May 29, 2012

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The Future of PlayStation Plus: E3 2012 and Beyond

The Future of PlayStation Plus: E3 2012 and Beyond

Since its June 2010 inception, PlayStation Plus has offered significant value to gamers. The first year of service brought nearly $900 of savings and freebies to subscribers, and the deal continues to sweeten. As the second year of Plus draws to a close, each passing month brings more free games and even steeper discounts. These aren’t “bargain bin” titles, either; free downloads of the critically-acclaimed Far Cry 2 and Trine 2, along with bona fide classics like Final Fantasy V and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, are among 2012′s early offerings.

Many Plus subscribers might say the system needs no change. However, with record losses posted and Vita sales floundering, there’s never been a better time to examine Plus’s role in Sony’s larger online strategy. PlayStation Network has always been this generation’s only free (and fully-featured) console service. This enticing option could continue, but a re-imagining of how the service works for both subscribers and regular users could benefit Sony without leaving gamers feeling stiffed.

E3 rumors are swirling; among them are the possibility of a Sony-Gaikai partnership for game streaming and some kind of major Plus announcement. Sony’s June 5 conference is right around the corner and speculation is due. Let’s consider what’s possible (and what could be announced) for the future of PlayStation Plus and PSN at large.

Tiered Plus Subscriptions

A Sony-published online survey making the rounds a few months back sought to gauge interest in a wide variety of potential perks and freebies. Among the options listed were tiered PlayStation Plus subscriptions offering different benefits at varied cost. As an example, gamers could continue paying $49.99 for a host of free PSN games and exclusive discounts throughout the year, or up the ante to receive free retail games (old and new, alongside existing bonuses) at a greater price – perhaps $99.99/year.

Of course, the opposite would likely hold true. Gamers could pay less to receive less, perhaps cutting out discounts in favor of free PSN titles, or vice versa. Either way, a greater degree of choice for consumers can only benefit both sides. Gamers who aren’t interested in a certain aspect or don’t feel that $49.99 is justified can get a better deal on a slimmer plan, while a suitably attractive package could draw at least some gamers to the most expensive option. Sony stands to make money from both groups. However, just as many consumers might backslide to the cheaper plan as upgrade. If this tiered system becomes reality, it will be important for Sony to strike the perfect balance of incentives, making the cheapest option attractive to new buyers, keeping some current subscribers happy where they are, and inspiring others to ante up for the premium package.

Streaming Games

Largely popularized by OnLive, streaming is gradually emerging as a viable gaming alternative. By rendering games on off-site servers and transmitting the video feed to gamers playing at home, streaming… well, streamlines the gaming experience for both distributor and user. Recent rumors point towards a major announcement by OnLive competitor Gaikai at E3, and Sony could be standing right alongside Gaikai when the reveal is made. Given Sony’s history of supporting third-party app development on the PS3, Gaikai’s catalog of games could come to the PS3 (or Vita) by similar means. If so, Sony would become the first console manufacturer to bring streaming to its platform.

Stepping forward as the pioneer for any unprecedented move is always a bold statement, but especially so for an industry and consumer base that remains largely divided on what shape the digital future should take. It’s important to remember that streaming games on your PS3 or Vita would only be an additional feature to complement the physical gaming we know and love. Regardless, expect streaming to go hand-in-hand with PlayStation Plus. Regular users may still have access to Gaikai, but the discounts and freebies we expect from Plus could carry over as well. Indeed, don’t be surprised if the “free Blu-Ray games” described in Sony’s survey tie directly into Gaikai’s catalog. If so, the attractiveness of a premium tiered plan will hinge directly on consumers’ perception and acceptance of streaming.

Advertising

Last week, a Sony patent appeared claiming ownership over advertising that interrupts gameplay to show off the best soda you’ve ever tasted. Let the doom-and-gloom proclamations begin. While patents are often filed as a means to cover legal bases and secure “just-in-case” ideas, it’s perhaps telling that this patent has appeared so close to E3. However, intrusive advertising is the last thing Sony wants to reveal as a standalone announcement. Therefore, one likely outcome is the introduction of ads as a function of Gaikai streaming. Ad-supported Gaikai service for regular PSN users seems reasonable so long as it’s restricted to free content like demos and betas. No one would be forcing PlayStation gamers to use Gaikai – it would be an additional feature of a service that’s still completely free-of-charge. Meanwhile, the ability to remove ads would give even more value to PlayStation Plus, especially when paired with the free games and discounts predicted of the most expensive tier.

Of course, a Gaikai connection is purely speculation, as is the Gaikai partnership itself. I find the possibility of ad-interrupted gameplay on PSN at large equally disconcerting and dubious, but the possibility exists. More likely, overlay ads would appear during PlayStation Store navigation (as if navigating the Store wasn’t nebulous enough). After all, placing ads in past PS3 titles could be a technical challenge, and mandating the change for future titles might seriously damage Sony’s relationship with publishers, developers, and – most importantly – consumers.

And yet, the patent specifically outlines the slowing of gameplay before the appearance of an overlay ad. Even a measure of limited scope (applying only to, say, first-party PSN titles) risks sacrificing artistic integrity and painting Sony as the bad guy among other publishers who haven’t stooped to such intrusive monetization. There’s no scenario in which I see the above tragedy coming to light for all PS3 gaming, but in a world where free television and music streaming is universally ad-supported, the Gaikai presumption appears once more. The most popular streaming services – sites like YouTube, Pandora, and Hulu – all generate revenue through interrupting advertisements. Streaming games is largely untested, unfamiliar territory, but couldn’t the same apply here? If gaming is as much a legitimate and mainstream entertainment medium as movies and music, shouldn’t it?

The future of PlayStation Network and PlayStation Plus will be unveiled when Sony execs take the stage at E3 2012 next week. In the meantime, keep speculating – you never know what ideas you might unearth. We invite you to post a comment and join the pre-E3 conversation. Tell us what you think of this speculation, and share some of your own ideas and theories for the future of Plus and PSN.