Aug. 15, 2011 at 7:01 PM ET
There's no denying it: Handheld game machines are facing tough times these days. With everyone packing smartphones crammed with inexpensive game apps, video game companies are having a hard time getting people excited about carrying around a similarly sized gadget whose primary job is to play much more expensive games.
Nintendo recently discovered just how much the handheld gaming landscape had changed when sales of its new Nintendo 3DS gadget failed to meet expectations, and forced the company to slash the price by $80 after just five months on the market.
And now, as Nintendo struggles to build a 3DS comeback in time for the holiday season, some game developers are predicting that Sony will face the same fate when it launches its PlayStation Vita game machine early next year.
Lyle Hall and Matthew Seymour of Heavy Iron Studios are two developers who believe the Vita is headed for a doomed launch — and they aren't afraid to say so.
"If people aren't willing to pay $249 for a Nintendo 3DS, why would they pay $299 for Vita?" Hall, president of Heavy Iron, told GamesIndustry.biz in a recent interview. "People don't want to carry more than one thing in their pocket. That’s why Android and iPhone have done so well. They are the devices of choice. They offer multiple functions outside of gaming."
Heavy Iron, formerly a THQ subsidiary, has developed several games based on movie properties as well as the new "UFC Personal Trainer" game for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. Meanwhile, Seymour previously worked for the likes of 2K Games and Microsoft Game Studios
Says Seymour of the pending Vita launch, "With all due respect to Sony and Vita, it's a car wreck."
Vita will launch in Japan at the end of this year and will launch in the U.S. and Europe early next year. I got my hands on the device at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June and was impressed with many aspects of the machine. In fact, here's a list of all the things I liked.
Still, while the Nintendo 3DS is a different gadget with, perhaps, a different audience, I can't help but agree with Hall and Seymour to some degree. Nintendo's experience with the 3DS makes things look far more grim for Sony and the PlayStation Vita.
Certainly, with Nintendo finding itself forced to slash the price of the 3DS from $250 down to $170, it suggests Sony might have to revisit the price it announced for the PlayStation Vita — $249 and $299 (for the 3G model).
But not all game developers seem to think the Vita is doomed.
Japanese magazine Famitsu recently conducted a survey of game developers and gamers themselves trying to gauge attitudes about the Vita. And the feedback was resoundingly positive.
Tomonobu Itagaki, a former Tecmo/Team Ninja director who now works for Valhalla Games, called the device "really amazing."
"I've worked on a portable game only once in my career, but I think I'm going to need to change my stance toward portables, and I think the game business will need to join me on that," he said, as translated by game site 1up.com.
"It's a platform with the sort of new features that get creators excited about making new kinds of games, and that alone means there's a good chance at seeing some really innovative stuff done with the system," said Akihiro Hino, CEO of Level-5. "I find its console-caliber specs to be really fascinating, and I'd love to release a product that takes advantage of those specs."
And then there's respected developer Ken Levine who has offered up his very important support. He says Irrational Games will be making a game set in the "BioShock" universe for the Vita.
"What’s cool about PS Vita is that it seems to have all the benefits of an iPad-type device with the touchscreen and motion controls. But it has dual analog sticks," he said during a recent Sony interview. "You can finally play a shooter, a real shooter, on a handheld. Seriously, that’s a hole in my soul right now. Now I’ll have something I can play real shooters on, and that’s really important to me."
Ultimately, it seems that if Sony can learn from the mistakes Nintendo admits it made with the 3DS — launching without a strong line-up of games and without support for downloadable games and videos — perhaps Vita stands a better chance at launch. And if it could cut the price ... well that would help too.
Certainly Sony is betting that while some people will be satisfied by smartphone games, plenty of others will still pay a premium for in-depth portable games — and they'll even be willing to carry around another gadget to play them.
(Thanks to GamesIndustry for the heads up.)
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Winda Benedetti writes about games for msnbc.com. You can follow her tweets about games and other things here on Twitter or join her in the stream here on Google+.And be sure to check out the In-Game Facebook page here.