#108: EX Plus alpha
Overpriced, undersold and a branding disaster, Sony's new-look subscription service leaves much to be desired.
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News of Sony’s plans to overhaul PlayStation Plus leaked three months ago, and as such our collective expectations for the new-look subscription service had already been suitably reduced. Despite that, yesterday’s official announcement of the thing somehow managed to be a disappointment. Credit where credit is due: that is really quite an achievement.
I made a few notes last night on my initial reaction, and was struck by how familiar it felt. Turns out I pretty much wrote it all back in December, in response to the leaks. Let us recap:
“I am not expecting much, honestly, and certainly not the all-in counterplay that ‘taking on’ Game Pass implies — that is, putting firstparty games on the service from launch — because that would require a total upending of the PlayStation division’s business model. Sony makes games at colossal expense and prices them accordingly. It is the market leader, and hugely profitable, and I do not see it risking all that to build up a subscription business; when you’re this far out in front, you leave the risks to the chasing pack. Even given the greater economies of scale in play thanks to the larger PlayStation userbase, I’m not sure I see a way for the Game Pass approach to be financially viable for Sony without it being too expensive for players.”
Check out Mystic Meg over here. Except for the ‘too expensive’ part, I suppose. They still managed that, somehow.
Day-and-date firstparty games were never likely to be part of the plan, but even with that in mind I am surprised by how disappointing this all sounds, and am honestly at a bit of a loss understanding Sony’s thinking. Why announce it now, if it isn’t launching until June? Why limit the scope of said announcement to a bland post on the PlayStation Blog, with the now-customary accompanying Jim Ryan interview on gamesindustry.biz? (Seriously, do they have compromising photographs of him or something? I like GI too, Jim, but let’s try and spread the love a bit.) And why, if you’re announcing it two or three months ahead of launch in a presumed attempt to build some buzz, is the announcement so light on detail?
Sony was faced with a number of decisions coming into this thing, and it looks to me like it has come down on the wrong side of them all. The new-look PS Plus is sorely lacking, at least as far as we know, in irresistible software; it is far too expensive, with its highest tier costing 20% more per month than Game Pass Ultimate; and its branding is an absolute disaster. I had another read of the PS Blog post before sitting down to write this and I have already forgotten what each tier is called, and what it contains. Reading it feels like I’m opening a new bank account, mentally weighing up the various monthly fees against the promise of bundled phone insurance, credit-card cashback and some discounts at local coffee shops and fast-fashion chains.
Much of this could have been avoided had Sony been a bit more open about the launch line-up. In particular, knowing the contents of the retro library — PS1, PS2 and PSP games will be downloadable or streamed from the cloud, PS3 titles will be cloud-only — would have gone a long way to unmuddying the waters. As I said in December, my fear is that this aspect of the service will disappoint (“Just Tekkens and Killzones, Gods Of War and Metal Gearseses stretching off to the horizon with nary a Katamari or Mad Maestro in sight”) and that for most of us, nothing will change. We’ll stick to the base tier, ignoring our free monthly games as per usual. It’s a decent deal for PS Now subscribers, I guess; they’ll automatically be rolled over to the top tier, which if memory serves is called PS Plus Champion Edition. But I can’t see take-up being too high among the rest of us, nor current Now members when their sub expires.
This was never going to be a Game Pass rival, obviously. Sony doesn’t have the resources to take on Microsoft head-on, and it’s now quite clear it has no intention to anyway. It was always going to be an additive service for PlayStation users, rather than platform-defining like Game Pass is on Xbox, and that’s all it needed to be. Sony is still the market leader, selling consoles as fast as it can make them. Its games tend to be rapturously received and the community appears to have largely adjusted to, if not quite accepted, the £70 pricetag on PS5 games. I recognise that Sony had to walk a tightrope here: it had to be seen to be doing something about Game Pass, but also had to ensure that its response did not interfere with its existing business model. But that hardly excuses the volume of unforced errors we saw in yesterday’s announcement. The end result was a very good advert for Game Pass, which I doubt was the intention, somehow.
It is worth remembering, if we’re being kind, that Game Pass was itself hardly irresistible at launch. Here’s The Verge reporting on the launch and its initial line-up: “Titles like Halo 5: Guardians, Payday 2, NBA 2K16, and SoulCalibur II will all be included.” Not exactly heart-stopping, is it. It took almost a year for Microsoft to commit day-and-date firstparty releases to the service. Sure, Sony could perhaps have learned a little from how Game Pass has grown in the five years since, but it’s worth noting that what these things look like on day one is rarely how they’re intended to look a few years down the line. Perhaps there’s hope. Perhaps.
I often see people complain that PlayStation Now is somewhat underappreciated. Folk think it’s all cloud-streamed, when it isn’t; they don’t realise the number of classics from the PlayStation lineage that are available, either. This is partly because of the extent to which Game Pass dominates the conversation around subscriptions. But ultimately it is Sony’s fault for not hyping it up enough. At some point it just sort of stopped talking about PS Now, the same way it stopped talking about PSVR for a while, and Playstation TV, Vita, EyeToy et al before that. You can always tell when Sony loses interest in something. From the way this new service has been assembled, and the fashion in which it has been announced, I’m not convinced it is all that interested in it even now, and it hasn’t even launched the thing yet.
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Funomena is closing its doors at the end of the month following People Make Games’ investigation of CEO Robin Hunicke’s leadership. Contractors were let go last week, and fulltime staff will receive their final paychecks on Friday. A sad end to a sad story for a clearly talented team.
Breath Of The Wild 2 has been delayed again, and is now set to launch in Spring 2023, according to Eiji Aonuma’s smart new haircut. Someone told me this thing was pretty much finished in early 2020, you know. Is it planned to release alongside new hardware, the launch of which has been pushed back by supply-chain problems? Has Aonuma played Elden Ring and shat it? Probably just covid-related workflow problems, sure, but let us soothe the pain of the delay with some fanciful speculation.
A California district judge intends to approve an $18m settlement of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s lawsuit against Activision Blizzard. California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which is also suing Activision and fears the federal ruling could prevent it pursuing further damages at state level, says it will “continue to vigorously prosecute its action against Activision.”
Remember Axie Infinity, the briefly popular play-to-earn shitshow that web3 enthusiasts proclaimed as p2e’s proof of concept? Thanks to its lax security, someone drained over $600m in cryptocurrency from the developer’s little corner of the blockchain, leaving the game and all its tokenised doodads effectively worthless. Lots of reading out there on this; the best, as is often the case, comes from Ed Zitron. “Cryptocurrency has grown from a nerdy libertarian doodad into a large collection of ticking timebombs where users surrender control of their finances to imperfect code, sold to consumers as a fast way to make money at a time when it’s difficult to do so otherwise.” Fuck about.
In-person attendance at last week’s GDC was down 59% from the last pre-covid show. But hey, it was up infinity percent on last year. I will take whatever signs of progress that I can.
You’re all caught up! Kindly interface with the buttons below, have a great couple of days, and I’ll see you all on Friday.