This Is Why Sony Doesn't Make Handheld Games Anymore

Michael Beausoleil

2004 was an important year for mobile technology. iPods had colorful screens and bodies, the business world communicated on Blackberries, and Nintendo revolutionized gaming with a second screen. Consumers started to see major potential in wireless technology. All of these companies were offering different services, but they all had one thing in common. They were preparing to compete with Sony’s Playstation Portable. 

Released in Japan at the end of 2004 and in the United States in early 2005, Sony was finally going to take on the existing portable entertainment world. By this point, it had been about a decade since Playstation entered the gaming market. Playstation 2 has become the best-selling console of all time, and it was a shock that Sony waited so long to compete with other handheld consoles. 

Sony would only release two generations of portable Playstations. The original sold fairly well, but the second saw disappointing sales. The console entered the market too late to be a trailblazer, but too early to integrate the trends that would define the 2010s. Somehow, this great idea by a reputable brand didn’t build the following Sony anticipated. 

The Release of the PSP

From its earliest public mention, the Playstation Portable wanted to differentiate itself from Nintendo’s handhelds. It was an entertainment system, and it wanted to give customers an at-home experience on the go. The bulk of the console’s face was an LCD screen, so the PSP could play video and audio. Sony representatives seemed to think they were designing the next Walkman as part of the Playstation family.

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Sony

As a Playstation console, gaming was going to be an integral part of the appeal. This system also came out a few years after the Playstation 2. The built-in DVD player helped move PS2s off shelves, and Sony likely wanted to emulate the success by including multimedia features in the PSP. Sony custom designed a media format known as UMD for the PSP which held games and movies, and memory cards could be easily purchased for additional storage. 

The Playstation Portable would face-off against the Nintendo DS, as both systems were released within months of each other. The PSP was easily more powerful than the Nintendo DS, but that’s to be expected. Nintendo’s advantage came with their release schedule. They were available in the US and Japanese markets for the 2004 holiday season. The PSP was only available in Japan for holiday 2004, but didn’t release in the US market until late March of 2005. Plus, the PSP’s launch model was about $100 more than the DS’s. 

Despite this, the PSP sold 600,000 units in its first week in the US. This actually passed the 500,000 units sold by the Nintendo DS in its first week (though only 550,000 shipped). The system was off to a good start, and it had some promising games. In the first few years players would see installments of Grand Theft Auto, Metal Gear Solid, and Final Fantasy. Gaming would remain a strong point, but multimedia abilities became underutilized. Within a year UMD movies were deemed a flop and stores were slashing prices to clear inventory. This left video games front-and-center, and PSP had some strong ones. However, the years of family-friendly Nintendo DS games allowed the system to outsell PSP during later years.

As of 2018, the PSP was recognized as the tenth best selling video game console of all time (it’s likely now 11th due to the Nintendo Switch’s sales). The Nintendo DS ranked second of all-time proving Nintendo was the winner in this console war. Still, the PSP was successful. Sony decided to release a second generation handheld, hoping this time they’d become the ultimate portable entertainment device.

The PS Vita Era

By the start of the 2010’s, Sony’s attention was placed mostly on its Playstation 3 home console. Handheld gaming was less prominant until an announcement at E3 in June of 2011. There, the PS Vita was discussed for the first time. 

The Vita as focused more on the gaming aspect. The device has multiple forms of input such as the dual joysticks, an OLED touchscreen, rear touchpad, and two cameras with facial recognition. Sony was trying to compete with all types of gaming; whether it be on handhelds, home consoles, mobile, or motion sensor.

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Sony

The PS Vita released in late 2011 in Japan and February 2012 in North America. By the time the console had been released in all major markets for a week, 1.2 million units were sold. Within two years, an estimated 6 million units were sold worldwide. This is significantly behind the pace of the PSP, and analysts knew something was wrong. 

By the two year mark, Sony had also released the Playstation 4. This meant many resources were being allocated to the successful new system. Production of first party games began to slow for the PS Vita, and the handheld received a new marketing strategy. The Vita was now being advertised as a PS4 accessory. Customers could use the Vita to stream PS4 games, allowing them to disconnect from their TVs. 

The PS Vita never amounted to any real level of success. It couldn’t find its place in the gaming market of the early 2010s, and Sony pulled support by 2015. Third party developers continued to make games, but Sony had given up on the portable gaming market. 

Did Sony Really Fail?

In terms of the hardware, Sony did a great job. They never released a subpar device compared to the industry standards. In fact, the Playstation Portable’s hardware was quite impressive in 2005. It outpaced the Nintendo DS in terms of online gaming and was better suited for video playback than an iPod. 

As a multimedia platform, the PSP was capable but underutilized. As a gaming platform, it had popular installments of successful franchises. This likely drove sales and allowed the system to achieve its level of success. However, few people were using the console for other media capabilities. UMD never revolutionized portable media, and the lack of built-in storage made it difficult to amass a collection of content. 

Of course, Sony wanted the second generation to outperform the first. The safe approach would have looked at the numbers. Nintendo’s success should have served as an indicator that a younger audience was critical when winning over the handheld gaming market. The iPod’s success should have demonstrated internal storage was a necessity for digital downloads. 

Sony decided to take a risk when it came to the PS Vita. All of the trends of the era were present in the system. There was a touchscreen, touchpad, and motion sensors. There was only one notable tech trend missing: 3D. That was featured on Nintendo’s next-gen portable: The 3DS. 

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Sony & Nintendo

PS Vita launched with fairly strong launch titles, but it immediately had a flaw. The reasonable $249 launch price didn’t include a memory card. This added an expense and it made it costly for customers to download content. Buzz quickly faded and attention shifted to the PS4. Sony representatives quickly realized they needed to improve promotion, but they had no problem creating excitement for the PS4.

While the Vita didn’t get a fast start, Sony didn’t want to play the longterm game. The Nintendo DS didn’t reach its peak sales until its fourth full year on the market. The Vita barely put effort into their third year. 

Is Sony a Victim of the Market?

At the end of its life, the PS Vita sold nearly 16 million units worldwide. This is a sharp decline from the prior generation: less than a fifth of the PSP sales. By contrast, Nintendo’s 3DS sold 75 million, less than half of the DS sales. For Nintendo, this isn’t a strong performance, but their 3DS sales almost match the PSP’s estimated 81 million sales. 

Even though the PSP was successful, the success is only moderate compared to other Playstation systems. Sony likely wanted to establish itself as a force in the mobile gaming industry. This would explain why they experimented with the hardware and allowed the system to be an extension to the PS4. The PS Vita had almost everything, but it couldn’t find its audience. 

Nintendo also saw struggles during this time. They experimented with 3D technology, a format that would never fully catch on. In fact, they needed to release a 2DS to appease gamers. Many people thought this was a joke, but it was a necessary reduction in technology due to the lack of interest in 3D. After the 3Ds, Nintendo’s Switch has found massive success. However, Nintendo needed to merge their home console with their handheld after the disaster of the Wii U and underwhelming 3DS sales. 

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Sony

As much as Sony wanted to differentiate the PS Vita, it was impacted by an obvious competitor. Mobile gaming was on the rise, and some of the titles were getting quite popular. Gamers didn’t need to buy a separate system to play games on the go. Their phones had the hardware needed for a decent gameplay, and a Playstation had the power to provide an immersive gaming experience at home. 

The PS Vita has the power to play Grand Theft Auto, but it had the touchscreen suited for Candy Crush. It seems like people are more interested in the candy when they’re out and about.

If Sony only released the Playstation Portable, they would have given us a cool platform with mediocre sales. Instead, they wanted to push boundaries and give us a more robust portable gaming experience with the PS Vita. They ultimately failed to capture an audience, but their ambitions allowed them to fail gracefully. Nintendo won the portable gaming battle, but the 3DS tried to move technology in the wrong direction. At the very least, Sony successfully had a vision to move gaming forward.

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Writer, educator, and a few other things.

San Diego, CA
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