By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
Despite a small but loyal fanbase that says otherwise and Sony’s reluctance to say so officially, the Vita is currently taking its last breaths. There aren’t too many analysts or “experts” that would put their necks out and predict that Sony will take a third attempt at a dedicated gaming handheld, so by most indications, the company’s dalliance with that market will end when the Vita does. Unfortunately, when Sony officially exits the handheld market, it is likely going to leave a number of franchises to retire alongside its two(ish) portable devices.
It’s no big revelation that the current gaming market is largely one of extremes: You’ve got your huge, AAA games on one end, and your smaller indie games on the other. Much like the United States’ vanishing middle class, there isn’t much in the way of game releases that are bigger than indie but smaller than AAA. For brevity’s sake, let’s call such games AA from here on out. Even the video game companies in the best financial shape have to largely hedge their bets on just a small number of surefire franchise releases each year, mixed in with the occasional new IP. And when a company has narrowed its portfolio down to just a few properties, you’d better believe that only the biggest ones are going to make the cut. In Sony’s case, this means Uncharted, God of War, Killzone, Ratchet & Clank, Gran Turismo, and maybe a couple of others. As anyone who has been a PlayStation fan since the beginning knows, that leaves a lot of franchises languishing in perpetual limbo.
That is exactly what makes handheld platforms so great. Starting with the PSP, Sony found a new, viable home for series like Syphon Filter, Wipeout, MediEvil, The Getaway, and others that didn’t quite have the cache to justify multi-million-dollar PS3 games, but could thrive on a more modest platform that didn’t require a game to sell 5 million units just to break even. In addition, the PSP offered the opportunity to pad out some of their PS3 franchises with smaller (but still substantial) entries, keeping gamers happy as they waited what was sometimes years for the next console installment. In the three year gap between God of War II and III, Sony treated gamers to two full-fledged GoW adventures on the PSP. There was also an extension of the Jak & Daxter universe with Daxter, and two additional Ratchet & Clank games. Of course, third-party publishers took advantage of this as well, resulting in titles like the two PSP Grand Theft Auto games. But Sony in particular was definitely able to keep much more of its portfolio active when it had a less-risky, less-expensive alternative to release games other than just the PS3. It also allowed the company to take risks with its franchises that it couldn’t afford to in the main series, such as the isometric Killzone: Liberation and the third-person Resistance: Retribution (the latter of which is arguably as good as any of that franchise’s PS3 installments). And we haven’t even touched on the quirky first-party franchises that made their debut on PSP, like LocoRoco and Patapon, and who have yet to make it past that platform. If they didn’t come to Vita, they certainly won’t be coming to PS4 and beyond.
Alas, as we’ve seen since the PSP’s death, not having an outlet for many of these AA franchises has meant they have simply disappeared (again). Ditto for the stop-gap and spin-off games for active franchises to keep fans busy while they wait years for the real sequel. The Vita showed early promise of this with its Uncharted game, but with sales of the Vita being so soft, it wasn’t long before Sony largely abandoned continuing that tradition on their second-generation handheld. And it proves that Sony is mostly unwilling to–or just uninterested in–finding other ways to keep alive the franchises they resurrected on the PSP, or other franchises on that level that have largely been dormant since the PS2 and PS1, as they’ve yet to make an appearance beyond the PSP. Sure, there’s always PSN for those smaller types of games, but Sony doesn’t seem interested in creating smaller-scale versions of their franchises as PSN games, instead mostly using the service for new indie games and HD remasters of their classic games.
With the unlikelihood of there ever being another Sony gaming handheld and the continued focus by the company to only keep its select handful of money-making franchises going, it seems like those series that made a brief return on the PSP will be relegated to going right back in the vault for the foreseeable future, only trotted out when Sony needs some characters to pad the roster for a motion-controlled party game or lackluster Smash Bros. clone.