Since the demise of the Nintendo DS, I've done almost all of my videogaming on smartphones and tablets. A confluence of circumstances made traditional console formats less attractive for a variety of reasons, but also saw me spend more money on gaming than I had done in years. iOS and Android games offer a huge range of incredibly good titles at mindbogglingly tiny prices, almost all of them capable of fitting into whatever free time you have available.
(And not just because they're short, snappy arcade twitch games like Super Hexagon or Impossible Road. Classics like Civilisation and Shadowrun have been revived brilliantly to suit the format, and traditional genres such as scrolling shooters have actually been improved by touchscreen controls, with the likes of Dodonpachi and Raiden rendered far more player-friendly without reducing their fearsome difficulty one iota. Pinball games and others can finally get the aspect ratio they've always wanted.)
More to the point, it almost never takes 47 days to download one.
In early November this year I accidentally stumbled across a game called Life Of Pixel. A classic-style 2D platformer with its levels themed to the graphical formats of various old-school consoles and computers, it looked like just the sort of thing I enjoyed, and seemed the ideal reason to dust off my little-used PS Vita, so I set off to the Playstation Store to investigate perhaps buying it.
The first problem was that it didn't exist.
Despite having come out for Vita in January 2013, Life Of Pixel simply cannot be found on the Playstation Store website. I tried everything, and got friends to look too. It's just not there. That meant trying to locate it through the Vita itself – something I always try to avoid as a first option because of the mindboggling agony of using Sony's comically bad onscreen keyboard.
(I'd found several reviews of the game on Vita, but none of them had a "Buy" link. I'd assumed that was because videogaming websites are so abysmal these days, but it seems I may have been doing them a disservice, in this case at least.)
Searching for the title on the Vita's own Playstation Store produces hundreds of results, but none of them are Life Of Pixel. You get chess games, pinball games, PS1 games, weird Grand Theft Auto companion apps, but not what you're looking for,
This might, I eventually determined through some Googling, have been because it's a "Playstation Mobile" title and Sony in their great wisdom have chosen to segregate those in their own section, so I went directly to that.
Bewilderingly the PS Mobile section has no Search of its own, and – staggeringly – no A-Z listing either, just a choice of categories. There wasn't one for "Platform" games, so I had to decide whether Life Of Pixel would be most likely to have been allocated to "Action", "Arcade", "Casual", "Family" or "Unique".
(Sony has apparently felt the need to break up the PS Mobile titles in this way despite the fact that most of the categories have single-figure numbers of games in them. There are six in "Sports", four in "Racing", three each in "Music/Rhythm" and Family", two in "Brain Training" and ONE all by itself in "Horror".)
I tried "Arcade" first, but games in the category aren't listed alphabetically (it appears to be listed by release date, because OF COURSE I know exactly when the game came out, you cretins) so I had to scroll slowly through the entire list (of 50) in order to establish that it wasn't in there.
I got lucky with my second try – it was one of the 57 titles in "Action". If anyone can actually explain to me the difference between an "Arcade" game and an "Action" game, incidentally, I'm all ears. All that remained to do was buy it. It transpired that it cost a very reasonable £1.59 – another fact that hadn't been mentioned in any of the reviews – so I clicked the Buy button and prepared to pay.
I fully expected to have to laboriously enter my credit card details via a pretend mobile-phone keypad from 1999, because Sony, but I gritted my teeth.
Naturally, I was ordered to deposit £5 in my "Playstation Wallet", because that's how a modern business works, right? If you walk into a newsagents to buy a 65p Twix, they insist you give them at least a fiver, non-refundable, but which can be offset against any future Twixes you might wish to purchase there.
This, of course, was an invitation which could go and insert itself up a pig's personal regions as far as I was concerned. My Vita had barely been turned on since an enjoyable first week of Spelunky and TxK, it could be years before I'd have any desire to buy any more games for it, and I'd be entirely unsurprised to find that Wallet money expired if unused. Sod that.
Unwilling to pay three times the actual cost of the game I wanted but reluctant to give up, I found the developer on Twitter and dropped them a line offering to PayPal them the £1.59 in return for a promo code. Very kindly they replied promptly and sent me one for free, along with one for the Steam version. The Steam code worked but the Vita one didn't, delivering an unhelpful error code which couldn't be found on the laughably dire PS Store Help section. The developer inquired with Sony as to the problem fruitlessly.
At this point I admitted defeat. I had a desultory play of the game on Steam, but my Xbox 360 PC controller was recently destroyed in an unfortunate incident and it was no fun with the arrow keys. But a few weeks later, fate intervened.
I've had no interest in a PS4 or Xbox One before now. There's no room left under my telly, the games look hackneyed and generic and comically priced, and the experience of owning a PS3 in particular has put me off games consoles forever. Because I don't use it all that often, hand on heart I'm not sure I've EVER switched it on to play a game without it demanding I go through a laborious, tedious firmware update first.
But the news that the newest port of GTA V would be playable in first-person mode was tempting. YouTube videos made it look like it brought a whole new dimension to the series, and as I haven't devoted any serious time to a GTA game since GTA3 on the PS2, it looked an inviting way back.
It still didn't seem to warrant the cost by itself, but when GAME launched a bundle offer containing GTA V, Driveclub (the first console racing game I've wanted to play in years, because it was the first one without a huge flabby story about cool urban dudes getting in the way), the much lauded The Last Of Us and some Call Of Duty game or other for £349, some of the old tingling came back.
I had a poke around to see if there was anything else that might help justify the purchase, and remembered Resogun. I've loved all of Housemarque's previous games for Sony, and it looked right up my street. But while reading up on it I discovered that it had just come out for PS3 and Vita too, and it was a "Cross-Buy" title so I could buy and play it on those formats now, but then get it for free if I bought a PS4.
This, I suddenly realised, gave me an opportunity. If I bought Resogun on the PS Store, I could get Life Of Pixel at the same time, the combined cost of £11.58 enabling me to dodge the £5 minimum wallet funding and magically get the games I wanted for their actual price, unfashionable and anachronistic concept as that apparently is in the world of Sony.
I know. It's hard to believe anyone could be so naive, isn't it?
There was no visible mechanism by which I could seemingly purchase the two games in a single transaction. The PS Store on Vita offered me no way to put Life Of Pixel into a "basket", and of course it didn't exist anywhere else. Attempting to deposit cash into my wallet first was only permitted in multiples of £5, whether on the console or the website.
But Sony had reckoned without the fact that I AM A SUPER-GENIUS. I had a vague recollection that you could buy something by credit card for its actual price so long as it was over £5. I worked out that what you do in this situation is buy the £1.59 game, which necessitates spending a fiver. There's no way round that.
BUT, because I also wanted a £10 game, if I bought the cheap one first then I could get Resogun for just the £6.58 that's the difference between my remaining credit and the £9.99 purchase price. If you buy those two games in the wrong order it'll set you back £15, but in the right order it's just the £11.58 they actually cost. Such is modern electro-commerce (if you let it be run by dribbling imbeciles).
Naturally it couldn't be quite so straightforward. My credit card had expired since the last time I bought a Playstation-family game, though of course the Vita didn't inform me of that fact directly. It simply warned that there had been "an error" with my purchase and that I should wait "about a day" before trying again.
Fortunately I remembered that the card had expired a couple of months ago, and set about trying to find somewhere to enter the details of its replacement. This only took 20 minutes of fruitless searching in the Vita's settings menu and on the Playstation Network website before a kindly soul on Twitter took pity on me and sent me a link.
And it worked. I downloaded Life Of Pixel for £5 (I've simplified this step for brevity, because the Vita pretended the download had failed, leading me to at one point be downloading three copies of it), and then bought Resogun for £6.58. The Life Of Pixel icon appeared on my homescreen. And then my troubles really began.
On stupidly trying to actually play the game, the Vita informed me that it needed a new "runtime package". It didn't offer to download it for me, or tell me where it could be located. There was an "OK" button, but it did nothing.
I embarked on some more Googling, but could find only a bunch of unhelpfully glib dismissals from the PS Store's user-based help "community" to other people with similar problems. ("Well, it should work." Yeah, thanks.)
Stabbing around wildly in the dark, I eventually noticed that the Vita's notification screen mentioned that a completely different "runtime package" – version 1.21 rather than the 2.0 that I apparently wanted – was "Waiting to install". Tapping on it did nothing, and the only option offered was to delete it, so I did.
I tried starting Life Of Pixel again and this time the OK button downloaded the 2.0 package, because apparently the uninstalled 1.21 had been acting as some manner of digital bed-blocker, though of course the Vita hadn't thought to mention the fact. The 2.0 version was now sitting uninstalled on the same notification screen, because what videogame console owners often want to do is download incomprehensible firmware code and then not run it.
After a few more minutes of trying unsuccessfully to install the new firmware, I had a lightbulb moment and tried running Life Of Pixel again, at which point it installed the runtime package and OH MY GOD I'M ACTUALLY PLAYING ONE OF THE GAMES I STARTED TRYING TO BUY ROUGHLY THREE HOURS AGO! (Or, viewed another way, seven weeks ago.)
Having verified it was now working, I thought I'd tidy up by getting Resogun installed so I could relax and enjoy Life Of Pixel without an unfinished task nagging at me. That turned out to be another mistake. The game had apparently downloaded, but hadn't installed. It was listed on the notifications page as "Waiting to install", but tapping on it produced the error message "Could not find the application".
I tried downloading it again. "An error has occurred (C0-10935-8)". I sighed and decided to apply some lateral thinking – I'd try to install it on the PS3 instead.
Even though I'd actually switched it on and installed a firmware update as recently as last week, the PS3 needed another one. It took almost 40 minutes, but it did enable me to click on the Playstation Store icon, which turned out to also need an update. Another eight minutes later I located Resogun in my Downloads list. There were two versions available, in slightly different file sizes but with no other identifying information. I picked the biggest and set it downloading.
I had chosen poorly. After the game downloaded and installed I tried to start it, only to find that it had apparently received a 102MB update between my buying it less than an hour ago and now. Because OF COURSE when you're running an online-only game-buying service, you sell people the old version and let them update it manually, rather than actually uploading the latest one. That's just common sense.
But just a few minutes later I was actually playing Resogun too. It was 3.29am. It had taken 56 minutes from switching the PS3 on. In total it had taken me almost four hours and an incalculable amount of effort and misery to buy, download, install and play two small games of just a couple of hundred MB each.
To perform the same task on my iPad would have taken perhaps four minutes and involved four taps on the screen (2x "GET", 2x "OPEN") plus a single password entry, even if I hadn't used the iPad in months – it's very rare for a game to refuse to run unless the iPad has the latest OS version, the App Store doesn't ever need to be updated separately, game downloads are always the latest version, and you never, ever have to manually find other bits of code and run them first.
(For those concerned and fretful, I eventually worked out that the Vita download of Resogun had crashed, and I deleted the partial file and tried again, at which point it worked on the handheld too. Joy was unconfined.)
I'd planned to go out and buy the PS4 bundle today. I'm somewhat less enthusiastic about the idea now. It's incomprehensibly mystifying why Sony is losing money hand over fist and why the Vita has bombed.
I'm being sarcastic there, of course. But it's a matter of genuine astonishment to me that anyone is prepared to endure the Kafka-esque ordeal that is the buying and playing of console games in 2014. Apple must be eyeing the next continent whose population it can turn into tortured sweatshop slaves with glee.