Is the PS Vita A Device Ahead of Its Time or Behind It?

With its big, bright screen, ability to sense touch and motion, and controls that mimic a home game console's, Sony's Playstation Vita delivers the sort of gaming that approaches what you might expect to experience in your den. But is that what gamers still want?

I've spent the past week with a PS Vita, enjoying its smart design, its cleverly crafted games, its luxurious screen and two thumb sticks. I also spent the week wondering whether this was a gaming machine that's come too late.

The growing ubiquity of gaming, the ability to play games on laptops, tablets, digital books and smartphones, undermines the value of carrying around a device that can only game. That doesn't mean that there's no market for dedicated portable gaming machines, just that they face new challenges.

Where portable gaming once had to deliver an experience simply better than not gaming on the go at all, now it has to overcome the advent of micro and casual games, time-killers like Angry Birds, Words With Friends and Bejeweled. These smaller, bite-sized experiences can be purchased anywhere, anytime with a short download for little money. But more importantly, they're playable on devices that people may be carrying around to read a book, to do some work, to make a phone call.

The PS Vita is a delightful gaming machine, but its dedication to the experience of gaming brings with it the requirement that gamers plan ahead. Its over-sized screen, multitude of inputs and controls means that this isn't a device you can simply slip into your pocket and forget about. When planning a trip to Manhattan last week, I had to decide if I wanted to bring a bag simply to carry the Vita with me. I decided against it, opting instead to rely on my phone to help kill the hour-and-a-half trip ahead of me.

Having said that, I found myself regretting that decision on the return trip. Why? Because the Vita's experience is so robust that it can outweigh its inconvenience. The trick will be for Sony to convince people of that.

The Vita is shaped a bit like an over-sized, fatter Playstation Portable. Players can use the touch-sensitive 5-inch OLED screen to interact with games or trace their fingers along the device's back to play games that way. The Vita also has two cameras, one facing forward and the other back, and can sense motion. There are also buttons on the top corners of the Vita. The device's lush screen is bookended by controls including a directional pad, four buttons and two thumbsticks. It may not sound like much, but adding a second thumbstick to the already vast array of controls is in many ways a game changer for portables. That second stick means that the Vita's controls are close approximations to what players have in their hands when gaming on the Vita's big brother, the Playstation 3. So the experience of gaming on the go can now feel like the experience of gaming at home. That's a big deal.

Another big deal is how cleverly the games I sampled played with the Vita's array of control mechanics. Some games had me tilting the device to balance my character while using the twin thumbsticks to move. Others had me tickling the Vita's underbelly to virtually push up through the device's screen. In some cases, the experience of playing on the Vita was better than the playing at home.

ModNation Racers is a Playstation 3 game that allows you to create your own drivers, karts and tracks and then race with friends. But the process of crafting can be tedious when done with thumbsticks and buttons. The Vita version of the game, ModNation Racers: Roadtrip has players using the touch screen and back panel to draw creations with their fingers. It's not just easier, it's much more fun.

The Playstation Vita launched in Japan with a bang last month, but the second week of sales for the device saw a significant drop. The device is set for a $250, Feb. 22 release in the U.S. Sony has one last opportunity, with this month's Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, to prove to a broad audience in North America why they should buy something built to do one thing, but do it very well.

Some pundits have suggested the best way to do that is to drop the price. I'm sure that would help, but I think the better option is to prove that the experience of gaming on the Vita outweighs the inconvenience of owning an over-sized dedicated portable gaming system.

It's doubtful that the Vita will become a system that redefines who games, but redefining how one games on the go should be enough to allow it some success.

Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.

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