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TOKYO – Sony is set to release its next-generation PlayStation Vita handheld game machine in Japan on Saturday, and it is making a big bet: that dedicated consoles can hold their own against the surging popularity of casual iPhone and Android games, which are turning the video game industry on its head.
But Andrew House, Sony’s gaming chief, is bullish. He says Sony wants to ship more PS Vitas over its lifetime than its predecessor, the PlayStation Portable, which has sold 73 million units over seven years. He said preorders for PS Vita machines have been “extremely favorable.”
Apart from the added cost of buying a dedicated game machine – the basic Wi-Fi model PS Vita will retail for $249.99 in the United States — traditional packaged games for those devices can set players back over $60. Casual downloadable games are usually free or cost just a few dollars to start.
“Sony needs to deal with the fact that gamers who are satisfied with what iOS and Android gaming has to offer will not feel the need to shell out for a dedicated device,” said Jean Snow, a video game expert in Tokyo.
That made PS Vita’s prospects of topping its predecessor, the PSP, unrealistic, Mr. Snow said,“I think it will sell well, because there is certainly a demand for a dedicated device that lets you to play with precise controls,” he said. “But I seriously doubt that it can reach the success plateau that was achieved with the PSP.”
Still, Sony has prepared well, in both its hardware and software. With a much bigger screen than an iPhone or most Android phones, two analog sticks and a multi-touch pad on the back, the device is hardwired for serious gaming, Mr. House said. The device has won glowing reviews on gaming sites.
Its multiple controls, in particular, are far superior to screen-only games, Mr. House said. In the action-adventure shooter game Uncharted, for example, players toggle the analog sticks to control their treasure-hunting protagonist, but can also swipe the back touch pad to change their viewpoint without obstructing the front screen. If a protagonist picks up a book covered in dust, the player can wipe the touch screen with their thumb to dust off the book.
Sony hopes to avoid the fate of rival Nintendo, whose 3DS handheld console initially flopped, partly because of a dearth in compelling games at its launch. Sluggish sales forced Nintendo to slash 3DS prices after less than six months, and sales have now picked up considerably.
To spur developers to make more games for the PS Vita, Sony greatly altered the way it developed the platform, Mr. House said. It shared its technology at a much earlier stage with game developers and sought their input. Games that Sony was making in its own studios were shared early in their development to get ideas of how to take full advantage of the console.
As a result, a strong pipeline of games in the works, Mr. House said, with another wave of games set to accompany the release of the PS Vita in North America and Europe on Feb. 22, followed by more games for the holiday season next year. Sony was aware of about 100 games in development for the PS Vita, he said.
The PS Vita’s Wi-Fi only version will retail for $249.99 in the United States, while a 3G-enabled model costs $299.99.