The battle for console supremacy between Microsoft and Sony is more heated now than it's been for years - unsurprising, given that this is the first time the rival firms have actually launched new hardware head-to-head. It's also, however, turned out to be a remarkably civil affair. Xbox and PlayStation executives are full of praise for one another, with criticism largely being couched as humour rather than smack-talk; a far cry from the more aggressive and arrogant approaches which were often evident in previous console generations.
That makes it all the more surprising that Sony was so willing to bluntly and openly criticise the new subscription scheme being offered by Electronic Arts and, by extension, the decision of Microsoft to permit its launch on Xbox One. Noting that PS4 owners have subscribed to the PS Plus service in large numbers (not least since it's required for online multiplayer, of course), the company said that "we don't think asking our fans to pay an additional $5 a month for this EA-specific program represents good value".
Ouch. In a single line, Sony is effectively saying that EA's offer is a rip-off and that Microsoft isn't looking after the interests of its customers by permitting it to launch on Xbox One. It's probably the single harshest statement of the console generation thus far; perhaps not as much a slap in the face as Sony's infamous "here's how you share a game on PS4" YouTube video, but at least that was presented with a healthy dose of humour. A corporate statement effectively accusing one of the world's biggest publishers and a rival platform holder of offering bad value to consumers is a gauntlet being thrown down, and it's also clearly indicative of a serious concern among Sony's management - otherwise the usual "we don't comment on what our rivals are doing" approach would have sufficed.
"Even among those who aren't interested in EA Access, there's a sense that they'd like to have the option. If it's such bad value, why not let gamers vote with their wallets?"
So what's Sony's problem with EA Access? On the surface, the service looks harmless enough; you pay $5 a month or $30 a year for access to a selection of EA's back-catalogue games, plus discounts (and early access) for new games from the publisher. Sony's claim that this isn't good value for gamers doesn't actually hold water; for many gamers, it won't be of interest (there's nothing in the launch catalogue that floats my boat, for one), but for others it may well represent significant savings on games they're genuinely interested in. It's highly subjective, in other words, and that's fuelled a certain degree of disgruntlement among gamers regarding Sony's motives. Even among those who aren't interested in EA Access, there's a sense that they'd like to have the option. If it's such bad value, why not let gamers vote with their wallets?
In part, that argument stems from a basic disagreement about what a console platform is. Sony views its consoles as a closed, curated platform where it controls the software and services that are made available with the ultimate intention that everything should be pretty simple and straightforward, and come with a basic guarantee of quality. Even its vision for how indie games should work on the PlayStation platform cleaves to that approach; Sony wants PlayStation to be the place where indies (both games and developers) can "graduate" to after proving their abilities on more open platforms. It's the anti-App Store approach, a platform that's gated and curated - albeit with lower gates than ever before, and curators who are more proactive and engaged with the wider world of development than ever before. Applying the same logic to services shows you why Sony, which is actually more open than Microsoft in many ways (witness its willingness to allow cross-play between multiplayer games on different platforms, for example), is not willing to countenance EA's own peculiar little version of PS Plus to exist on the system.
Thinking it through, it's easy to see why. Look at it firstly from a customer experience standpoint. Right now, if you buy a PlayStation console, a PS Plus account is a bit of a no-brainer. It's inexpensive (about the same price as EA's offering, in fact) and gives you a pretty decent helping of software across all three PlayStation platforms each month, with the games continuing to pile up as long as you stay subscribed. You also get (admittedly small) discounts on software, and on PS4, you get access to online multiplayer features. It's a fairly straightforward offering that a majority of customers probably ought to bolt on to their new PS4 or Vita; and a pretty significant proportion of them do just that.
Now consider the same service in a post-EA Access world. "Sign up to PS Plus and get free games every month, including AAA titles from top publishers" becomes the significantly more confused "Sign up to PS Plus and get free games every month, including AAA titles from top publishers, except EA titles, because you'll need to subscribe to this other thing if you want those". It's not a no-brainer any more, and plenty of consumers will probably be turned off by that extra complexity. Moreover, it's unquestionably a slippery slope. If Sony allowed EA to have its own subscription channel on PS4, other publishers would absolutely want to follow suit. Suddenly, the whole PS Plus offering - a key part of Sony's strategy - is just one little channel in the middle of EA Access, something from Activision, an undoubtedly Uplay branded horror from Ubisoft, and god knows who else besides. Individually, each of these channels might not be bad value. Taken as a whole, they're a radical change to the whole concept of the console, and potentially disastrous for the platform's ability to gently nudge more casual consumers onto a subscription service.
Consider, for a moment, the console we're talking about here. It's a cable box, in effect. You buy the console, and then you decide which "channels" you want in your package. Do you want the EA channel? The Activision channel? The Ubisoft channel? What about the PlayStation Plus channel, which has all these weird little indie games and the occasional big exclusive? Tot up the figures; suddenly you're not just buying a PS4, you're also dedicating yourself to a pretty hefty sum each month for a subscription, just like the cable TV model. Moreover, you're not going to get the latest games for that - you'll still be expected to fork out premium sums for those.
" I'm not convinced that Sony has done the wrong thing in turning down EA Access; in the long term, it may well be the right thing to do for consumers and for the platform"
Again, while I personally don't want anything to do with that model, I can completely understand that for some people, it's pretty attractive. Cable TV itself isn't a business model that has a future, but it's going to be around (and making money) for a long time nonetheless; games companies have looked at its revenue models with envy for many years. Indeed, Sony is probably the root cause of this whole thing in the first place - it's the very success of PlayStation Plus that makes publishers long for not just a slice of that pie, but a pie of their very own. The attraction for publishers is clear; the attraction for some consumers is also understandable. I can definitely see why some people are frustrated that Sony isn't going to give them the option, even if I also completely understand Sony's desire to protect PlayStation Plus (which is more than just revenue, it's a vital showcase for the PlayStation platform) and its horror at the idea of effectively becoming a cable box for third-party publishers to sell subscriptions on.
I wish, though, that Sony had laid out its concerns in a more clear and honest fashion. "This is bad value" doesn't cut it when consumers are perfectly capable of doing the maths for themselves and figuring out how much money they might save. "We don't like where this is leading, because the idea of a storefront where consumers have to decide which publishers' games they have to subscribe to and a $50 bill at the end of each month just isn't our vision for PS4" would have been a more honest statement that would probably have resonated with more consumers.
Then again, perhaps the company feels like it needs to tread carefully around statements like that, given the eyebrow-raising price tags which it's still attaching to game rentals on PlayStation Now. The service is still in beta and thus likely to change before launch, but to describe some of its present pricing as "shameless gouging" would be excessively polite, and I sense that this context has lent fuel to the fury of some gamers who have responded to Sony's criticisms of EA on value grounds. I'm not convinced that Sony has done the wrong thing in turning down EA Access; in the long term, it may well be the right thing to do for consumers and for the platform. I definitely also understand, however, the fear that the early success of the PS4 is allowing Sony to backslide to the kind of dismissive arrogance that lost it so many friends in the early days of the PS3. PlayStation Now's pricing missteps make it very hard to stomach Sony spokespeople attacking other companies' value offerings. No matter how many consoles you're selling, throwing stones in glass houses is never a good idea.