You couldn’t walk 50 feet at the Los Angeles Convention Center last week without seeing a 3DS. They were everywhere: propped open on cafeteria tables next to overpriced, untouched Caesar salads and sweaty bottles of Vitamin Water; half-hidden in the bulging breast pockets of supercilious business types; and, most prominently, in clusters of four, five, sometimes even six at a time, as groups of friends and strangers alike gathered together to interact via the 3DS’s most prominent social application: StreetPass.
While it took a spectacular price drop and the release of two Mario games for the 3DS to really start clicking with consumers, the system’s ubiquity in the hands of idle E3 attendees over the past two years has made one thing abundantly clear: it was StreetPass, not stereoscopics, that kept the 3DS afloat during its initial post-launch malaise. More than that, the local nature of the StreetPass network has helped define the 3DS as an inherently social platform – a catalyst for human interaction among a society that is becoming increasingly cut off from itself, despite global connectedness being at an all-time high.
As hoity-toity as this all sounds, it shouldn’t be forgotten that Nintendo specializes in fun, and in this regard, StreetPass is no different from the rest of the company’s oeuvre. When 3DS systems cross within close proximity of one another, users can meet, share basic personal information with each other, and engage in simple communication via their Miis – or carry that interaction over into the real world, if they so choose. StreetPass encounters are also used to fuel a handful of games which share more than a little in common with Pokemon: the more Miis you gather, the more puzzle pieces and hats you can collect to share and show off. It’s a great thing to be able to use a common interest like gaming to break the ice between yourself and a stranger, and let me tell you: a Mii with a Famicom hat is an instant ice breaker.
The sign of a truly successful E3.
With such a simple concept, Nintendo has created a bond between millions of players and their 3DSes, ensuring users will carry their systems around with them whether they have games to play or not. The last system to capitalize on popular technological and social developments in such a major way was the PlayStation 2, which Sony used to sneak DVD players into the homes of millions of consumers who were still watching movies on VHS in the early 2000s. And though the same tactic didn’t work quite as well for the PlayStation 3 and Blu-ray (at least not until hardware prices became more reasonable), the company has a track record of innovation that the Vita seemed poised to benefit from once its hardware was fully detailed early last year. With multiple flavors of wireless antennae, a simple touch-based interface, and a suite of built-in network-based applications, the Vita was obviously meant to be a heavy hitter in the minds of connected consumers; unfortunately for Sony, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone outside of the diehard PlayStation community that considers the Vita a social machine. To most, it’s just another overpriced portable video game machine, soon to be forgotten whenever the next big thing comes out.
At the heart of this failing is Near, Sony’s attempt at leveraging the scope of the PlayStation Network and the promise of constant connectivity. Like StreetPass, Near offers a multitude of ways to interact with other Vita systems – it’ll show you who’s playing nearby, what they think of the games they’re playing, and what’s popular on the PlayStation Store. It even attempts to one-up StreetPass: instead of puzzle pieces that come together to form three-dimensional dioramas, Near gives users the opportunity to swap downloadable content for Vita games. It sounds pretty okay, until you realize the best part of Near is buried behind a bloated mess of confusing dialog boxes, and the rest is about as compelling as combining a stats aggregator with FourSquare.
The data is uploaded but it’s not finished yet, and if I don’t let it finish…wait, what?
Going into E3 last week, I wanted to get a fresh perspective on Near – I have strong opinions, sure, but mine aren’t the only valid ones…maybe my brain was just too feeble to understand Sony’s grand scheme? But after I spent Thursday morning interviewing a number of Vita and 3DS owners – developers, writers, Sony and Nintendo fans – the general consensus was either that people don’t understand Near, or they just don’t care. My favorite response, came from Brian, a second-time E3 attendee who looked to be enjoying his Vita only marginally more than his Galaxy Cafe Ham & Cheese Wrap.
“I used to use [Near] a lot,” he explained. “But it’s just…not as good as StreetPass.”
“Do you use StreetPass a lot?” I asked him, wondering if his Mii was jumping into my 3DS as we spoke.
“No,” he said. “I don’t have a 3DS.”
The Vita is a fantastic system with no shortage of quality games in the development pipeline, and just like the PSP before it, there are plenty of great reasons to own one, despite what you might have heard. But as exciting as it is thinking about the possibilities the Vita brings to portable gaming, it’s a hard truth that the system lacks any kind of real identity. If Sony wants to fix this problem, the first thing it has to do is promote the games it’s got coming out over the next few months…something it failed to do properly at E3 this year. But after that, Sony’s designers and engineers need to take a long, hard look at the mess they’ve created with Near…and they need to start figuring out ways to make social interaction a more integral part of the Vita experience. I’ve heard SuperBot Entertainment’s pretty good at borrowing from others…who else thinks it would be a great idea for Sony to lock those guys in a conference room with a bunch of 3DSes for a few hours?
The Vita has improved upon so many great things about the PSP, but there’s one thing I’d hate to see Sony’s latest handheld inherit from the company’s previous entry into the portable games market: a reputation as a system that gathers more dust than fingerprints. Great games will only get a pocket-sized system so far these days, and before long, those systems become neglected, lost, and forgotten. If Sony can learn enough humility to pay tribute to those in this business who really understand handheld gaming, they just might be able to save the Vita from the fate of its forebear.