Many obituaries have been written for the PlayStation Vita, but Sony's five-year-old handheld keeps chugging along in Japan. Nevertheless, Nihon Falcom president Toshiro Kondo feels the end may finally be near, leading the studio to shift more toward PS4 development.
In recent years, Falcom has primarily focused on the Vita. But Kondo says it's now undeniable that the market for the Vita is shrinking. "One thing you'll notice especially is that a lot of the games that are now coming out for the Vita are visual novels or things like [that]," says Kondo. "The amount of space being given to Vita products in general is getting smaller and smaller. Yeah, it's definitely kind of on the decline, even in Japan as well."
The Vita's decline comes after several relatively successful years as the niche handheld of choice in Japan. While it hasn't come close to matching the success of the PSP, mostly owing to Monster Hunter migrating to the 3DS, it has still held its own.
Its comparative success in Japan comes in stark contrast to its performance in other countries, where it struggled from the start. It has a small but fervent fanbase in the U.S., but Sony all but ceased to support it several years ago.
This trend has led many developers, including Falcom, to embrace the PlayStation 4. The venerable studio has several games on the way for the platform, including Ys, Tokyo Xanadu eX+, and Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel 3. And they're not alone.
"You notice a lot of developers have kind of stopped or at least put on hold working on smartphone games and returned to making games for PS4 specifically," Kondo said. "I feel that that might be a good sign that more developers will shift towards making more games for PS4."
The decline of the Vita isn't the only reason that Falcom is shifting toward PS4 development. Foreign sales are playing a strong part as well.
"Foreign sales have reached a point with both the Trails series and "Ys" where we can't ignore them from a development angle anymore," Kondo told us. "[Ys: Memories of Celceta], for example, sold more outside of Japan than it did inside of Japan. Because Vita has kind of been on the decline for a while outside of Japan, and because the PS4 userbase is pretty established elsewhere, we have begun shifting toward PS4 development."
It was nearly a decade ago that Keiji Inafune infamously pronounced Japanese game development dead. "When I looked around at all the different games on the TGS event floor, I said 'Man, Japan is over. We're done; our game industry is finished."
His words followed a difficult console transition that saw Japan relinquish its preeminent role in game development for good. But for all the doom and gloom surrounding the takeover of mobile gaming in Japan, the success of the PlayStation 4 suggests that console gaming may be on the mend in Japan.
The PS4 is a lot stronger now, Kondo says, and developers are ready to get back to traditional console development. "[I]n a way, developers have kind of had their fun and played with smartphone development, and now they're gradually moving back towards console development. I'm not sure that the consoles will ever return to their heyday; but by the same token, more and more developers are willing to go back and try to make games for a console. That really bodes well for console gaming and smartphone gaming at least being able to coexist together."
Can the Switch Fill the Vacuum?
With the 3DS and the Vita both declining, it's reasonable to wonder what will take their place in the dedicated handheld market. The Switch is one candidate to fill that gap, but Kondo is taking a wait-and-see approach for now.
Calling it an "extremely Nintendo-like" platform, Kondo said that he's excited to play it as a gamer, but that Falcom has nothing in development for it at the moment. Still, they aren't ruling it out. "Should someone on staff bring up an interesting idea or something, we'd be more than happy to entertain it and develop a game for Switch."
As for whether it can fill the gap left by the Vita, Kondo says it depends on what kind of games are made for it. "I guess you'd say genre of games in Japan called Otome games which are games made for girls and right now they're heavily concentrated on the Vita. Should those games not go to Switch, then there's really no reason for their fans to purchase it."
For now, Falcom is keeping an eye on the Switch, but their attention is fully on the PlayStation 4. Their first North American PS4 game—Ys VIII—will be out September 12.
Stay tuned for our full interview with Kondo, which will be going up next week.