The PlayStation Vita’s “Skylanders Dilemma”

It’s not far off the mark to say that Sony’s PlayStation Vita is having a hard time right now. Even with an absolutely amazing deal at Amazon on Black Friday, the system only sold 160,000 units that week. Sony has yet to release official sales numbers for November, but estimates put the Vita’s total sales somewhere between 210,000 and 225,000 units. The Vita’s primary competitor, Nintendo’s 3DS, sold 540,000 units during the same period.

The small number of sales during Black Friday tell me that it’s not just sales keeping the Vita from taking off. I picked one up on Black Friday and I love the little system. It really does feel like a Playstation 3 on the go and that’s exactly what I want out of the system.

Unfortunately, I can’t keep a portable platform alive all on my lonesome. So it’s time to look outside myself to see who Sony isn’t catering to. So, this week, I ask you to think of the children.

The Vita has what I’m calling the “Skylanders dilemma”.

If you’ve never heard of Skylanders, Activision and Toys for Bob have created a simple dungeon crawler that links up with a set of NFC-enable toys. Put one of the Skylanders action figures on the Portal of Power accessory and the character appears in game, ready to be played with. It’s an elegant little idea that was just waiting for technology to catch up.

The game does gangbusters for Activision. It was one of the company’s big revenue draws, with the company calling it the “number one best-selling retail videogame franchise across North America and Europe if you include toys and accessories” and “the number one selling action figure line”. If you’ve been Christmas shopping, you’ll find that Skylanders demos probably dominate the video game section at your local GameStop or Toys R’ Us.

That display is larger than the Wii and Wii U sections.

“In less than one year Skylanders has become one of the world’s most popular kids brands, and is on track to become another billion dollar franchise for the company,” Activision president Eric Hirshberg told GI.biz last month.

This year’s iteration, Skylanders Giants, adds new characters, new molds for older characters, larger characters, and even characters that light up. If you own any game system of note, you can get a version of Skylanders for it. PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii, iOS, Android, DS, 3DS, and Wii U.

See what’s missing there?

The PlayStation Vita. There’s no Vita version. If you were a kid looking for a game system, why would you want the one that doesn’t even have Skylanders on it? One assumes the lack of Skylanders for Vita is due to Activision’s complete lack of confidence in the system. The publisher hoisted off the Vita outing of its Call of Duty franchise to Nihilistic, who turned out on of the worst entries in the franchise’s history. It’s rumored the game only had a five month development cycle and Nihilistic changed its name and switched its focus to mobile once the game was released.

Activision doesn’t care about the Vita, and they’re one of the lead publishers in the industry. If publishers don’t care, why should gamers?

This isn’t only a problem in North America. The Japanese version of the problem could be called the Monster Hunter problem. Back in the day, you could’ve called it the Dragon Quest problem, but Nintendo has long since locked up the series. It looks like Nintendo may be poised to do the same with Monster Hunter, one of the best-selling portable franchises in Japan. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate/Tri-G is already on Nintendo 3DS and is coming to Wii U. Monster Hunter 4 is currently a Nintendo 3DS exclusive.

Some developers and publishers still care. Tecmo is bringing Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 Plus and Dead of Alive 5 Plus to the Vita. Atlus may continue to support the system, with the success of games like Persona 4 Golden. But what about the future? Even moving away from exclusives, 2013 looks bleak so far. No Bioshock, no Tomb Raider, no Splinter Cell, no Grand Theft Auto. Even if you wish the system would move away from console-style ports, the system isn’t destroying barriers with upcoming original titles.

Nintendo has a solid stable of properties it can develop new 3DS games around. Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Animal Crossing, Fire Emblem, and more. They may not always be great games, but they have broad name recognition.

Who is the Vita for, Sony?

The gaming enthusiasts? None of the leading franchises seem to be coming any time soon. Casual players? The high price of the system means many will stick with their cell phone or the cheaper 3DS. Kids? Skylanders and other kids-friendly franchises are missing in action.

Who’s left to love the Vita?

Trust and Why Everything Matters

In mid-October, the Games Media Awards event happened in the UK. During the event, certain journalists tweeted a game-related hashtag in order to win a PlayStation 3. Looked bad. This was brought up on Twitter, some journalists defended those actions as no big thing, things got worse. (It continued on from there, but that’s immaterial to this discussion)

This controversy stemmed from a lack of trust. Trust is a hard thing to cultivate, but it’s easy to lose. Even the perception of wrong-doing can lead to a loss in trust, meaning perception is everything. So, everything you do matters.

Everything matters. This includes not only all aspects of the work you’ve released out into the world, but other public information. Who contributed to the work and their personal beliefs and biases. Other content that could be compared to what you’re releasing. How you present yourself and your work prior to release. How open and transparent you are with your consumers.

Who you are matters almost as much as the work itself.

Way back in June, Tomb Raider executive producer Ron Rosenberg told Kotaku that players would want to protect the new Lara Croft, not be her. This followed a trailer almost a year earlier described by some as “torture porn”. There was a problem with the perception of Crystal Dynamics new take on Croft. Probably not helped by the general perception of game developers as 25-25 year old white males. Now, a bunch of guys could create an fully-realized Lara Croft, but the implicit trust wasn’t already there and comments from developers weren’t helping the matter.

In October, the lead writer for Tomb Raider was revealed as Mirror’s Edge and Heavenly Sword writer Rhianna Pratchett. Based on Pratchett’s past works and some of her interviews about the game, some potential players began to trust that Crystal Dynamics might not screw up Lara Croft’s reintroduction. Perception changed due to a newly-revealed element of the production. Neither the previous developer’s comments nor Pratchett’s reveal as the lead writer ensure an excellent game or story, but Pratchett’s inclusion adds trust.

Trust informs expectations. Trust can act as a shield against poor decisions or statements. Lack of trust means that even benign decisions can look like impending screw-ups. Past successes mean players and readers are most likely to head into an experience with positive feelings. It’s why we have cover blurbs or trailers that say “From the creator of…” Instant trust.

Some players lost trust in Bioware over Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 3’s original ending. Nintendo turned off some players who preferred “hardcore” games during the Wii era, while others continue to believe the company will do no wrong with the Wii U. Even the stock prices that publicly-traded companies stake their lives on are based completely on trust.

Trust is based on perception. Perception is based on every public aspect (or even the gaps you leave) of your work. So, everything matters.

Some argue that saying “everything matters” presents a possible chilling effect to publishers and developers. That creators could refrain from talking to the press because a small comment could be damaging to an upcoming title or release. That’s certainly a possibility. It’s a minefield that we navigate each and every day, so why would a commercial or artistic product be any different? In our personal and professional relationships, we show or hide our thoughts all the time. What we choose to say or not say defines who we are as a person.

What we say reflects upon ourselves. What we say reflects upon the companies that choose to employ us. What our employers do reflects upon us as employees. These are given rules in most relationships. It’s why these guys were fired. People would question a vegan who worked for a butcher. They would wonder why that personal choice is not reflected in a job or career. We understand that many frequently have to do things they disagree with to survive in certain situations, but there’s still a question of judgment.

If your commentary in an interview, demo, or forum will affect how people view your work, then it’s up to you to provide more clarification, to apologize, or to stand by your statement. Make your choice and let the dice fall where they may. People will take your comments at face value. They will make inferences where you’ve been quiet and left gaps in their knowledge. How consumers and readers handle what you give them is dependent on their trust in you.

Have a clear message. Be open and transparent. Be consistent. Be measured. If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, don’t say it. If you do, and come under fire, be prepared to defend it or recant.

Everything matters.

So let’s act like it.