Sony’s next-generation portable could take a bite out of mobile gaming market

by Phil Hornshaw

It’s $249!

Sorry, you’re probably confused. We’re talking about Sony’s Next Generation Portable, its upcoming handheld gaming device that will be available sometime this year, which Sony (SNE) dished the dirt on at a press conference in Los Angeles ahead of this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, the biggest annual convention in video games. Now known officially as the PlayStation Vita (Latin for life), the device has a wealth of features and some pretty impressive capabilities.

But it’s the price tag that’s most shocking of all. $249 puts the Vita squarely into competition with just about every gaming device on the planet, be it the most direct competitor, the Nintendo (NTDOY.PK) 3DS handheld, or some less obvious competition, like smartphones.

In the last few years, the world of mobile gaming has exploded as smartphones have become more powerful and games have become cheaper. During Apple’s (AAPL) keynote address at the company’s Worldwide Developers Conference Monday, Senior Vice President Scott Forstall said the iTunes App Store included 100,000 games. Google’s (GOOG) Android Market and the Amazon (AMZN) Appstore have seen an influx of games recently as well, with service such as OpenFeint bringing more developers into the fold and big players, such as Bejeweled maker PopCap, opening their apps to Android as well.

The Vita has the ability to compete in all those markets as well as in more traditional video gaming venues. The device basically packs all the technologies that have been driving innovation in mobile gaming (and gaming in general) in the last few years. Like the iPhone and Android devices, it packs touch-screen capabilities, an internal gyroscope, 3G and Wi-Fi Internet connectivity (though the 3G version will be $299) and cameras for augmented reality. If there’s something your smartphone can do – other than make calls – the Vita can do it, too.

And Vita might be able to do it better. The full-scale video games being developed for the title look to be close to on-par with the technical capabilities of the PlayStation 3, which is no small feat. And like Sony’s PSP before it, the Vita will support smaller downloadable titles from Sony’s PlayStation Network, which means that, like Android and Apple’s iOS platform, gamers can quickly and easily grab casual games for a quick fix.

What about Android?

It’s not clear just how much Android compatibility the Vita will pack. It doesn’t seem to be a straight Android device, so the impression is that it won’t actually support any Android apps. But it will be capable of playing games against Android devices where crossover is possible, and that’s through Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Suite service.

We first heard about PlayStation Suite back when the Vita was first announced, when it still carried the code name NGP. PlayStation Suite is an Android-compatible service that allows players to download PlayStation-branded games to certain Android devices (Sony refers to them as “PlayStation Certified”). From Sony’s description, PlayStation Suite will be something of a social gaming network that allows players to compete against one another in games offered by the service – which means that Android players using PlayStation Certified phones or tablets can take on Vita players, and vice versa.

That’s a pretty big step toward inclusion, and who knows what the PlayStation Suite might comprise when it goes live. Expecting PS Suite versions of PopCap games such as Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies, for example, isn’t a big stretch at all. The Vita carries all the technology necessary for it to be able to carry the biggest iOS and Android games from all kinds of developers, like Gameloft (GLOFF.PK) and Electronic Arts (ERTS) to name a couple big ones.

While smartphones have the added benefit of pulling double-duty as far as functionality, there’s no beating the Vita’s price tag for players who are at all serious about games, and that’s especially true of Sony really runs with its clear inspiration from the mobile sphere and actually incorporates more mobile gaming. That’s a big if, obviously, but the Vita has all the tools in place: it even has a touch panel on its back side so that players can use touch controls without crowding the screen with their fingers.

The possibilities here are endless, and if Sony plays its cards right, the Vita could very well be the traditional video game industry’s answer to mobile’s explosive popularity.