Should Sony Cut the PlayStation Vita's Price?

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Unless you live in Japan, you won't be able to lay hands on Sony's new PlayStation Vita handheld until sometime next year. That's the bad news. The other slice of bad news, since there's really nothing good to report, is that Sony sees no reason to cut the price of the Vita, which they've priced steep for a dedicated games handheld—$300 for the integrated 3G and Wi-Fi version, $250 for one packing Wi-Fi only.

Nintendo's about to slash the price of its 3DS from $250 to $170. The 3DS debuted stateside in March and has the playing field to itself. While it's underperformed going by Nintendo's estimates, it's already sold over 4 million units, and Nintendo predicts it'll top 12 million by March 2012. With Sony's delay of the Vita, Nintendo has the U.S. and European holiday sale season to itself, Apple's next iPhone and the booming Android market notwithstanding.

[More on PCWorld: Hands-On with Sony's PlayStation Vita: Impressive Hardware, Game Play]

So Sony's going to enter the race late, $80 to $130 more expensive than Nintendo, and positioning first-round PS Vita games against secound-round 3DS fare. Are they nuts?

Not at all, says Sony president Kazuo Hirai, claiming the Vita's "very affordable" for all it offers, and adding "There is no need to lower the price just because somebody else that happens to be in the video game business decided that they were going to lower their price."

Or, then again, maybe. “Gamers are increasingly anticipating Sony to lower prices, especially after the 3DS cut,” argues Tokyo-based analyst Hideki Yasuda (via AFP). “Sony is under major pressure to cut the price of the Vita or risk a major failure.”

The 3DS's launch was a mess, let's not mince words. The system itself was fine, but the games were disappointing, and while the 3D effect is kind of cool, it's also painfully inconsistent anytime you're forced to move the handheld required by several games.

But let's assume Nintendo gets its act together. We're looking at several triple-A games coming this holiday, including first party stuff like a Super Mario game, Mario Kart, Star Fox, and Kid Icarus. Then there's promising third party stuff like Harvest Moon: Tale of Two Towns, Dr. Lautrec & the Forgotten Knights, Cave Story 3D, and of course Metal Gear Solid 3D: Snake Eater (well, maybe). No, it's not the strongest holiday lineup we've seen, but all Nintendo needs are two or three first party must-haves alongside one or two third-party hits to move handhelds by the zillions with a four or five to one software attach rate.

Then we're into early 2012, with anticipated 3DS fare like Tekken 3DS (Namco Bandai), Heroes of Ruin (Square Enx), Luigi's Mansion 2 (Nintendo), Paper Mario 3DS (Nintendo), Resident Evil: Revelations (Capcom), and probably a few more I'm missing. Sony's going to need a strong launch lineup to seriously compete.

At the moment, we're looking at: a LittleBigPlanet game, a ModNation Racers game, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, WipeOut 2048 (futuristic racer), Ruin (a Diablo-style hack-and-slash), possibly a BioShock spinoff, Everybody's Golf, Smart As (a block-based puzzler), Top Darts, Virtua Tennis, Super Stardust Delta (top-down shooter), Little Deviants (bunch-o-mini-games), Reality Fighters, Sound Shapes (music-generation platformer), Hustle Kings (pool), and that's all I'm seeing in the "likely" category. In other words, "not too shabby." But will that be enough to convince us to reach into our pockets and produce two or three one-hundred dollar bills, plus whatever the company's charging for games?

Sony's been here before. The PlayStation 3 launched on November 17th, 2006 and cost $500 for the 20GB model and a whopping $600 for the 60GB version. The PS3's U.S. launch game lineup was disappointing, too (exempting Resistance: Fall of Man), but that aside, the chief complaint levied by all was "too much." Sluggish sales ensued, straight through to August 2009, when Sony finally unveiled a cost-optimized "slimline" model and slashed the price $100 (then $400 for the entry-level model) to just $300. Instant (sustained) sales driver.

But some would argue the damage was done, and that if Sony's PS3 ever does catch up to Microsoft's Xbox 360 in overall unit sales—it's still behind four million worldwide, and more than twice that in the U.S. alone—it won't matter, because by that point, it'll be PS4 time. Bringing the Vita in at a more impulse-buy-friendly price point sounds like the smart move.

Then again, the company can't hemorrhage cash indefinitely. If Sony's already losing money on the Vita at $250 and $300, dropping the system to 3DS price levels would only add insult to years of injury from mass PS3 "cost of manufacturing" bleedout. That's to say nothing of all the money the company lost because of the February Japanese earthquake (and tsunami), and the April-May PlayStation Network outage.

Were I Sony, given what the company's giving up in lost holiday sales and competitive time, I'd consider at least a small price break. There's no need to bring the system down to 3DS price levels. With or without inbuilt 3D, the Vita's clearly a more powerful system than the 3DS, and it has its own unique input angle with its touch-sensitive back plate, allowing for games technically impossible on Nintendo's (or currently any other) handheld.

But to launch the system at new console price levels, given Nintendo's holiday court advantage and what's happening in the mobile games space with mass-anticipated devices like Apple's next-gen iPhone threatening, may be asking for a repeat of November 2006, when even Sony enthusiasts took a look at the PS3's sale sticker and said "We'll wait for the price drop."

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