For all the hubbub about Sony and Microsoft trying to compete with the Wii with their own motion controls, E3 2010 so far has been more about revolution than evolution. Microsoft may have been labeled a copycat, but its Kinect technology is incredibly impressive and may dethrone the Wii completely. But where we all figured Sony would follow suit and tout its PlayStation Move, the company’s motion controller wasn’t the biggest news out of its E3 press conference. Yes, the PlayStation Move was there, and it looked good in advance of its mid-September launch. But the bigger story of Sony’s E3 showing was how aggressively, impressively and comprehensively the company is taking PlayStation Network to the next level. Xbox Live, you’d better watch out. We may have just seen the crowning of a new online entertainment king.
Xbox Live has always had a leg up for its organization and critical mass, while PlayStation Network has had the undeniable advantage of providing free online play. It’s not uncommon to hear Xbox Live subscribers ask “So, just why am I paying $50 a year for a Friends List?” But while gamers on the PS3 side of the fence have asked “Can’t I get a bit more organization? Couldn’t they have thought it through a bit more than just a Second Life knockoff?” those SCEA-related questions are about to end. From content to gaming to an honest-to-God reason to pay for a PSN subscription, Sony just carpet-bombed the console world.
Up on stage at E3, in front of God and country, Sony essentially admitted it was a late online bloomer. No, Jack Tretton didn’t use those words; that would’ve been pink slip material. But the news coming from SCEA’s collective mouth was evidence that they’d taken a long time to bake their online plans yet had positioned themselves to deliver a delicious dish. And hey, if Sony’s serious in its 10-year lifespan for the PS3, then their online battles are just getting started, and PlayStation Network finally “going big” was simply SCEA being fashionably late.
Just before E3, Sony announced that programming would be available on PSN from HBO, as would live HD baseball streams through the MLB.TV subscription service. Add to that the 23,000-plus movies and TV episodes currently available on PSN, including HD movies from all the major studios, and Sony has obviously managed to keep up with the content Joneses. But the announcement that most surprised at SCEA’s E3 press conference had more to do with traditional gaming than this “entertainment” bend would have otherwise implied. And what a knowledge bomb PlayStation Plus turned out to be.
Launching worldwide on June 29, PlayStation Plus could very well catch Xbox Live Gold with its pants down. A new paid subscription service from Sony, PlayStation Plus will give PS3 owners different features and opportunities based on whether they subscribe to the new service. The current PSN model of free online play and downloads will still exist, but PlayStation Plus subscribers will get exclusive discounts on PlayStation Store content, free and exclusive access to select games, early beta invitations, and they’ll have new content downloaded automatically to their PS3 even if the system’s not in use. These are all great updates, but they’re only incremental. The biggest feature of PlayStation Plus, and the one that’s really exciting, may actually make PSN become Sony’s Trojan horse into digital distribution: full game trials.
PlayStation Plus members will have access to full versions of certain PS3 and PlayStation Network titles, including PS One classics. The downloadable titles, which will change every month like an on-demand setup, will be available for download from the PlayStation Store for a set period of time and be playable for a certain period as well (say, two weeks, like a library book). Once the trial period expires, the game can be purchased online if the PS3 owner so desires. PlayStation Plus members will also have free access to the full versions of specific PS3 and PSN titles, including WipEout HD, Minis, Age of Zombies and Rally Cross. These free games will be available to Plus members as long as they keep their PlayStation Plus membership active.
PS3 owners will be able to purchase PlayStation Plus membership exclusively through the PlayStation Store beginning June 29, and they’ll need to install PS3 firmware version 3.40, which will be released June 22. PlayStation Plus will be available in two price categories: a 90-day version for $17.99 and a 365-day (annual) subscription for $49.99. SCEA will also debut the service with a promo in which subscribers get three free bonus months if they sign-up for an annual membership.
Game demos have been one of the most beloved features of the current-gen consoles, but full game trials via PlayStation Plus make that concept look elementary by comparison. To be fair, Microsoft’s poised to make a similar, albeit reactive, announcement now that the Xbox 360 slim will be in stores this week with a 250GB hard drive. That’s a lot of storage space, and it certainly makes full game downloads a possibility. But Sony’s unveiling of PlayStation Plus definitely shows the company has gone on the offensive with online entertainment and innovation, and we’ve not previously seen those signs of life — let alone such signs of a strategic online roadmap — from the SCEA camp. For all the grief Sony has gotten during the PS3’s lifecycle about its online system, PlayStation Plus may both redeem the company’s three-year history and put The House that Kaz Built firmly in the online driver’s seat.
– Jonas Allen