Aug. 15, 2012 at 3:06 PM ET
Sony's newest gaming handheld, the PlayStation Vita, hasn't exactly been flying off shelves. But the electronics giant isn't taking the powerful gadget's underwhelming sales laying down. This week Sony has come out with its Vita guns blazing — tempting gamers with intriguing new titles and new features.
From the delightful looking paper-craft game "Tearaway" to the intense gun-for-hire action of "Killzone: Mercenary," Sony took the wraps off several new PlayStation Vita games as the Gamescom gaming convention got under way in Germany Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Sony also revealed some soon-to-launch new Vita features — Cross Buy and Cross Play — designed to lure in gamers who've thus far been reluctant to fork out $249 to $299 for the device.
The PlayStation Vita launched in December to strong reviews (including ours) but mediocre sales. Last week Sony Worldwide Studio’s President Shuhei Yoshida admitted to the official PlayStation magazine that "we're having a more difficult time than we had anticipated" getting third-party publishers to deliver games for the Vita.
Meanwhile, though Sony Computer Entertainment of America president Jack Tretton told GamesIndustry.biz that Vita sales have been "acceptable," earlier this month Sony reported a first-quarter loss of 24.6 billion yen ($316 million) thanks in part to sluggish game machine and game software sales. Consequently, Sony has had to significantly reduce its Vita sales predictions for the fiscal year.
Though we here at In-Game gave the Vita — with its front and back touchscreens and dual analog sticks —very good reviews when it launched (see video below), it's not a surprise to see the gadget struggling at retail.
Gamers have balked at the price tag as well as the $40 games and the expensive memory cards. Meanwhile, smartphones and tablets and their pocket change-priced games have forever altered the portable gaming landscape. As Nintendo discovered with the 3DS last year, dedicated handheld game machines are a far tougher sale these days.
Speaking of which, Michael Pachter, game analyst for Wedbush Securities, says he believes the Nintendo's 3DS game machine "which has a greater number of iconic brands and a lower price point" is also hurting Vita sales.
And he doesn't expect things to get much better for Vita in the months to come. "I don't think that Vita will sell well at all next year, and expect sales to be flat at best, more likely down," he told me in an email interview.
He believes the only thing Sony could truly do to boost sales is cut the Vita's price. (After all, it worked for the 3DS.) But so far, Sony has shown no inclination to do so.
The other thing that might help, he says: exclusive games. Indeed, games remain the particularly good reason to buy a Vita or Nintendo 3DS for that matter. That is, if you want deep, robust gaming experiences, then you want a portable game machine not just a phone or tablet that happens to play games.
On Tuesday Sony earned oohs and ahhs from the audience at its Gamescom press conference as it revealed "Tearaway" — the first new game from Media Molecule, the development outfit that brought us the gorgeous, delightfully creative LittleBigPlanet games.
"Tearaway" brings to life a world made of paper along with a creature named Iota who has an important message to deliver. Check out this trailer for a look at how the game makes clever use of the Vita's back touchscreen and gyroscope:
For those looking for something more gritty, Sony revealed the newest installment in the "Killzone" franchise — "Killzone: Mercenary." The Vita-exclusive game is a completely new take on the Killzone shooters and one that also makes use of the gadget's touchscreen when it comes to executing some particularly brutal moves. Check it out here:
During its press conference, Sony also revealed the first gameplay footage from the Vita-exclusive "Call of Duty: Black Ops Declassified" which will let fans of the hugely popular shooting franchise take the multiplayer action on the go.
Additonally, "LittleBigPlanet Vita" and "Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation" are launching Sept. 25 and Oct. 30 respectively — and could give the Vita a much-needed sales boost this holiday season.
All in all, these exclusive Vita games could be the device's saving grace. But Sony is further sweetening the pot with new features designed to emphasize just how well the Vita and the PlayStation 3 play together.
At Gamescom, Sony unveiled its new Cross Buy program. Seeming to recognize that the Vita and its games are a pricey investment, the company is trying to make gaming on its machines a better value by giving players a two-for-one deal. That is, if you bought the superb music game "Sound Shapes" for your Vita, you get a free copy of it for the PlayStation 3.
The forthcoming Sony games "PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale," "Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time" and "Ratchet & Clank: Qforce" will also be part of the Cross Buy program.
Meanwhile, at Gamescom this week, Sony has been showing off the Vita's Cross Controller functionality, which will arrive on the Vita as a software update later this month. With Cross Controller, the Vita can be used to play a game on the PlayStation 3. But you don't just control your game, the Vita gives players a second screen with its own view on what's happening in the game. It's a clear swipe at Nintendo's plans for the Wii U's screen-filled GamePad controller.
Still, no matter what Sony does, Vita has a tough road ahead of it. The times they are a changin' and gone are the days when the PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS machines easily dominated our on-the-move free moments.
"There is still a place for dedicated handhelds, but the size of the market is probably half as big as it was a few years ago," Pachter says. "Casual gamers are moving to smartphones and tablets, and as these proliferate, the addressable market for dedicated handhelds will continue to shrink."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.