Yesterday at CES, Sony unveiled PlayStation Now, showing the fruit of their Gaikai purchase. For those unfamiliar: Sony would be able to stream all of their games, over the internet, to anyone with a device capable of running what is essentially a Java plugin, with their servers on their end doing all of the heavy lifting. PS Now would ostensibly open up the entire PlayStation 3 database to not only PS4 users, but also Vita owners, and owners of approved smart televisions, tablets and smartphones. The service is due to roll out at the end of summer for everyone. Details are sketchy; we don’t know if it’s a one-at-a-time service yet, or if it’s something like Netflix for PlayStation1.
I’ve been very high on the potential for Gaikai’s product since Sony bought it, figuring that the company would be able to give the backing to this technology that the likes of OnLive never had. If it works the way it’s intended, then this will revolutionize gaming, taking it beyond the console.
So… will it work?
There are many unanswered questions that haven’t been worked out logistically yet:
* How will broadband companies handle this? Right now, anything involving heavy bandwidth consumption involves dealing with arbitrary bandwidth caps placed upon customers by their internet service providers (ISPs); for example, Comcast places all residential customers on a 250GB bandwidth cap, with punitive measures to prevent people from going above it. Even if the the actual processing is being handled on the server side, this is still a streaming video that requires extremely low latency. How many customers will hit their caps on this? How will Canadians in particular handle this, where residential network access is heavily stiffled by an anti-competitive business climate? Don’t even get me started on Europe… in fact, don’t get Sony started on them either, as they concede that the broadband environment in Europe and the UK is “complex”.
If the ISPs decide to get involved…
* Will attempts to intervene affect network neutrality legislation? As it is, network neutrality – the ideal that the ISPs should not have the right to either prioritize or filter traffic based on their corporate interests – is already on life support, with a split legislature, Republican gains expected in the mid-term elections of 2014, and a former telecom lobbyist being given the reins to the FCC2. Ostensibly, Sony could sign deals with telecoms in each country to be the “preferred” provider of PlayStation Now. This would be great for those lucky enough to be members of that ISP; a VPN directly through the company’s network would severely cut hops, and therefore cut latency. But that would also mean that either Sony, or the preferred ISPs, could limit or otherwise curtail traffic going to and from those servers, either by slowing it down, resizing packet MTUs, or sending it through more hops. It’s a sticky situation that could potentially scuttle the service for many customers who have no choice in their ISP.
* Would customers have to repurchase old games? This could work one of two ways: either require anyone who wants to play a PS3 game on non-PS3 devices to purchase any game they want to play, or allow those that own a PS3 game to slide the disc into their system, allow the plugin to recognize the game, and allow it to be played for free. It’s obvious which direction either side would want; those with a larger PS3 library will not want to repurchase their games, while Sony and the publishers will want that. I think it’s obvious who will win, should that situation come to pass.3
* How will ownership – not really of the games, but of saves, data, etc. – work? We know how game “ownership” will work; in fact, I’d argue that at this point, the publishers, with their whole “we are selling you a revokable license at $60 a pop” writ and the increase in digital distribution (and the potentially chilling consequences of that), have already chipped away at the idea that when we pay money, we own a game. But what about saves? DLC? Will saves from the cloud service be movable to the system for anyone who buys the full game? If the service fails, or Sony otherwise pulls the plug, is it all gone? What about games that require monthly fees, like Final Fantasy XIV, work? It’s one thing to lose the game, but to lose the hours of work put into said game, that would be devastating.
* Will the publishers be on board? I started with GameTap in 2006, and at the time, one of the big draws was that I could play all of the original Ultima games on my PC. This was a major boon, having missed everything beyond Quest of the Avatar growing up. However, in late 2007, EA’s catalogue disappeared, and with it all of those Ultima games. That problem’s been alleviated with the entire series being on Good Old Games, but my old saves were lost to the ether. This issue – third party publishers deciding on a whim that they’re taking their balls and going home – is a familiar one to Netflix customers. The ultimate doomsday scenario for Now, and other streaming services, is what happened last year, when Starz pulled their catalogue from streaming to start a competing service. It’s one thing when it comes to movies, which are a once-off watch, but if Electronic Arts were to decide to pull all EA Sports games and put them under their own Season Pass service, gamers in the middle of their seasons would have no respite, and would potentially lose everything.
* Finally, what’s the cost? We already have people signing up for PlayStation Plus – in large numbers, if Sony’s reports of 90% uptick are accurate – which gives about one free game a month. That would be an exceptional price point for PlayStation Now; maybe too good. I predict that PS+ customers will either have a discount or be entered into a sort of grandfather program, but that’s pure speculation.
These questions are serious and plentiful, but it can’t be understated that if they’re addressed satisfactorily, this would be arguably the biggest thing to happen to the video games industry since the Dreamcast made online console play possible. Think of the consequences: it would not only obliterate the whole notion of the necessity of a games console, taking us past that into an age of ubiquity, but it would also, by sheer nature of existing, give Steam its first serious competition in years. It would invade the PC simply by being available, possibly tearing down the PC vs. Console debate permanently. And if the latency issues are addressed, it opens up console gaming to a whole new branch of customer: those who don’t want to pay for separate gaming consoles. If someone’s phone can play a real, actual version of Call of Duty and not some neutered portable version, then why would they want to buy anything else?
It’s possible that PlayStation Now is really PlayStation Future, ahead of its time and not quite ready for prime time yet. It’s also possible that Now fails purely for reasons out of Sony’s control, such as ISPs not wanting to play nice. But this is an exciting time, when we’re possibly looking at the very nature of video games as we know it being completely upheaved before our eyes, by the time Labour Day hits.
1 – A better analogy would be GameTap, before Turner sold them.
2 – “But Chris, if the FCC is supposed to relegate the telecoms, then why the hell would they give its Presidency to someone who made his bones doing everything he could to neuter the FCC?” That’s an outstanding question, and if I attempt to answer it I will begin to resemble Rosemary’s Baby.
3 – That means “grab your ankles”, guys. Sony did not care that I already owned Nobunaga’s Ambition on disc; it still asked me for $9.99.