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Roundtable: PlayStation Now or never?

GamesIndustry staff offer their own forecasts for Sony's multi-device cloud gaming service

Sony made headlines at the Consumer Electronics Show this week with the announcement of PlayStation Now, the upcoming Gaikai-based game-streaming service. Set for release on the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation 4 this summer, PS Now will allow users to play a variety of PS3 games from a host of online devices. Sony is launching the initiative on its home consoles, but has promised to expand it to the PS Vita, its 2014 Bravia TVs, and eventually tablets and smartphones.

It's certainly an appealing proposition, a Netflix-like service for games, giving people the ability to browse a library of PS3 games from wherever they please. And a demo on the show floor gave attendees an idea of what could be done to keep the visual fidelity up and the input latency down. But there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding PS Now. Sony hasn't revealed the business model yet, much less actual pricing. And given the early success of Microsoft and Sony's new backwards incompatible consoles, how much of a market is there to play last-gen games at all?

There's also the question of how PS Now fits into Sony's larger plans as a hardware company. Sony Computer Entertainment America's marketing VP John Koller has already downplayed PS Now's threat to the traditional console model, but if the tech works and the dollars make sense, why stay in the business of shipping hardware to stores?

While we wait for details, the GamesIndustry International staff shared their thoughts and concerns about PlayStation Now, from what happens in the best-case scenario all the way to the worst. We're all talking about PlayStation Now this week, but will we be by year's end? Is this the future, or just another trip through history from people who didn't learn from the OnLive debacle?

Brendan Sinclair

It's appropriate this news came out of CES, because I've always associated the show more with interesting novelties than anything I or anyone I've ever known would actually purchase, like an oven that runs Android , the world's first connected electric toothbrush, or a bendable TV. That's not to dismiss PlayStation Now entirely; I just think that--much like Xbox Live Arcade on the original Xbox--the service is little more than a proof of concept to see if this can be done. If it can, then the real revolution will come in the next generation.

"Much like Xbox Live Arcade on the original Xbox, the service is little more than a proof of concept to see if this can be done."

This time around, the service just doesn't fit the rest of Sony's ecosystem. I don't think Sony will be able to get away selling access to individual games because people will almost certainly have to accept some compromises when it comes to input latency or visual fidelity.

The only course of action I see here that would result in satisfied customers is to sell people a subscription to PS Now with unlimited access to a catalog of titles, Netflix-style. That's an option, but how does it fit in with the Play Station Plus scheme, which is already booming thanks to the PS4's requirement for online multiplayer and free game giveaways? Is PS Now included in the cost? If so, where's Sony's motivation to keep the selection of streaming games fresh and expanding? If not, how much will people be willing to pay for inferior play experiences of last-gen games? If playing those old games on the new hardware was really such a draw, you'd think it would be helping the Wii U a bit more, or at least that Sony and Microsoft would be hurting in its absence.

PlayStation Now is cool, but I don't think it's going to have much impact until PlayStation Later.

James Brightman

I'm mostly in agreement with Brendan. As I stated in our staff predictions for 2014 feature, I'd be shocked to see much impact this year from cloud gaming in the PlayStation ecosystem. The potential is absolutely huge, and thinking of an all-you-can-eat streaming games service in the style of Netflix makes me giddy, but I have serious doubts that the technology will realize that vision any time soon.

"The promise is there and I'm far more optimistic about PS Now than I ever was about OnLive, but we've got a long ways to go."

There are simply too many obstacles at this point. Reports from the PS Now demos at CES did describe some lag between button presses and on-screen actions--and that's in a relatively controlled environment without millions of users! What happens when PS Now is out in the real world, among many homes' spotty broadband connections, which can easily get choked up from Neftlix, YouTube, Xbox Live, or anything else? I have a fairly decent 50 Mbps connection and even that fails on me more than I'd like. The US broadband infrastructure definitely needs to step up its game.

There's also a matter of the business behind-the-scenes. Gamers will only care about the upfront costs of a subscription, but what about revenue sharing? How much will third-party publishers get from the subscriptions or one-off rentals? I'm sure negotiations are already ongoing, but Sony needs to make the terms appealing if the company wants to quickly build up a sizable library of cloud-based content. The constant negotiating that Netflix has to do to secure content from movie and TV studios is no doubt one of the more irritating parts of operating a streaming service, but it's going to be crucial for Sony to find the right balance. I also think that it would benefit Sony in some ways to tie PS Now to PS Plus. Figure out the offering and the economics and just do it. There are too many sub-brands at work here. Netflix is just Netflix, not Netflix Plus and Netflix Now and whatever else.

Ultimately, I think the promise is there and I'm far more optimistic about PS Now than I ever was about OnLive, but we've got a long ways to go. Hopefully we--and Sony--will learn more from the closed beta that kicks off later this month.

Steve Peterson

PS Now has some great potential to bring PlayStation games to a much wider audience, but I'm far from convinced it will have a major impact. The technical issues involved with scaling up the service to handle (potentially) millions of users are non-trivial, to say the least. While Gaikai made great headway in solving latency issues and creating a fast network, there's still the limitation of cost to consider. Providing a back end capable of running tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of PS One, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games is not going to be easy or inexpensive.

"The most immediate benefit of PS Now to Sony may be a marketing one...they'll be able to say the PS4 has backwards compatibility."

The key issue is the business model. Nintendo hasn't seen a huge impact from selling old Nintendo games on the Virtual Console, and much of that is probably due to pricing. Sony could easily find itself without a lot of customers for PS1 games if they cost $10 to stream them, and then there was some lag or image quality issues as well. An all-you-can-eat subscription model makes more sense to customers, but that may get difficult or expensive for Sony to create--at least for games they don't own.

If the price is low enough, people will overlook technical issues like some lag or graphics that are a bit lower than the original. PS Now could be a great way to get people to try out PlayStation games and then upsell them to a PS4, a PS Vita, or a PS Vita TV. The need for a Dual Shock controller will keep PS Now from having a big impact if it ever gets to Android tablets or phones, but perhaps by that time some workarounds can be engineered.

The most immediate benefit of PS Now to Sony may be a marketing one - even if the initial range of games available is limited, they'll be able to say the PS4 has backwards compatibility. That's a feature Microsoft won't have, at least not until they unveil their own streaming game solution.

Dan Pearson

My first thoughts on this were: latency, server costs, infrastructure, revenue share complexity and impact on retailers, but I don't want to retread subjects already covered above and elsewhere, so instead, I'm going to put on a different shade of Krampus hat and think about how the hardcore are going to take it.

From the devil's advocate side, there are a few obvious objections. Firstly, this is likely to strike something of a discord with customers who've been invested in the PlayStation eco-system for some time. Sony has already done a big U-turn on backwards compatibility once, removing the capacity to play PS2 discs from the later iterations of the PS3-- a move which brought it fairly extended criticism. To reintroduce the potential to play old favourites, but under the proviso that they're paid for again, rather than just dug out of the attic and put in a disc drive, is likely to leave Sony fans with a decent back-catalogue feeling more than a little put out.

"If the tech works, I can see this being a valuable proposition, and likely worth the grumbling that these issues give rise to."

That's something that Sony may well address--we've already seen a fairly sensible system of discounts put in place for people upgrading PS3 software to PS4 versions--but for now I can't really imagine anyone paying for another copy of a PS3 game if they've already got the disc laying around, especially if the only differences are portability and a touch of input delay. That's a barrier which is only going to be compounded when we're talking about digital games. If I've bought a game on PSN before, and it's made available on a new platform in exactly the same version, I don't expect to have to buy or rent it again.

The other grump-trigger I can see huffing its way on to the horizon is the potential impact on PS Plus: it strikes me that PS Now is going to mean that we're highly unlikely to see any classic PlayStation titles added to Sony's existing subscription service. Don't get me wrong, I think PS Plus is probably the best value for money games subscription there is to be had at the moment, but this is going to be stealing a very desirable piece of that virtual pie. Now that PS Plus is essential for online multiplayer, it's probably strong enough to survive that, but I can't see many people being too happy about it.

All that aside, if the tech works, I can see this being a valuable proposition, and likely worth the grumbling that these issues give rise to, especially if it gives me a chance to polish off that pile of unfinished PS3 games without rewiring my living room again. Still, though, that's a very big if, for now.

Rachel Weber

Like Steve, I think price is going to be crucial if Sony is going to get through this and maintain the "good guy" image it built up with the release of the PlayStation 4. Because in my eyes that's the biggest risk, the potential for public relations fallout when the scheme hits inevitable snags. Set it too high and you'll scare off all those gamers that are already paying $60 a time for PlayStation 4 games, set it low and you'll risk not covering your costs and facing a riot if you try and raise it at a later stage.

"Price is going to be crucial if Sony is going to get through this and maintain the 'good guy' image it built up with the release of the PlayStation 4."

Already people are noting, with slightly furrowed brows, that if they want to play some of their old PS3 favourites on their new PS4 or their Bravia TV they'll need to purchase them again. Why would a solid Sony fan pay to play a game that's probably still sat on their shelf on your PS4? I'm one, I've already played all the games I loved on PS3 and I'm excited about what's new on PS4, not what's old. Could I be tempted by a few PlayStation classics? Maybe, but my experience with retro gaming is always the same: "That does not look as good as I remember."

So the question has to be, "Is it a service first time PlayStation owners are crying out for?" If they haven't owned a PS3 or an Xbox 360 then I'm sure they'd be interested in a boost for their new machine, especially if it can be played on their Vita and other non-PlayStation devices - but those people are likely to be intimidated by the choice. And don't forget the market is flooded with PS3s at a reasonable price, with a pile of pre-owned games to go with it. How does Sony make sure players choose PlayStation Now over an $80 pre-owned console and dirt cheap games?

An easy answer is an all-you-can-eat-buffet for those gamers, but that model is easier said than done with so many games needing adaptations to make the transition, especially taking into account how different control schemes will have to be on tablets or phones in the future. You might want to play The Last Of Us on a tablet when you're on the move, but will you really remember to pack your DualShock? Or want to grapple with shooting mutants with a series of sad finger jabs?

I have faith in Sony that they can change my mind about the service, that there'll be some twist or killer punch they're yet to deliver. Free with PS Plus, perhaps? Or a series of lovingly updated PlayStation 1 and 2 titles that will be like a face full of nostalgia. It'll take something like that to get me interested.

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