shrank, gradually... and gradually... until it was almost non-existent. It became a Catch-22; Sony didn’t want to spend the time and resources to make quality games for the Vita because people weren’t buying them, and people weren’t buying the Vita because of the lack of quality games. Price drops and a new model helped to slow the decline of the Vita, but without dedicated game support, they were only bandages over an ever-growing wound.
One telling story comes from my personal experiences with the Vita. In mid-to-late 2012, as sales declined, Sony decided to hold “Vita training sessions” for GameStop store managers and assistant managers. This consisted of us attending a presentation where Sony executives talked about all the features of the Vita, showed off what it could do, and hyped up its future. Additionally, to help sell the Vita, each attendee walked away with the 3G model for free - so that the attendees could purchase the games for themselves and experience how fantastic the system was.
Going to that event sent me a pretty clear message - Sony had no faith in the Vita, and they didn’t know how to fix it. They wanted us to do it for them. After that event, my conversations about the Vita changed, but only slightly. Instead of “I don’t have a Vita, it’s a bit too expensive right now”, I would say “Well, I have a Vita, but I don’t really use it much, I’m waiting for (x).” I appreciated having a Vita, in case there were games I wanted to play. ... I still have a Vita. I don’t think it’s been powered on for two years now. The last game I purchased for it was Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward. I played it for all of 20 minutes before switching to the 3DS version and 100%ing it there.
Having worked through the launch of both systems, it’s easy to look back and see the mistakes that both companies made. In a way, they’re very similar - both companies tried to push too much too quickly. Nintendo banked on the 3DS movement sweeping people up and making their system a must-buy, even without quality games. Sony banked on people wanting an all-in-one device that could handle quality games, music, videos, and more. The difference, I think, is in their reactions once the initial plan failed. Nintendo dropped the entry cost to their system and doubled down on the lifeblood of the system - the games. Sony looked for ways to convince people that yes, buying a Vita was a great idea - price drops were slow to come and not terribly impactful. I’m not surprised that only one of the systems is thriving today, though I’m a bit saddened by it. Competition is what truly drives innovation, in any medium. I’m hopeful that the next round of handhelds can keep innovating the industry to be even better.