The Social Gaming Evolution...

When Sony released news about their social gaming revolution earlier this week they surely thought that the Playstation Vita had won the handheld headline battle of June. What they couldn’t have foreseen however was the fact that mere days after their own press release Ninty were intending to drop one of their own.

That the 3DS isn’t setting the world alight in terms of sales should be sending mixed signals to Sony – on the one hand it could point to a saturated market fed up of dedicated devices, but on the other the Sony sales team could be rubbing their hands in glee, thinking that the kids who have grown up on the DS are now ready to engage with a piece of ‘real’ hardware. What should have the Sony execs crying into their milk at night is the revelation that only four months after release Nintendo are slashing 33% off of the price of a 3DS in an attempt to drive sales. And it’s not even the Christmas season yet…

If recent rumours of a £130 price point at Game for the devices are to be believed, that would see the base PS Vita costing you £100 more than a 3DS, and the shiny 3G version of the Vita costing you over the equivalent of 2 3DS’s. Imagine how much motion sickness you could be rocking with one of those babies for each eye!

So, is there anything that Sony can do to ensure that it picks up some of Nintendo’s slack and makes a running start in the eighth generation of consoles? Indeed, the question should be one of whether there is actually any slack to pick up at all. With the ever-increasing penetration of smartphone technology and the true advent of the tablet PC the age of ubiquitous computing marches ever on; savvy consumers are increasingly reluctant to invest in technology that can’t do everything you could ever imagine!™ and to be honest, the PS Vita launch line-up isn’t really looking all that strong. Does the coming ‘social gaming revolution’ address this at all? Well, at first glance, not really.

The announcement details four social online modes – LiveArea, Activity, Party and Near. LiveArea looks like an interactive landing page for each game which can be updated by the developers or publishers as time goes by – imagine a graphically funkier version of Mass Effect 2’s Cerberus Network if you will, although potentially more nefarious as user specific content can be pushed out. Once toyed with the idea of pimping out your XMB and bought some premium themes? With LiveArea you’ll probably have the ‘benefit’ of being shown all the others you could now buy too. Not amazingly innovative, but helpful to only be one click away from DLC purchases.

Activity sounds like a cross between Facebook and Trueachievements, with notable in-game activities and trophies popping up on a feed that your friends can then comment on. It’s another one of those things that we have come to expect from any internet-driven activity, the ability to vicariously experience the on-going endeavours of our ‘friends’, all in the form of short information nuggets.

If Activity was a function that we had come to expect, then Party is functionality that we couldn’t live without. Party allows you to form a ‘platform-wide’ group of up to four, offering voice or text communication regardless of the games or activities the various users are engaged in. It’s a welcome feature and one that is absolutely essential if Vita is to succeed in capturing the hearts of gamers. No word yet on whether we can ever expect any kind of cross-platform communication with PS3 users, but expect launch to cater for Vita-only parties.

The final mode is also the most intriguing – Near. At first glance it would seem to mirror the 3DS’ StreetPass – you pass someone during your day that has a Vita and you can exchange information, items or even jump right into a social co-op session if the game allows. However, Near can offer more than just frustration as you walk fruitlessly around looking for someone else actually using the machine – instead you can have your daily movements tracked and uploaded to the Near server which can then compare them to the movements of other users. Depending on who else passed your locations and what games they have recently been playing you will be able to exchange ‘gifts’. These are stated to not only include in game items, but also ‘challenges’ – a potential god send for those of us on a long commute into a busy London station everyday. You might not ever meet him, but you can look forward to continually whopping the chap who gets the 8:24 into London Bridge in Everybody’s Golf challenges.

The location timelag is a cracking idea and could very much make the experience tenable even if market penetration doesn’t quite meet Sony’s expectations. While it is relativity easy to imagine crowds of Japanese gamers flashmobbing an internet café to pick up a rare gift for a game like Monster Hunter Portable, Near is likely to be a more passive experience in the West. If Sony manage to seed select wireless hotspots across major cities with freebie levels and other minor vanity items they could drive engagement with the overall Vita social model.

And this sums up the announced social revolution; it’s not about getting you in, it’s about retention. It’s not a new way of engaging with technology and your online networks, but rather a refinement of ideas already floated. With the market in flux and various app stores forcing the price of throwaway mobile gaming ever further down Sony will need a whole lot more than one-click DLC and location based scoreattack battles. It’s a step in the right direction, and one towards the integrated desires we all harbour, but keep that eyebrow cocked until you see some firm details of a true social Triple A title.

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