You could say Chris Millar jumped into a pool before it was filled with water.
Two years ago Millar’s fledgling Seattle game studio took a wild plunge, committing to Sony’s new handheld gaming system, the PlayStation Vita.
A dive like that takes faith.
The Vita, which launched in the U.S. on Feb. 22, is a handsome device that reflects Sony’s experience building polished entertainment hardware. It has a 5-inch OLED touch-screen, quad-core processor and dual cameras, all for $250 (or $300 for one with 3G wireless capability).
But the Vita is arriving in the age of the smartphone and Web tablet. Avid game players who can afford a wireless device already have one loaded with games in their pocket or backpack.
Meanwhile, sales of video-game gear were down 34 percent last month, according to market-research firm NPD, and Sony is being pummeled by Apple, Samsung and others. The PlayStation maker expects to lose $2.9 billion this fiscal year, its fourth consecutive year of losses.
“It’s scary,” said Millar, chief executive ofFun Bits Interactive, a 16-person studio in Pioneer Square. “It’s definitely a risk, but Sony’s such a good partner, letting us create something different, first and foremost.”
Scariness comes through in “Escape Plan,” a darkly funny game Fun Bits produced for Sony for the Vita launch. The $15 grayscale title is like something from the late, macabre cartoonist Charles Addams, if he had worked in Seattle.
Two characters work their way out of a series of chambers in which they’re imprisoned. Their tools include coffee — which gives one a brief burst of speed — and flatulence, which is used for propulsion.
Sony should have bundled “Escape Plan” with the Vita because it’s a fun way to get used to the new touch controls. A swipe across the screen gets characters moving, and you tap the back to manipulate objects, pushing obstacles aside or extending walkways.
To activate the coffee-burst mode, you squeeze the character by pinching the Vita.
“It’s like us running back and forth to Starbucks every day,” joked Millar, who previously worked for a 10-person studio that relocated to Seattle from Denver so it could more easily hire game developers.
Millar carries an iPhone, but said it has become a “weird time” to build games on Apple’s crowded iOS platform.
“It’s like playing the lottery,” he said. “There’s a lot of bedroom development on iOS; there’s a lot of publishers not sure what they’re doing.”
The Vita “is more appealing to me now, to play a game on a larger screen that’s got a console experience.”
Sony sold more than 75 million units of its first PlayStation Portable (PSP), introduced in 2005, although a wireless version called the PSP Go fizzled after its 2008 launch.
This time around, the wireless capabilities are more developed, and the Vita can piggyback on the success of the PlayStation 3 console, which has sold more than 55 million units, according to John Koller, director of hardware marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America.
“There is absolutely still a market for this, for handheld gaming,” Koller said just before the launch, after which Sony reported that 1.2 million units had been sold worldwide.
Several research firms agree.
IDC predicts handheld game systems will rebound in 2012 and 2013, growing from $14.7 billion this year to just more than $20 billion in 2015. More games will be downloaded to iOS and Android devices but most will be free or nearly free titles, in contrast to the premium games sold for the Vita and Nintendo’s 3DS, the firm noted.
Boston research firm Strategy Analytics expects Sony to sell 12.4 million Vitas this year, generating $2 billion in new software and hardware sales.
Koller said most Vita buyers will be PS3 owners looking to extend their gaming beyond the home.
A key feature of the Vita is its ability to connect remotely to the home console, so you can continue a game when you leave the house or compete with players on both platforms, although so far there are few games with this “remote play” capability.
I wasn’t enchanted with the wireless capability during my testing, though. Connecting was tricky at times and it wasn’t fast enough to play a video clip stored on my PS3. The cost of AT&T 3G Vita service is also too high, ranging from $15 to $50 per month.
It was easy to use the Vita-to-PS3 connection to access files stored on computers on my home network, which made me hope that Sony really has secured its PlayStation Network.
The Vita hardware is impressive, black and chrome with a solid feel. Across the top of the 7-by-3-inch case are iPhone-style volume and power buttons.
Unfortunately the software isn’t as refined, and it suffers from the surplus of control options. You unlock the device by “peeling” back a page with a finger swipe, to expose the last screen that was running. A swipe gesture scrolls through recent apps, or you can tap a button that calls up tabs and eventually the home screen.
Apps have smartphone-style icons. You expect to launch them with a tap, but it’s a two-step process. You tap the icon, then tap a “start” button that appears a moment later.
It’s also complicated to transfer files to the device using a USB cable, a process that requires you to download and run a special program on your PC.
After a run of maddening system messages, I wondered if it should have been called the PS Vista, after Microsoft’s ill-fated operating system. But I found myself reaching for the Vita every night during a recent trip to Oregon, where I couldn’t stop playing the Vita’s flagship game, “Uncharted: Golden Abyss” (left).
You climb and shoot through ancient ruins in search of treasure, just like the cinematic “Uncharted” series on the PS3. On the $50 Vita version — produced by a Sony studio in Bend, Ore. — you also swipe the screen to “clean” artifacts or make temple rubbings.
Millar said Sony is helping studios like his build top-shelf games to carry the new platform.
“We realized that if the platform does well, then we all do well,” he said. “If the platform doesn’t, we know that Sony has other plans for the future that we could definitely be on to.”
As I said, it’s a leap of faith.