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Sony Still Doesn't Know What, Exactly, the PlayStation Vita Is

Beyond the standard schadenfreude of a hardware flop, here's why that matters.

The PlayStation Vita has a lot going for it: Some fun games, good hardware and the backing of Sony, which is pretty popular with the gamers these days.

But even after the handheld console got a $50 price cut last year, sales are still lagging behind, with the Vita regularly getting trounced by its nearest rival, Nintendo’s handheld 3DS, which is often ahead by a greater than 5 to 1 ratio. In a candid interview yesterday with VG247, PlayStation UK’s managing director Fergal Gara conceded what the chart watchers already know: Whether stacked up against the 3DS or the phones and tablets it was designed to compete with, the Vita is a dud.

“In all honesty, higher sales would have been what we had hoped for,” Gara said. “… The truth is that the number of people that want the core experience [that Vita offers] is not as big as the number that simply want any sort of game available on the move and, because the likes of a tablet and smartphone are so multifunctional in their use, they will always be very appealing.”

That’s an odd way to put it, since Sony has tried — hard — to make the Vita multifunctional. In addition to being a gaming device, a media player and an Internet-browsing omnibus (all of which could also describe the iPod touch), last fall the Vita gained two new pivots: It’s now also the basis for a microconsole in Japan and a second-screen device everywhere, to be used in the home along with gamers’ new PlayStation 4s.

Gara told VG247 that that was always part of the plan, and maybe so. But while any hardware flops carry with them a bit of schadenfreude, what’s most interesting about the Vita is what it might tell us about the migration of mid-core/hardcore gamers. As my colleague Katie Boehret noted in her review of the device for AllThingsD, “Plenty of PS Vita games are geared toward the serious gamer,” and even before PS4 frenzy kicked into full gear, Sony was touting mid-core as the future of mobile.

It’s cause to wonder: If the millions who love PlayStation games can’t justify the hop to a mobile-for-serious-gamers device, will they really cross over to phones and tablets like the mobile guys say?

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