How Sony Killed Downloadable Vita Games Before Launch Day

There’s a sort of poetry to it, and I can’t tell if it’s wonderful or horrible. Sony announces a brilliant piece of hardware and then does something to muck it up so badly that people stop caring. Take the PS3, for example. In 2011, it’s a great piece of hardware that’s well worth $250. In 2006, though, it was a hulking monstrosity with a price tag impossible to justify. I worked at Best Buy that Christmas and I can tell you firsthand. We ran out of the Wii, and one day we even ran out of the Xbox 360, but we didn’t even have to restock the PS3. The PS Vita isn’t going down that same path quite yet, but Sony has already killed a feature that really sounded promising.

When Sony announced the Vita, its handheld successor to the PSP, I was excited. More than excited, I went on and on to my friends and here on the blog about just how awesome this thing looked. Hell, I’m still psyched for the system. In my original write-up, I suggested that one of the only things that could stop the Vita is a PS3-like price snafu. I think Sony really hit the sweet spot at $249 for the Wi-Fi version and $299 for the 3G.

It seemed like Sony finally decided to embrace digital distribution and do this thing right. The systems are practically always connected to the internet, which makes it nice and easy to purchase and download games. Paying the same price for a game that I don’t have to leave the house to get is a total winner in my book.

Eight times the storage space, $10 more.

And then I read the news. After that, I had a cup of tea, came back to my desk and read it again just to make sure I wasn’t crazy. When GameStop listed the prices for PlayStation Vita memory cards, it became clear to me that digital distribution will not be something that’s encouraged on the Vita.

If you want to download a game onto your system, you’ll need a proprietary memory card. Proprietary anything is a pain in the ass, but surely Sony made these cards nice and cheap, right? No. For a four gigabyte card, you’ll pay $29. For 32GB, you’ll need to shell out $119. Well, I say “you’ll pay,” but I sure hope you won’t.

I’ll use the same comparison here that I did in the gaming news page, because I think it’s apt. You’ll have to pay $29.99 if you want a 4GB Vita memory card from Sony, while $39.99 gets you a 32GB SDHC card from Newegg. Even assuming that Sony makes the equivalent of Class 10 SD cards, you can still get a Class 10 4GB SDHC card for $6.99.

I’m a big proponent of digital distribution. It’s not there yet, but a properly executed digital distribution system could lower prices by eliminating the need for packaging and shipping, could put more money in the hands of the people who actually made the game, could cut down on wasted plastic and papers, and could give indie games a real shot in the marketplace.

I still buy packaged Xbox games and DS games because there really aren’t any other options if I want the latest and greatest, but my PC doesn’t even have an optical drive. I used an external DVD drive to install Windows and that was the end of it. I bought somewhere around 50 games between then and now, and I’ve been able to download every single one of them easily and quickly. Most of the time, I was even able to download the game before release so I could play it as soon as the publisher issued the unlock code.

Yet when it comes to the Vita, I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. I don’t want to give GameStop my money for physical media that I don’t want in the first place, and I certainly don’t want to give Sony and GameStop both money for an overpriced piece of proprietary memory.

This is my actual Steam Library. 100% downloaded.

Upon thinking about that, I came up with a theory. I don’t know if it’s true and there’s no way on Earth I can prove it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I know why PlayStation went with proprietary memory instead of using SD cards like everyone else, including Sony. Selling overpriced accessories makes retailers happy.

Game companies still need retail stores to sell their systems and their games. If those retailers get cut out of the loop, they get pissed. Anyone else remember when GameStop pulled ‘Warhawk’ because Sony sold it on PSN? The solution here is to give retailers something they can sell instead of the game.You can just bet that those memory cards have a crazy markup.

To me, this looks like Sony is trying to offer digital distribution, but lacks the nuts to back it up. Sony has made a new feature of its system so unusable that most people won’t take advantage of it. Meanwhile, the company still looks like the good guy for offering it in the first place.

I’m not usually one for conspiracy theories, but that’s the only logical reason I can think of for Sony to screw up this part of the Vita so badly. No one at Sony was dumb enough to think we’d be happy about this. Smart people are making these decisions – crazy smart people with tons of market research in front of them. But they’re smart people who seem to care a bit more about their shareholders and their pocketbooks than the end users.


  1. Javier Aleman

    I hope physical media sticks around because I refuse, absolutely refuse, to pay for a digital download. If I can’t hold the game or movie in my hand then I don’t want it. My only exception is music, but I don’t value music anywhere near as much as I do movies, games, or books.

    • I am about the same. I just did my first digital movie rental yesterday, and that was just because I had a credit.

      Even on music CDs, if its an artist I REALLY care about, I will buy the CD. I actually bought a CD from an artist-friend after I had already purchased and downloaded the entire album from Amazon.

      I just really like physical media. I like people to come into my living room, see my movie collection, and watch their jaws drop, and say “I can’t believe you have that many DVDs”, and then I say “um, those are Blu-Rays, want to see the DVD and Laserdisc and VHS collection?” Then I lead them into the bedroom, and listen to them shout a few obscenities about how I waste money on movies.

      Back on topic, this move by Sony doesn’t surprise me at all. Sony has a history of introducing electronics that use some type of over-priced proprietary media. Examples that come to mind are UMDs, Memory Sticks, MiniDiscs, and Betamax. I figured that Sony would have learned by now, but apparently they haven’t.

  2. JM

    Are these prices fixed for six years, or is this just an early adopter tax?

    The Vita is being subsidized, by the games/accessories, to launch the hardware at a sexy price, to sell enough units to build the install base, to attract the publishers, to develop a library of games worth owning.

    Sony is bleeding money. This year they took, like, a billion dollar loss.

    Have you considered the possibility that in order to succeed as a long-term platform these prices are the cheapest that Sony can live with?

    Is the 5″ OLED and dual-analog sticks not sexy enough for you to eat the cost of a memory card?

    Are you an early adopter? Which Vita games will you buy at launch?

    • Instead of allowing us to use SD cards or even Memory Stick Pro, Sony developed a proprietary piece of hardware that won’t be used for anything but the Vita. As a future customer, I find this incredibly frustrating.

      And yes, I’m definitely an early adopter. I’ve bought nearly every system since the PS2 at launch. I’ll get the Vita too, but I just won’t be buying as many Vita games as I’d like to at launch if I have to pay a ridiculous amount of money for the privilege.

      And to clarify, Sony is losing money hand over fist, but the PlayStation division is doing quite well. And PlayStation makes up just a piece of the overall Sony puzzle.

      • JM

        I thought the proprietary memory was a tool to fight piracy?

        Didn’t PSP piracy severely diminish publisher ambitions for the platform?

        In terms of games, I wish Sony would make an ‘Advance Wars’-killer.

        • Dick Ward

          People still made DS games and it was far easier to pirate games.

          And the PSP used Sony’s proprietary memory cards. So clearly piracy prevention in that form doesn’t work.

          I’d love to see more turn based strategy games like ‘Advance Wars.’ Great series, though I didn’t love ‘Days of Ruin.’

          • JM

            If the digital download editions were priced $5 less than their physical media counterparts, would that appease you?

            And let’s say your retail theory is correct. Can Vita succeed as a platform without a strong retail push?

          • That would totally appease me. I don’t think it’ll happen, but it would make me way happy.

            And sadly, I don’t think the Vita could succeed without retail. This sort of thing works beautifully on PC but I think if the Vita wasn’t pushed hard at retail, most people wouldn’t even know it existed.

            From a business standpoint, I get the need to appease GameStop and Best Buy. But it’s clear that they’re working for the retailer instead of working for the consumer and that just doesn’t sit well with me.

          • JM

            When the PSP launched in 2005, Memory Stick Pro prices were worse.

            256MB – $105
            512MB – $175
            1GB – $350
            2GB – $700

            I wonder what the capacity/price of memory will be in 2019 when the PSP3 launches.

          • Holy crap I forgot how expensive those were!

            Hopefully by 2019 we won’t need external memory. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

    • Oh, and to answer your question, I’m looking at ‘Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3,’ ‘Uncharted: Golden Abyss’ and maybe some others.

      I really wish the US got ‘Disgaea 3’ and ‘Blaz Blue’ at launch, but it looks like we have to wait on those a bit.

  3. What about cloud storage? Is that a possibility for games? If not on the Vita (Sony is obsessed with proprietary hardware), perhaps some competing platform?

    • Dick Ward

      I’d say that the cloud is the future for sure. Microsoft has been talking about cloud gaming for years, so hopefully we’ll see something about it with the new Xbox.

      In smaller terms, Xbox 360 saves can now be stored in the cloud. This would have been really nice when my co-op partner wasn’t also my roommate, but it’s still a nice step forward.

    • JM

      Some games will allow free cloud saves.

      Some games will allow saves on the game card.

      Some games, like ‘Uncharted,’ will require a separate memory card.

      Obviously, Sony’s ambition is to maximize customer confusion.