Today, every major gaming company and its subsidiary aspires to be the “Netflix of games” in one form or another. Xbox Game Pass, Apple Arcade, Google Play Pass, Ubisoft’s UPlay+, EA Access and even Nintendo’s Switch Online bundle access to dozens or hundreds of games for one low monthly fee.
And then there’s PlayStation Now. Sony’s service began offering game bundles with a monthly subscription in early 2015, way ahead of most competitors. But a mix of confused marketing and limited access to Sony’s own first-party catalog has left the service languishing at just one million subscribers (compared to a reported 9.5 million monthly subscribers for Xbox Game Pass). [Update: Replaced outdated 700,000 subscriber number for PS Now from May]†
Despite its lead, PlayStation Now is at risk of being swamped by subscription competition in the marketplace and public consciousness.
When PS Now PS Then Was
Many of PlayStation Now’s problems can be traced back to its launch. In 2014, the service introduced itself by charging ridiculously high, time-limited rental rates for a single game for streaming access to a small selection of PS3 classics. After just a few months, that changed to an unlimited subscription model with functional streams of 100 PS3 games for $15 to $20 per month.
Today’s PlayStation Now bears only a superficial resemblance to the version you could subscribe to almost five years ago. First, the price was recently reduced to just $60 a year. Second, the library of available games now includes over 800 streamable titles in the PS2, PS3 and PS4 libraries (playable on PS4 or PC).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, PlayStation Now is no longer exclusively a streaming service† A subscription now includes access to downloadable versions of over 300 PS4 and PS2 games.
That last feature was rolled out a little over a year ago and seems like a pretty significant addition for the sizable portion of the public who might be concerned about the potential latency and quality issues of streaming gaming (or those who don’t have a sufficiently robust broadband connection). Overall, though, PlayStation Now’s partial hub for downloads doesn’t seem to have filtered down to its intended audience. Last month, a informal poll of my twitter followers found that 54% of respondents (all of whom said they had heard of PlayStation Now) were still unaware that the service also offered downloads.
That’s not a scientific result, of course, but it does suggest that much of the potential audience still sees PlayStation Now primarily as an expensive streaming service for legacy PlayStation titles, as it was when it launched. Making a brand with that kind of baggage into an Xbox Game Pass competitor is an uphill battle to say the least.
Public perception is only part of the problem for PlayStation Now. The service has also suffered because unlike Microsoft, Sony has shown an unwillingness to use high-demand, first-run, first-party exclusives as an incentive for players to subscribe.
Sure, Sony-produced console exclusives like The last of us and bloodborne have been on PlayStation Now for a while now. But a lot of the games Sony uses to differentiate the PS4 are still not offered to subscribers. PlayStation Now Members Who Want to Play Spider Man† Detroit: Become Human† Horizon: Zero Dawn† Ratchet & Clank (2016), The Tetris Effector whatever MLB: The Show titles they have yet to buy à la carte, just to name a few.
Sony is starting to show small signs of change in this regard, announcing last month that it was adding God of War (2018)† Uncharted 4and Unknown second son to the PlayStation Now lineup for a limited time. At the moment, however, those games are 1.5, 3.5 and 5.5 years old respectively and are also available for a suggested retail price of $20 or less as “PlayStation Hits”. The vast majority of PlayStation Now subscribers who showed any interest probably bought and played these games months ago, and their addition at this late date may be too little, too late, to serve as a major incentive for the subscription.
Compare that to Microsoft, which in early 2018 promised that every first-party Microsoft Game Studios release would be available to Xbox Game Pass subscribers from day one of their original release. Since then, subscribing to Game Pass has meant day one access to Sea of Thieves† State of decay 2† Forza Horizon 4† crack down 3and Gears of War 5alongside hundreds of legacy first- and third-party titles on all three Xbox consoles.
It doesn’t look like Sony will follow Microsoft’s lead anytime soon. When asked about adding more first-party titles to PlayStation Now, PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan told GamesIndustry.biz that “the nature and scope of some of the first-party games we make makes us think it’s on Right now it’s better to put some effort into making sure that the launch of those games is a huge entertainment event.” Ryan added that “The last of us 2 next year falls into that category.”
PlayStation Plus Plus
Ryan left some wiggle room on the company’s PlayStation Now plans, noting that “our stance on including first party games in PlayStation Now… is very different from our stance 12 months ago. I don’t want to say that this is how PlayStation Now will be forever.” However, Ryan said, “especially at this point, given that some of our first party IP are incredibly special and valuable, we just want to treat them with tremendous care and respect and make sure those launches are clean and pure.”
In other words, Sony doesn’t want PlayStation Now “free riders” eating the first sales for its big exclusives. That is an interesting position, because Microsoft data suggests: Xbox Game Pass has actually led to a increase in pre-orders and franchise sales for out-of-service games. But it’s somewhat understandable given the market-moving power of a major exclusive game launch.
In a way, the difference between Microsoft and Sony in terms of exclusive subscriptions shows nothing more than the huge gap in market position between the two companies. With over 100 million PS4 systems sold worldwide, Sony is likely still seeing decent “legacy” sales, even for older first-party titles. Microsoft, which has seen Xbox One hardware sales suffer on a relative basis, is likely to be more interested in using first-party titles (and even console hardware itself) as a sort of loss leader to generate more regular revenue through subscriptions.
But as Microsoft and Sony are both gearing up to launch new consoles next year, the relative value of their competing game subscriptions could play a big role in consumers’ purchasing decisions. Why spend a ton of money upfront on PS5 games like Microsoft’s “Project Scarlett” hardware and a monthly subscription direct access to Halo Infinite and all future exclusive titles, in addition to all Xbox One exclusive titles and hundreds of other legacy titles.
If Sony wants to match the success of Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, it must do so separately from the PlayStation Now branding and the baggage left over from its streaming-focused launch. For a monthly fee, a newly rebranded “PlayStation Plus Plus” (or, you know, a better name) could provide access to practically everything in Sony’s impressive collection of first-party PlayStation exclusives from the past, present and future. That would help cement PlayStation brand loyalty and lock new PS5 buyers into a cycle of paying Sony money every month, rather than just when a new game comes out.
The upcoming launch of the PlayStation 5 is the perfect opportunity for Sony to regain ground it had lost since launch with a head start in gaming’s burgeoning subscription wars. If it waits much longer, it can be much harder to reclaim that ground.