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Can Sony’s Playstation Plus Succeed?

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For as long as the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 have been on the market together, debate has raged over which online service, Xbox Live or the Playstation Network, is better value for gamers. Although many people argue that Xbox Live Gold’s service is a superior offering, many others feel that its advantages are offset by the fact that it usually costs about $50/year, while Sony’s PSN is free.

Well now, fanboy arguments are going to get unusually complex and nuanced, as Sony are set to launch Playstation Plus, a so-called ‘premium service’ that will exist atop the existing Playstation Network and offer gamers perks, bonuses and discounts for $50/year.

But is it worth it? And, in the face of stiff competition from Xbox Live, will enough people sign up for the service to make it a success?

What is Playstation Plus?

Sony suggests that Playstation Plus is a premium service that will sit on top of the regular PSN. All the things that are free on PSN now, like multiplayer, Home, or downloading demos will remain that way (for now), while PSN+ will cost $49.99/year(+free 3 month bonus) or $17.99/3 months.  So what ‘premium stuff’ does that 50 bucks a year get you?

  • “Free” monthly full PSN games (the first month, the game is Wipeout HD)
  • “Free” monthly PSOne games and Minis (these will work on both the PS3 and PSP)
  • Discounts on the PSN that are exclusive to Plus subscribers.
  • Early access to betas and trials
  • Access to the Sony ‘digital magazine’ Qore
  • Full game trials, which involve downloading a full game and then being able to play through the first hour of the game.
  • Automatic downloads, including ‘push’ updates for new firmware and game patches.

In many ways, this is Sony taking the web’s ‘Freemium’ model used by companies like Flickr – in which all users get the basics for free and heavy users pay for premium features – and adapting it to their needs. Those premium features do seem like quite a lot in terms of ‘stuff’ – but it also feels like Sony are initially throwing things at the wall to see what sticks. Certainly, full game trials seem appealing and it’s nice to have a few game or three every month, especially if you are the sort of the gamer who buys downloadable titles frequently.

Still, it’s worth keeping in mind that those ‘free’ games are essentially extended rentals – you only have them for the duration of your subscription. And all in all, PSN+ sounds a little vague right now – as if Sony themselves aren’t quite sure what they’ll be offering themselves. This may end up being a good thing if Sony can add and tweak things to make it increasingly more appealing – but they’ll need to act fast before they confuse consumers and construct a clear, compelling message that says “PSN+ offers you this X and this is why you’ll want it”.

Can it Match Xbox Live?

20081028 xbox 360 dashboard

Almost! But not in a couple of key ways.

The problem is that, while there are some alluring aspects to PSN+, it still doesn’t address some of the biggest complaints that gamers have about PSN:

  • No party system.
  • No cross game chat.

Sony have said that they are looking into cross game chat for some time now, but rumors have persisted for some time that Sony engineers are really struggling to make it work with older games. There has been less cries for a party system, but vocal members of the gaming community say it should definitely be there. While the discounts and free games are either on par or best Xbox Live, without these key features offered by Microsoft’s system, Playstation Plus will still be seen by the gaming community as ‘the lesser platform’.

Indeed, in a way, Xbox Live and PSN+ are slightly different animals: with Xbox Live you are being charged for a service; with PSN+, you are being charged primarily for content. Unfortunately for Sony, people seem just as concerned about the latter as the former.

Is it Good Value For Money?

Um… kinda? It seems that whether or not PSN+ is ‘worth it’ all depends on what kind of PSN user you are. You can imagine the Playstation Plus would be great for the following type of user:

  • People who own both a PS3 and PSP and like to download PSOne classics or Minis
  • People who regularly buy downloadable PSN games
  • People who were already subscribed to digital magazine Qore and wouldn’t mind the extra content.

So essentially, this is a subscription service for Playstation 3 owners who already spend a lot on the PSN and to whom PSN+ will represent savings rather than an expense. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that heavy users will likely already own a lot of the games discounts are offered on.

What Sony Can Do To Make PSN+ More Compelling

Right now, it feels like there isn’t a clear and obvious reason for most PS3 users to upgrade. So what it seems that Sony really needs is a pitch or message that sells PSN+. Though there are some definite benefits – especially when you consider it’s only about 4 bucks a month – the overall message so far feels like “give us some extra money and we’ll give you some extra stuff”. At the very least, it seems that Sony isn’t really selling this right.

But beyond that, Sony have a simple goal that they are so far failing at: make PSN+ more compelling than Xbox Live Gold. Right now, with cross-game chat and a party system missing, multiplayer is just a better experience on Xbox Live Gold. Beyond that though, Microsoft’s vision of online multiplayer has been more comprehensive from the start: Xbox Live integration was a required component for games (if not necessarily mutliplayer) and voice chat and other features were there from the beginnig. Since Sony are playing catch-up, they need to be able to point to something on PSN and say “here, Xbox Live can’t do this”.

Moreover, Sony’s advantage with the PS3 has always been its prodigious media capabilities, and it’s an area that they’re now doing a relatively good job of selling. So perhaps Sony might throw in a movie rental per month as well? Whether or not this makes financial sense for Sony is something only they and their content partners know, but if I knew I was also getting at least one movie rental per month, the service would be slightly more compelling.

For the time being though, the appeal of Playstation Plus seems murky at best. It doesn’t seem to offer a clear, easily articulable value proposition – and that’s what a lot of people need to plunk down 50 bucks in one shot. While European subscribers are getting LittleBigPlanet for free, North American customers are getting no such enticing offer. And until gamers can see an obvious reason to upgrade to Plus, the answer to the question “Can Sony’s Playsation Plus Succeed” may well be ‘no’.

Techi readers are always good at offering suggestions. So – what does Sony have to do to make Playstation Plus a desirable service? And what features could they practically add to make it more appealing than Xbox Live?

  1. I’ve always wondered why no one argues for the PS for the reason that multiplayer/online on it is Free! If you wanna play with/against your friend all you need to do is connect really. While on Xbox, it has always cost a lot of money.
    Shouldn’t the playing part be free??
    Sure I get that Xbox has it’s own servers or what not, but still. Do I really need the put out money to be able to play with my friends?(after I purchased a game which costs a LOT & paying for the inet connection.)

    Whatever PSN+ does with it’s service (it did seem a little thin atm), I really really hope they keep multiplayer as a free service!

    1. Everything that we get before Playstation Plus, is still free. Meaning we can play games and chat with friends online for free. This service is strictly optional.

  2. I’m not sure what a party system does exactly, and why it is preferable to joining up in-game the regular way. Even if PSN Plus adds crossgame voice chat, the cross-game text chat rooms already available would be the preferable option. Xbox Live lacks an internet browser which is a bigger feature.

  3. I find it interesting that writers still claim that PSN is “playing catch-up” with Xbox Live. So there’s no party chat. How big a deal is that? If Xbox Live wasn’t populated by racist, hate-spewing 12 year olds, you wouldn’t need to only talk to your friends.

    When I pop a brand new multiplayer game in my PS3, I can play with others and there’s voice chat which is what you really need. I bought the new Transformers game the day after launch and I got online quick and easy and was playing a smooth match right away. Sure, there are a few features on Live that are better but I think “catch-up” is an exaggeration.

    As for the topic of PSN+, I think people forget that at launch, it’s not for the mainstream. Sony has pretty much admitted that it’s for a certain (niche) PlayStation consumer (like me). Between the added (rental) games, the discounts and the scheduled updates it’s a great value for someone like me. Heck, the scheduled updates are ALMOST worth the price of admission alone. I know I’ll get burned by being an early adopter but there’s a distinct possibility that it will be more than worth it in the end.

    I really don’t know if they need to make it a desirable service – it’s already desirable to me. Ultimately, they need to make sure the content included is good to make it worthwhile to me – include good games and I’ll pay. I don’t need Xbox Live because I already have a perfectly good PSN and the online part is free which means if I don’t renew my PSN+ I’ll still be playing games online with my friends.

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