Why Smart Phones Won’t Take Down The PS Vita

Ben Bajarin / February 29th, 2012

The question that was raised at the initial announcement of the PS Vita was whether or not a dedicated mobile gaming unit could survive in a world where casual mobile games on smart phones exist. The answer is of course it can and there are several key reasons why.

To set the foundation I will again remind our readers of the jobs to be done philosophy as laid out by Clayton Christensen. Consumers hire products for specific jobs or tasks. Consumers acquire products to fill a void or fulfill a need. Smart phones are not hired to be gaming devices. They are hired to be communication devices. Browsing the web, playing games, running other non-communication apps are, all icing on the cake but the core reason this product is purchased or hired is to communicate. Dedicated mobile gaming devices like the PS Vita on the other hand are hired to be gaming platforms. And because of this the Vita is built intentionally for gamers, where smart phones are not. Two specific areas where this stands out are with the physical gaming buttons and battery life.

Physical Gaming Buttons
Because the smart phone lacks physical gaming buttons, my view is that it is a casual gaming platform. Meaning not something you will sit and play games for hours upon hours. I am not saying this is not possible only that for those who taking gaming seriously and consider themselves core gamers, the smart phone is not the device of choice. Rather, gamers sit for hours and play PS3, XBOX 360, etc, and they are used to the nuances of physical control buttons and believe for many immersive games they are necessary.

I have tried to play many of my favorite console games on my iPhone or iPad like EA’s Madden Football, or FPS games like Modern Warfare and they simply are not the same.

The PS Vita provides the most comprehensive console experience on a mobile device that I have encountered yet. It brings a full fledged gaming experience that hard core gamers know and love. Sony has also some great features that tie the PS Vita into their Playstation ecosystem. Things like online multiplayer gaming where you can play online with friends who are playing on the PS3 while you play on the PS Vita and vice-versa. Or transfering saved games or pausing points while playing PS3 and picking up where you left off with the Vita. Those are the kinds of holistic gaming experiences that get me excited about the state of the video game industry again.

Battery Life
The next big stand out is battery life. Even if we were to make the argument that the smart phone could become a central gaming platform for hardcore gamers the device would still have a battery life issue. The simple truth is you can not sit and play a game on your smart phone for hours upon hours and expect the device to last all day. Considering consumers hire smart phones to be communcation devices, I doubt that the trade off to play games and not be able to communicate becase of a dead device by the afternoon would be worth it. Again it comes back to the role or the job the product is built, designed, then hired to accomplish.

The PS Vita has good battery life considering the large OLED screen and great graphics. In my relatively conservative hour and half to two hour a day gaming sessions with the Vita I could go easily go several days without charging. In fact the bulk of my use with the device came during my recent trip to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress. I had many long plane rides and the Vita never died on me. In fact I only needed to charge it twice the entire trip of 6 days.

This is why there is a role for specific products built for a specific purpose. These devices may not appeal to everyone but they appeal to those who know they need it. I view this similar as a truck. Not everyone needs one but those who do could not work / live without it.

The bottom line is that there are a large group of consumers out there who have no desire to play video games for long lengths of time. Therefore a device like a smart phone will easily cater to those non-core gamers who want play games casually and to kill time. However, for those who are hard core gamers, and they know it, a smart phone will not suffice, and they know it.

You could however make an interesting case that the iPad or an Android tablet paired with a game controller could meet the needs of the core gamer. I could go for that argument but for the time the full ecosystem is not quite there. For example, from a gaming perspective, I am fully vested in both Sony’s and Microsoft’s online gaming systems. I have a core group of friends, games, achievements, etc, all tied to those platforms. The iPad with Game Center is getting there but still lacks the depth of something like XBOX live in my opinion when it comes to catering to the needs of hard care gamers. This shift could happen at some point in time but as for right now I am still convinced that dedicated mobile gaming platforms have a place in the market. Considering Sony announced they have sold well over 1.2 million Vita’s since the launch I’d say consumers agree as well.

Next Column: Why Microsoft Should Make an XBOX Mobile Game Console

Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio
  • Nicolas Howell1466

    Thank you!!! This is what I’ve been saying forever, I have the 4S and while it’s literally the best phone out there when it comes to gaming it still truly lacks the core elements to make games enjoyable. I have a 3DS and a Vita and from the 3 of those gaming devices, I prefer the Vita any day

  • Ben, I used to agree with your concept. For example, years ago people were saying that everyone would have a computer that would run their home. I said I didn’t want that. Instead, I wanted lots of small, isolated computers that would each have their own task. That way, if a computerized item went down, it wouldn’t take everything in the house with it.

    As it turns out, I was partially correct. At this time it looks as if there will be separated tiny computers running different aspects or devices of my home. However, they will be wirelessly interlinked and I’ll have one unit that is capable of controlling them all. The advantage is having separate dedicated units with one controller for them all. It would seem that people like the convergence.

    Respectfully, you’re missing this convergence. You’re correct that people want something that has a specific purpose, but they want a controller that converges all of those devices. Smartphones are excellent for that. They have the ability to modify the screen so that it will transform into, for example, a gaming device. If you want physical controllers, you spend $30 or less for a small device that clips onto your phone. They’re already available. Similarly, there are currently dongles for phones that allow you to control your TV better than any TV remote. I predict that current TV remotes will be replaced with WiFi instead of IR, eliminating the need for a dongle.

    Sony is already looking at making a combination game/smartphone device. Just as smartphones and tablets have destroyed the netbook market, it is almost inevitable that they will replace handheld gaming. However, you are correct that people look for specific solutions to specific problems. It is also likely that rather than have handheld gaming devices that can play any game you buy, you will be able to get an inexpensive handheld device that will play one or two games that are locked in memory if the device is both cleverly designed and inexpensive.

    • benbajarin

      I am not discounting that convergence can some day happen but that is not today nor is it in the for-seeable future. Battery life technology for one is simply not there and won’t be for a while to do any serious long gaming sessions on a device that is primarily a cell phone.

      Again I look at this similar to cars. There isn’t one car to rule them all, the car industry never converged, per se, however it segmented and has cars that cater to consumer preference. Of course some markets for cars are larger than others but that doesn’t change the fact that there are many choices and options.

      Also take for example construction. The market for hammers is fascinating. There is a general purpose hammer that works for most consumers. However framers, and other specialty workers, have hammers designed specifically for the task of framing. Again it is not a large market but there is a market for it.

      My point is there is a market for dedicated gaming devices and the evidence of consumer choice is prevalent throughout other post mature consumer product markets. I’m not sold that technology products are different than many other consumer product industries that have specific segmentation.

      Again the issue is how big the market is not whether there is a market.

      • Doug Petrosky

        The difference between the examples you site and technology is that for a tech market to be viable it has to be at least a minimum size to attract quality developers. Compare Vita to iOS. Over 50 million units sold last quarter and the transition to OS X via the Mac AppStore means very little outlay to get access to another 5+ million units in a single quarter. And those numbers are growing quickly year over year. Compare that to your 1.2 million units (understood in limited distribution initially) but also with a great deal of anticipation. I’d say Vita numbers have to grow to between 5 and 10 million units in the next couple quarters or their developer appeal will be too low reach critical mass.

        Also, dedicated consoles have a 3-5 year product cycle and the Vita will be lucky to keep up with the iPhone released in 6 months let alone the one shipped a year and a half from now. Time will tell but it looks bad IMHO.

        • benbajarin

          I don’t disagree with that. I may do some formal market sizing analysis of this in the near future. I do think that developers that target a more console like experience are different than casual game developers. But that is up for debate.

          Let me throw another point in this conversation just to mix it up. WHat if MSFT did an XBOX mobile console and tied it to live, Metro etc? I wrote a column on that subject today:

          http://techpinions.com/why-microsoft-should-make-an-xbox-mobile-console/5715

          Curious what you think.

          At the end of the day hardware is just a touch point to other services or software which is where the real opportunities are. So I do imagine in the future there will be a large amount of hardware variation to meet segmented or specialized needs of the market, only that hardware needs to be tied to an overall ecosystem play where software and services drive long term value.

  • Doug Petrosky

    Someone has to disagree with you and I guess it will be me. The lack of physical controls is one that can will and has been solved for serious gamers. Currently it is through bluetooth but in the future, I’d expect that USB interfaces will also show up and because of the requiset bulk of a controller it is reasonable to even include additional battery life as well (although I don’t think it is necessary).

    Also, hard core ‘old school’ gamers may require physical controls, but kids who grow up with virtual controls will have less and less of an issue with them and game will be designed with touch interfaces in mind. So although those games that were designed for physical controls may always feel better with physical controls, games designed for touch and gyro will feel better without.

    1.2 Million units is not bad but lets put that into perspective. Last quarter Apple shipped more than 10 times that many iPod Touches 15 times that many iPads and 30 times that many iPhones. And android out sells iOS. So where are the developer resources going to go?

    If your argument was, the Vita is a better hard core gaming platform than phones, we would at least have something to discuss. (although I seriously doubt the Vita will get annual updates that keep it in line with the tech in phones). But to argue that phones and tablets are not going to kill the Vita requires that you burry your head in the sand or hold your hands over your ears and chant “I’m not listening!”.

    • benbajarin

      Thanks for the thoughts Doug and I don’t’ mind disagreement and healthy debate so I appreciate the comment.

      Your point is correct that my argument is that the Vita and dedicated gaming hardware is better for the “core gamer.” It is really a matter of technology along with hardware required to be competitive and the needs of that market. There is also a service component for multiplayer games that is coming with Game Center but not there yet. Could also get very interesting if MSFT brings XBOX Live to Win 8 and Windows phone etc in a pure gaming way not the way it is now.

      I do disagree however that physical buttons will get better, they will suffice but they simply can’t take the place of physical ones if one wants to be competitive. Why for example do PC gamers refuse to use controllers? They believe they have a competitive advantage with the speed and response of mouse etc. If you are playing a game like Modern warfare online, which is super competitive, you will spend any amount of money to get competitive advantage. The other thing I don’t like about soft buttons is that it takes away from screen real estate, which especially in a FPS (which is the biggest console franchise) is extremely important.

      Again, I can buy the logic of a controller paired with a tablet, ( I wish iPad supported this). But still being a “younger” hard core gamer I am yet to find on a smart phone or tablet something that compares in terms of needs of a service, and meets my needs to be competitive.

      Also many a young gamers still growing up spending hours using game controllers.

      As I said in the column the smart phone will meet the needs for many a casual gamer, including younger ones. But when the games dictate a level of competition that is where the hardware nuances will come in. There is nothing more frustrating than getting your clock cleaned in a multi-player online gaming session.

      Also in terms of Vita annual updates, I don’t think that is as necessary analogy to smart phones. The business of gaming is very different than the business of smart phones in many respects. However annual revenue in software, services etc is where the gaming hardware is designed to play.

      Again the real issue is how big the market is not whether there is a market. That i’m not sure of, however I view products like this as an ecosystem play. Something where its not a core business but one that supports a number of other strategic interests. Therefore it may not have to be that large, especially if other money is made in software or services.

      Also I hope its clear I am not saying this shift can never happen. Only that its not in the foreseeable future.

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