A mere year ago, the Vita was a dirty word. Sure, the power and abilities of Sony’s latest handheld on paper seem like the absolute ideal portable gaming machine but the games just weren’t there. Not because it was poorly supported or anything like that, but because it became a dumping ground for half-arsed cut-down ports of your Call of Dutys and Assassin’s Creeds. Suddenly, seemingly overnight, Sony’s strategy changed. Tearaway, their big boxed title heading into Christmas, was released at an alarmingly cheap £19.99 - the same price as the digital copy from PSN. There has been a surge of indie games on the system, all retailing for sub-£10 price points and with regular discounts, exclusively through their PSN digital marketplace. Look at this list, it’s a who’s who of incredible titles that are perfectly suited to handheld, portable gaming - Luftrausers, TxK, Spelunky, Olli Olli, Hotline Miami… it’s an all-star lineup of great and affordable independent titles.
Combining this with the monthly free content provided by Playstation Plus and you’ve got a console that you genuinely could go digital only with and not miss out in the same way you would with say, the Playstation 4, where almost all the content right now is at a ridiculous ‘premium’ price tag and the ‘special offers’ are, well, barely worth mentioning. I’ve had a Vita since Christmas and I have bought this many actual boxed games in a retail store: ZERO GAMES. My memory card is 16gb, cost quite a sum of money (especially when alongside the fact that my Vita cost sub £100) and is filling up fast. Sure, I can just delete and re-download purchases until my heart is content, but if a 32gb card was more competitively priced, I wouldn’t be facing this issue at all! Paying almost the price of the machine for a memory card is a bitter pill to swallow and something that seems completely at odds with Sony’s otherwise incredibly encouraging digital strategy for their handheld.
Q - Alright, let’s not mess around… why are their prices so high? It’s greed, right?
LEWIE - The reason that Vita memory cards are so expensive is that they are actually manufactured out of a combination of caviar, heroin, diamonds and baby foreskins. These are all pretty expensive raw materials.
Although more seriously, the route of the extortionate pricing for Vita memory cards is twofold:
They are a proprietary format that only Sony are able to manufacture. With formats like SD cards and such, there are many different manufacturers competing in the marketplace, which drives down prices. They are also manufactured with much greater economies of scale because they are used in dozens and dozens of devices, whereas Vita memory cards are only ever used in the Vita.
Secondly, and perhaps explaining why Sony decided to make the memory cards a proprietary format in the first place, Sony seem to treat them more like a high margin accessory than a fundamental requirement to engage in the platform’s digital ecosystem. The Vita launched with an RRP for £230 for the entry model. Only Sony know whether it was being sold as a loss leader or not, but they will have calculated their pricing in the full knowledge that for every Vita console sold, they are going to sell at least one memory card. The psychological hurdle of buying a £230 console, then a £30 memory card, is lower than buying a £255 console and a £5 memory card, even though the total spend is the same.
Is it greed? I’d say it’s capitalism, I think it’s a decision that has harmed the platform in the long run, but it was likely one made out of trying to wring the most most out of customers as possible.
Q - What is the absolute lowest you’ve seen a 64gb card?
LEWIE - Sony haven’t released the 64gb card in Europe, so it has to be imported. Typically they clock in at around £60 including delivery from most Asian retailers, although you could have got one for £55 in a Play-Asia sale last month. Never seen one lower than that.
Q - Do you think this is a barrier to entry (in terms of PS Vita purchase)?
LEWIE - The expensive memory cards are the single most commonly quoted reason for not buying a Vita I’ve heard by a fair margin. Considering many of the games are multiple gig in size, and the console sans memory card is often available in the £90-£100 price range these days, it seems ludicrous to me and many potential customers that a memory card of decent capacity costs more than half of what they might have paid for the console.
Q - Do you think this is actively halting the progress of digital downloads as the primary mode of Vita consumption?
LEWIE - I’ve spoken to developers who have said that they’d be extremely cautious of releasing a downloadable game with a particularly large filesize. You don’t want a situation where a customer wants to buy your game, but decides not to because their memory card is full.
I’ve also spoken to customers who have bought physical copies of games that they would have prefered to buy digitally if they had the memory card space. Often they will buy the game preowned if that is what is cheapest.
Q - Do you see Sony changing this in the future?
LEWIE - I could possibly see a third hardware revision for the Vita in future that integrated a significant amount of internal storage. The PSPgo came with 16gb internal storage, but the digital ecosystem was not particularly well developed at that time, there was no PS+, sales were infrequent, and some games were only ever made available via UMD. A PS Vita 3000 with something like 32gb/64gb internal memory would probably be attractive to some people.
I can’t see Sony adapting an industry standard memory card format for the Vita though. That ship has sailed, they’re too embedded in the current format to roll back this decision. They’re manufacturing these memory cards at a large scale, owners of existing hardware have already purchased memory cards, and you’d want to maintain compatibility with them in any hardware revision.
I certainly think it’s possible that any successor to the Vita might use MicroSD or equivalent, but such a device is many years off yet, and I actually think the bigger question is whether such a device would ever get made in the first place.
These proprietary formats feel like a relic, a hangover from the old generation where the level of convenience we have right now just wasn’t a thing. It almost feels like a monopoly - if you’ve got a Vita, you NEED one of these memory cards, and you’ll pay whatever Sony decide to charge for them. I understand that it allows for a certain amount of quality control - I was working in retail when Sony pulled the license for third party memory cards for PS2. Sure, suddenly we stopped getting customers returning faulty third party cards on a regular basis, but it also put up a whole new sales barrier, an additional cost to what was already quite an investment. I personally stuck to the official stuff after being burnt by a forgetful N64 memory pack by MadCatz (that I’ve never fully forgiven them for!) but without the choice it was a definite turn off for a good percentage of customers. It is a similar situation to Apple chargers, which have their own special connection that is completely different to the Micro USB that almost every other phone on the market uses (although the EU recently voted in favour of a universal charger, to be implemented by 2016). Sony also have ‘no plans’ to reduce the cost of these memory cards, which I believe is a significant barrier to Sony truly being able to get the best out of their digital marketplace. The console ‘Steam’ equivalent is still a long way off.