Why Playstation Now will kill consoles but save videogames

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At CES, Sony announced PS Now, a streaming service that will irrevocably alter the gaming landscape. Screen Robot considers why Playstation Now should be important to you.

With Playstation Now, Sony is providing a service that removes the need for dedicated hardware from the videogames market. Whilst Playstation Now will initially bring the streaming of PS3 games to Sony’s new PS4, the service will eventually come to TV’s, tablets and smartphones. Sony’s vision for Playstation Now is of a single unified service that will bring their considerable back catalogue and new PS4 titles to any internet connected device.

Whilst an early sales lead indicates that Sony has convinced early next gen adopters of the PS4’s necessity, Playstation Now could potentially remove the need for a dedicated gaming machine from the equation for many would-be users. What might first appear to be a mixed and confusing message from Sony is in fact a strikingly forward-thinking and well constructed one.

Sony’s vision is that if you are not playing your games on a Playstation device then you will be playing them via Playstation Now.

By casually envisaging a future without dedicated devices at CES, a trade show that is all about hardware, Sony have positioned themselves as a quietly confident if not gently jibing market leader.

An example of business cannibalism in its infant stages, Sony’s Playstation Now might just make them the kings of a resurgent videogames industry but it will also one day kill its hardware business as it exists now.

It might be the best thing to happen to videogames since gamers first connected their consoles to the Internet with Sega’s Dreamcast.

Whilst potentially revolutionary, PS Now is not the first game streaming service to come to market. In 2010, OnLive launched to much industry consternation and considerations of what the future of videogames might look like.

Hampered by a service limited by patchy internet speeds and the associated teething issues you might expect from a trailblazing service, many of OnLive’s problems were technical. In 2014, whilst a number of users may still fall under the 5mb download speed necessary for PS Now’s optimum play conditions, high speed internet is far more widespread than when OnLive launched. By the time Playstation Now comes to tablets expect a stable and highly competent service far beyond what is currently on offer with OnLive.

Playstation now god of war (image 1) copy

OnLive’s other great downfall is its lack of content – exclusive, quality or otherwise. With The Last of Us, God of War, Beyond and Puppeteer all featuring at Playstation Now’s CES announcement, the service could not be accused of being short on quality. Whilst the number of titles on offer and level of third party support remains undefined, the expectation is that PS Now’s software library will be considerable. Alongside a layered approach to pricing that allows for rentals, purchases and a subscription model, Sony’s emphasis here is on consumer choice.

As with Netflix and iTunes in their respective markets, Sony is not the first such service but by acknowledging that content and choice is king, it looks to be the definitive one. Similarly though, Playstation Now will not be without its competitors. The Xbox One’s ‘one device’ spiel, emphasis on the power of the cloud and Microsoft’s huge investment in server infrastructure make it highly likely that a similar service to PS Now is in development at Microsoft HQ.

The other considerable competition PS Now will encounter will likely come in the form of Valve’s intriguing assortment of Steam machines. Whilst offering a substantially different kind of service to that of Playstation Now, Valve’s entrance into the hardware market has strikingly similar aspirations – the capturing of a new audience with a renewed focus on accessibility. Furthermore, the proven flexibility of Valve’s platform means that Steam could be made to incorporate a subscription based streaming service into its already multi-layered sales model.

Whichever service emerges as market leader, every success enjoyed by Valve, Sony or Microsoft with whatever future services they offer is a success for videogames and helps ensure the survival and growth of the medium.

As with any emerging technology, the expectations of PS Now have to be measured. This is not a service that will considerably change the way you play videogames in the short term, and the radical reorganisation of notions of game ownership that Playstation Now will bring about will not occur overnight.

Launching in a limited manner, PS Now will first serve as a tool in the PS4’s highly competitive first year struggles with the Xbox One. With a considerable back catalogue of PS1, PS2, PS3 games set to appear alongside new PS4 games on the service in the future, the long term promises a unified Playstation experience across many of your internet-capable devices. In that sense, PS Now is a means to play great, genre-defining games such as The Last of Us without the large financial outlay of a console.

Playstation now timeline (image 2)

As this leaked CES slide obtained by Eurogamer highlights, Sony’s plans for Playstation Now are far reaching and ambitious, if not some time away for European users.

With the removal of one of largest barriers to entry, can videogames begin to enjoy the same level of mainstream cultural significance as music, film or literature? Services like Playstation Now, when coupled with compelling games are the first steps in removing the stumbling blocks that face the industry. Chief among them is the way in which the consumption of videogames is limited by an industry divided along the lines of what hardware you own. This restrictive division of product is unique to videogames and in many ways, it is the one of the major issues facing further proliferation of the medium.

The very existence of the service begs the question: will Playstation Now hurt hardware sales? No. The trajectory of PS Now is parallel to an expected downturn in a consumer desire for console hardware. The Xbox One and PS4 might be the last traditional console launches we see. Instead of stubbornly sticking to an existing business model, Sony have looked to what will one day supersede the current hardware driven videogames market and embraced it.

Will Playstation Now hurt retailers? Almost certainly. The nature of a direct-to-consumer service such as PS Now means that a traditional sales chain is not required. Whilst retailers will still be able to sell subscriptions and network value, the reality is that should streaming services gain significant traction, it will hurt their business significantly. Whilst the death of retailers is unlikely, the chances that they will exist in their current state in five years to ten years is small. Expect the game stores of 2020 to look like Apple stores that specialise in a single platform and are publisher-owned or funded.

Playstation now games (image 3)

Before any would-be sea change to the industry, questions abound. Whilst the majority of questions regarding PS Now revolve around ‘when’, the greater questions are those considering how Sony would look to position PS Now alongside its other products.

Sony have strongly suggested that Playstation Now will play PS4 games. Will this element of the service be limited to certain devices? Will we see simultaneous releases of new titles on PS Now and at retail?

And then of course, there is the question of pricing. When the Last of Us can be comfortably finished in two or three sittings, how do you place the value of a rental alongside that of a full purchase? Whilst the subscription model will undoubtedly net the consumer more bang for their buck, will the entire library of PS Now games be available to subscribers? The soon-to-arrive beta of Playstation Now will go some way to providing satisfactory answers to many of those questions.

What PS Now offers is a service that works in tandem with current technology, whilst simultaneously future-proofing the Playstation platform against expected shifts in consumer trends.

By being early out of the gate, Sony not only have a chance to capitalise on changing consumer habits but to shape them.

In the interim between now and a non-hardware-centric future, Sony will of course sell lots of Playstation 4s. In videogame terms, even a year can be age and while Sony are laying the groundwork, a time when hardcore gamers do not need to own a videogame console is still a significant ways away.

Furthermore, in Sony’s ideal world, your PS4 will still sit at the centre of a unified Playstation experience powered by Playstation Now. To be clear, even in 2024, hardware sales will still be a part of Sony’s business. That said, by shedding the limitations of dedicated hardware, Sony look to a future where videogames are more prevalent and more accessible to a larger and more reachable audience.

With Playstation Now, Sony are able to help steer the course of a revolution they would undoubtedly be drawn into either way. It is a future in which more videogames can be enjoyed by more people. If the growth of the medium means the death of bulky black boxes underneath the television which carry a Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo logo then it is a good trade off.

And for those concerned by the trajectory of the industry, consider this – how gravely have you mourned the passing of your radio or DVD player?

Images: Sony, Eurogamer

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