I had the pleasure of chatting with Mikhail Madnani this week. We discussed Sony’s latest announcements, why we love the PS Vita, gaming in general, and what’s in store for the future of Apple TV.
Alex Knight: Tell me a little about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
Mikhail Madnani: I’m an app developer from Mumbai, India. I’m the senior editor at Beautiful Pixels. I also blog once in a blue moon over at failgunner.com. Recently I’ve started writing about games on mobile as well for Indian Video Gamer. I was pretty out of the gaming scene in general after the original PlayStation I had was given away. I spent some time gaming on friends’ consoles but that was barely anything. I got back into the scene and gaming in general thanks to Sword & Sworcery on iPad. Other than ranting about everything related to technology and gaming online, I’m a huge metal fan. I enjoy collecting vinyl and playing guitar.
Alex: So you’re back into gaming again. I heard you purchased a PS Vita recently. How has that been going and what do you think about the console? I’ve only had mine for about a month so far and the experience has been great for the most part. I love the D-pad, dual analog controls, and the vast array of ever growing titles on PSN. It isn’t without its flaws certainly, but overall I think it’s an under appreciated product.
Mikhail: Yea I did. Ever since Sound Shapes was teased, I had been eyeing my friend @slackerninja’s Vita. I borrowed it for a few weeks to play the game and was floored by how much I enjoyed it. At the time, there wasn’t much more on the device that I wanted to play. Fast forward to a few months ago with tons of indie games like Hotline Miami, Spelunky and Fez (some of my favourite games of all time) being announced for the Vita, I found myself wanting one. Shahid Kamal’s great team and their efforts with independent developers on PlayStation finally made me go for it.
The official price drop made the deal even better. Having access to PC only indie games I love on a handheld device is amazing. Another thing that is great about the Vita is PSN. With PS+ I get games for free and really good discounts. PSN allows me access to loads of PSOne classics. The only console I bought before this was a PlayStation back in the 90s. I love those games. I can see why many mainstream gamers are not too happy with the Vita though. There aren’t too many games like Killzone Mercenary on it. Not everyone is into RPGs and indie games. Borderlands 2 may help, however I still see the Vita as a niche device until PS4 is out. The remote play feature (this uses your Vita as a second screen) makes it more appealing to the mainstream gamer.
The controls are pretty great overall. I’m not a fan of a few of the buttons, but it’s a great device to game on. The system software on the other hand is a letdown.
Alex: The Vita is definitely showing promise on the indie game side. I love that Sony is making an effort to embrace the indie development community. Making it more affordable, as well as more approachable, with better tools, is empowering people to release first to the platform. I’ve heard at least one small development company say they’re making more money on Vita than any other platform, including iOS. That’s fascinating to me — considering that the entire iOS ecosystem, which is built off of sub five dollar games, is understood as the big money maker if you do large volume. The Vita, comparatively speaking, offers games that are much more expensive. Arguably, people that have a dedicated gaming console are probably willing to spend more on a game (after all, they already have more than one device with them). Games on consoles like this tend to offer longer, more immersive gameplay.
Speaking of system software, by today’s standards, the Vita’s user interface seems archaic — a relic from 2009 (probably when it was originally designed). The way app icons and folders look is horrible. Beyond just the aesthetic of the UI, the user experience leaves me wanting. For example, installing games from the PlayStation store don’t continue to download in the background when the device goes into standby. It’s incredibly frustrating trying to download a 3GB game, only to have it stall when you walk away from it. I’ve heard that this behaviour wasn’t always the case, so perhaps it’s a bug that was introduced in a previous update. I’m not entirely convinced this was unintentional though. If this was overlooked during Q/A, it makes me think they don’t have stringent testing practices in place to catch show-stopper power management bugs like that. At the very least, if you have 50% or more battery life, it should continue to sync and install updates in the background (similar to iOS).
Alex: What exactly is it about the Vita UI that you don’t like? Do you have any aspirations for the future of the software and platform?
Mikhail: So the downloading bit is very weird. Sometimes it happens over WiFi when the device goes into standby — indicated by the blue light behind the PS button — and sometimes it just pauses everything. I’m never sure of the outcome when it goes into standby downloading. This needs to be fixed ASAP. On launch day back in 2012, Sony spoke about taking a screenshot and being able to tweet from the Vita. The Twitter app is pretty terrible and the sign-in process is like three years too late.
The UI is messy just like Sony’s skin on Android devices. Too much gloss thrown in for no reason. Cory Schmitz who does their branding should be in charge of the UI. Also the animations while changing screens are plain weird and multitasking is a joke. This post by Jim Sterling from Feb 2012 still applies for the most part.
Alex: At the SCE press conference in Japan, in addition to some PlayStation 4 news, the updated Vita model was announced. There isn’t much in the way of technical details yet, but as far as we know, it’s: 20% thinner, has 1 hour extra of battery life, 1GB of on-board RAM, an LCD display (replacing the previous generations OLED), and a micro USB charger. I can only assume they made some updates to the CPU and GPU, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they held off in favour of better battery life. I’m curious if Sony bothered upgrading the networking stack to support Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11n. Downloading games from PSN would sure go a lot faster on my home WiFi network.
The new update isn’t all that existing to owners of the current generation of hardware, however, the announcement of a 64GB memory card and price drops all around is very welcome. Speaking of memory cards, although it’s nice to see Sony offer a higher capacity version with lower prices, I still feel they should have offered a 128GB option. When I first started using the Vita, I felt a tad bitter that I had to buy their exorbitantly priced proprietary memory cards. Reality set in after a while that my situation was no better than buying Apple products. When you buy either a iMac or MacBook these days, the onboard solid-state drives are non-user replaceable. I’ve made peace that in order for well integrated appliances to be made in thin form factors, you can’t have too many replaceable parts. For Sony, the other advantage of restricting usage of third party memory cards, is that the risk factor for the user goes down in the case that they buy a shoddily made one.
Mikhail: So proprietary memory cards is what Sony always does. I’ve been through that with the PlayStation one as well. The crazy bit is the pricing. Until a few months ago it was $99.99 for a 32 GB card — that’s bonkers. Going first party only is safer for sure.
Back to the press conference now. So the new Vitas are WiFi only. The screen is LCD as opposed to OLED, which has made people mad because they love the OLED screen. Personally, if the LCD screens are HTC One caliber, it will be better, but Sony uses terrible panels in their Xperia line of phones. The Xperia Z has a horrid display with terrible viewing angles. The best part about the new Vita is the raised buttons for Start, Select, and the PlayStation button. I doubt they did any internal spec bumps at this point. In 2013 when most people want to stay all digital, and with the amazing work Shahid Kamal and team are doing with games now, we need higher capacity cards. PSOne classics are already huge. Uncharted is 3.3GB right now. I’m really thankful they did a 64GB card though. It’ll be an instant purchase for me if it’s released on Amazon US in October.
With the Vita, I’m trying to save memory card space for classics that aren’t available anywhere else like Tomba. I enjoyed those games back in the day. I’m a fan of physical packages for games only if they have a nice game manual or some bonuses like the special edition of Ys Celceta. The standard games are just a card in a box with nothing else. What’s the point of even going physical if there’s not going to be a guide or something?
Alex: The OLED screen is quite good, with the exception of the somewhat visible striations on the screen. In very specific low light conditions, when the screen turns black, you can see these anomalies in the screen. I did a little research on the problem, and some devices have it worse than others. The issue appears to be a byproduct of OLED technology, so I’m not surprised to see Sony jump ship. People should really relax about the move to LCD technology. I’m confident their engineers would not have replace it with at least something that is equal in resolution and colour reproduction to the OLED.
Mikhail: Everyone is annoyed because of what happened with PSP and with any second revision of a Sony console. I’ve heard loads of my friends complain. They are happy with first generation hardware and have issues with second generation or slim models. I noticed the striations when the screen is dark, but mostly it’s a non issue for me.
Alex: You mentioned that you still buy physical games occasionally. I haven’t purchased any myself, and I was completely unaware that they just ship a plastic case with the cartridge and nothing else. I may end up having to buy a few special editions because of the added bonuses and what not. From what I hear, you still enjoy buying vinyl records for the same reason — that unique out of box experience that you just can’t get from a digital download. Concerning game guides, there are manuals on the start screen when you run an app, but sometimes having a paper copy is nice to refer to when you’re caught in the moment of the game.
Mikhail: What’s the point of a physical game, barring the bandwidth it saves in downloading, if the guide and stuff is all digital? Special editions of games are like the vinyl equivalents to me. I either buy digital music or vinyl, no CDs. I compare CDs to standard game releases: expensive compared to digital in many cases, and not offering much more when you can pay a little extra and get vinyl with big artwork and bonuses.
I’m heavily into RPGs right now and there’s tons coming for Vita. Dragon Fantasy Book II is basically a new Chrono Trigger-esque game from the gameplay I’ve seen. What are you playing right now on Vita?
Alex: I try not to spread myself too thin, but at the moment, I have a few classics like Fatal Fury, Lemmings, and Metal Gear Solid HD (MSG2+MS3). Newer titles that I’ve been enjoying are: Assassin’s Creed 3, Uncharted, Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, and Sound Shapes. There are other games that I have installed, but I have yet to devote a lot of resources to them.
What are your thoughts on Sony’s Vita TV? I don’t know how well it will be received, but at Apple TV prices, it seems like a nice option for those that don’t own a PlayStation console. The media consumption features, (Netflix, etc) in addition to: Vita, PSP, PS1 games, and PlayStation 4 cross-functionality, is an all around nice package.
Mikhail: I think it’s a nice idea. Kind of like mirroring for PS4 in another room and a Vita connected to your TV that you can play with a controller. The PS3 does all this, but the Vita TV is smaller and is $99 in Japan. I might buy one. The main draw of the Vita for me, barring the exclusives, was the ability to play indie games like Hotline Miami and Spelunky on the go. Honestly, I’m waiting for Sony to announce a way of emulating PS2 games on PS4 and Vita at this point. A few have been ported, but they have remained silent for the most part.
Alex: A while back, patentlyapple.com reported a patent filed by Apple for a gaming controller. Whether or not this ever sees the light of day, this would be a bold move in catering to serious gamers. If Apple’s major software update to Apple TV includes third party iOS games, I foresee this cutting further into the already eroding console marketshare that Nintendo and Sony have. If it does happen, it’s not all doom and gloom because of the many great titles that aren’t — or will never — be available on iOS.
Mikhail: I’m not sure Apple will do their own controller. Third party ones will surely be made. Apple TV right now is pretty awesome. By not opening that up to developers, it’s money being left on the table. AirPlay mirroring already has some great apps like Motion Tennis by Rolocule.
Many game developers have been vocal about not supporting iOS only because platformers don’t work well on touch. With controllers, everything will change. Look at the Nvidia Shield. It has the ability to emulate so many consoles and play Android games with controllers like GTA Vice City. Developers have been waiting for an Apple TV SDK for a while now. I don’t give a shit about an actual TV set. An Apple TV SDK would be epic.
Alex: I agree that a TV set isn’t that compelling (at least, not with the way we know them now). I just can’t see this happening any time soon — if at all. Opening up Apple TV to developers is the next logical step. We already have an established and trusted ecosystem, so porting iOS apps to Apple TV would not require a ton of work (assuming the next major Apple TV update is based on iOS).
Beyond just games, I think there are many other compelling reasons to offer an SDK. I’d be very interested to see how developers could extend the functionality and value of Apple TV through apps. I see this situation as somewhat analogous to when Apple introduced the iOS SDK for the first time. As soon as we were all able to build native apps, suddenly the value of iPhone devices exploded. Through building value by solving problems that people had (or didn’t know they had), it made everyone want to go out who didn’t own an iPhone, see what they were missing.
Mikhail: Most people don’t upgrade their TV sets often. Having an Apple TV that adds functionality would make more sense to the consumer, but then that’s much less profit for Apple. I believe they will do a 4k television set at some point if they’re doing a TV set at all. Apparently there’s a software update hitting Apple TV next week. Let’s see how that goes.
With respect to Sony’s Vita TV, they’re limiting the launch to Asia at first. Pretty stupid if you ask me, unless there are some supply chain concerns.
Alex: I completely agree. Whatever Apple has up their sleeve, it’s bound to come in the form of software rather than a full blown TV set. I suppose a 4K TV may not be out of the question, as it’s pretty clear based on what Tim Cook has said that Apple explores many different technologies and opportunities. They’re only going to release something if they can do it leaps and bounds better than what anyone else is offering. Right now that’s not possible because of the content deals that are lacking.
As for the Vita TV launch, it is indeed a strange one. I suppose it may be a bit of a niche product. Perhaps they want to test the waters outside of North America first. I’m not entirely sure what the rationale behind that is. The US and Canada is a huge market, and an overwhelming majority of people are already buying Apple TVs here.
The last bit of 2013 is shaping up to be a very interesting one. With new consoles from Sony and Microsoft, as well as a new products from Apple, the future is looking very bright.