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Game on for Sony handheld Vita

Conglom revs up a marketing blitz today

Sony isn’t ready to give up on the mobile gaming biz just yet.

Eager for a popular handheld version of its PlayStation 3 videogame console, Sony revs up a marketing blitz today from the Consumer Electronics Show, in Las Vegas, for its Vita arriving at U.S. retailers on Feb. 22.

The handheld gaming device replaces the PSP, which didn’t catch on with consumers as much as Sony had hoped seven years ago, and already bowed in Japan in December.

Timing could be an issue for Vita’s success, however.

The Vita, priced from $249 to $299, comes as more consumers are turning to cheaper alternatives like their smartphones and tablets to play inexpensive games such as “Angry Birds,” “Words With Friends” and “The Sims Social.”

As a result, analysts question whether there’s still a market for a dedicated gaming device when other handsets are packing larger screens with the Internet and cell service.

Sony isn’t deterred.

It has sold nearly 80 million PSPs and PSP Go devices since late 2004. And Nintendo is still doing brisk business with its DS-line of handhelds, which debuted the same year.

“The mobile market is ripe for a new gaming opportunity,” said John Koller, director of hardware marketing for Sony Computer Entertainment America. “We see it as the best handheld gaming device ever launched.”

Sony is certainly backing up its claims. The company is expected to pony up its largest marketing campaign for the Vita since launching the PlayStation 3 and PSP.

And it’s turning to CES to make a big splash for the product through demos at the Sony booth, where it will have around 30 Vitas to play with.

“CES is a very critical platform for us,” Koller told Variety while on set in Buenos Aires, Argentina, to film a commercial for Vita’s upcoming campaign. “The opportunity that it presents to discuss with the media but also analysts and key partners is unmatched.” Sony used CES to showcase the PSP in 2005.

Sony will need the hype. During its first week of sales in Japan, the Vita moved 320,000 units, 72,000 units in week two and 42,648 units in the third, although analysts aren’t disappointed by that result. Nintendo’s 3DS sold 370,000 units in its first week, dropping to 210,000 in its second. It has since moved more than 4 million units in Japan, after a price cut from $250 to $170 in the U.S.

Mobile is key to PlayStation’s future as a brand, given that its core gamers spend 80% of their time outside the home in the U.S., Koller said.

“We view mobile and handheld gaming as critically important overall, but within PlayStation it’s uber important. We need to have a forum to continue to provide PlayStation content where they go.”

There’s certainly a lot of ground for Sony to make up.

By the end of 2011, nearly 58% of portable games in the U.S. were played on mobile devices that operate on Google’s Android or Apple’s iOS platform, according to research firm Flurry Analytics. Nintendo’s DS line owned 36% of the market, with the PSP taking up the rear at 6%, down from 9% in 2010 and 11% in 2009.

On a revenue basis, an estimated $3.3 billion was spent on portable games in 2011, according to Flurry, with Nintendo earning $1.2 billion and cell phones taking in $1.9 billion. That’s a switch from $1.9 billion in 2009 for Nintendo and $500 million for Google and Apple that same year.

But in designing the Vita, Sony stuck with a familiar format — it resembles the PSP but boasts a better screen and graphics, along with other capabilities.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How do we create content that’s related to PlayStation that’s not a tablet?'” Koller said.

Although skeptics in the games biz worry that Sony is outpricing itself with the Vita and its games, SCEA has a certain consumer in mind. It views the Vita as a “premium product” that falls within the handheld gaming and mobile portfolios.

The 5-inch OLED touchscreen features HD resolution that’s more colorful and brighter than the PSP and senses motion and allows for augmented reality gameplay, while the devices also includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and optional 3G. The Vita drops PSP’s UMD discs for flash memory sticks, or the PlayStation Vita card, to play movies and store information.

Top titles to launch, and priced between $40-$50, initially include “ModNation Racers: Road Trip,” “Uncharted: Golden Abyss,” “Reality Fighter,” “Army Corps of Hell,” WipeOut 2048,” ” Hot Shots Golf: World Invitational” “Michael Jackson: The Experience,” “Plants vs. Zombies,” “Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3” and “FIFA Soccer.”

That kind of capability comes with a higher pricetag.

“The Vita, in many ways, is a PlayStation 3 in your pocket,” Koller said. “It will be the most powerful mobile device on the market for the next few years that will be able to stream movies, music and photos on an HD screen.” AT&T is providing the Wi-Fi and 3G accessibility, through which Sony wants to eventually offer high-end, graphically rich games — the kind that are familiar to PS3 owners.

It found that lowering the price of its PSP too soon lowered the average age of its typical user.

“The PSP consumer was someone that aged down very quickly” to an average age of 12-14 within two-and-a-half years, Koller said.

With the Vita, SCEA is targeting PlayStation 3’s core consumer of males in their mid-20s with a large amount of discretionary income and are typically early adopters, rabid for new technology.

“Reaching them on this device where they’re more apt to spend their money is critical,” Koller.

That’s because Vita will tap into the growing pot of digital dollars the gaming industry is increasingly turning to.

When attending a baseball game, for example, the Vita will unlock jerseys left for fans at various stadiums. Apps will also enable users to go on treasure hunts throughout a city or venue, while others will reveal other players in the area and their capabilities.

The Vita “was designed as a social medium and I believe it will be used that way,” Koller said.

The PSP wasn’t. Sony is cautious not to replicate what occurred with the PSP, which wound up being dubbed “PlayStation Personal” because users “weren’t interacting with anyone,” Koller said.

Naturally, the Vita will also incorporate video services like Netflix and Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and Skype. But apps will be tweaked to fit with Sony’s push for social interaction.

“Vita is designed to be completely the opposite,” he added. “We’re not interested in throwing something that’s already on your phone onto Vita. We want apps to be unique to Vita. When you take the Vita out in the world it affects your gaming and who you’re playing with and engaging with.”Either way, that social element is expected to be a large part of Vita’s marketing campaign and message coming out of CES and the focal point of its meetings with developers, app makers and other content partners during the show.

“We don’t always have a chance to meet with all of them and fly around the world,” Koller said. “CES provides that opportunity.”

Game on for Vita

Sony wants a bigger piece of Nintendo’s handheld gaming biz as it tries to launch a mobile version of its PlayStation 3 console with Vita.

Nintendo DS
149 million units sold since November 2004

Nintendo DS Lite
93.4 million units sold since March 2006

Sony PSP
71.4 million units sold from December 2004-September 2011

Nintendo DSi
25.6 million units sold since November 2008

Nintendo DS XL
11.1 million units sold since November 2009

Nintendo 3DS
8 million units sold since February 2011

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