PlayStation Plus might just be the smartest thing Sony have ever done. It is, on the surface, an extraordinarily generous offering from the platform holder: in exchange for roughly the price of one new game subscribers get access to literally dozens (the official line is ‘up to 65’) of other games.
It verges on ridiculous. You could, for example, join now (even if it’s just a 90 day subscription) and get immediate access to BioShock 2, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Guardians of Middle Earth, Big Sky Infinity, Gravity Rush, Cubixx HD, LIMBO, Infamous 2, Mortal Kombat, LittleBigPlanet 2, Ratchet and Clank: All For One, Vanquish and MotorStorm Apocalypse.
Now, sure, you need to actually download those games (and for some people on slower connections or those with bandwidth caps this can easily be a bit of an issue) but the fact remains that there’s 13 games, ready to play, the minute you buy a subscription.
Within a week or so, some of those games will rotate out. On the 6th of February subscribers will get access to F1 Race Stars, Sleeping Dogs and Quantum Conundrum but the likes of BioShock 2 (and a couple of others) will no longer be available to download. Unless, of course, you’ve already added them to your download queue. If you’ve grabbed them, naturally they’ll still be available to you to play whenever you like – they won’t vanish from your PS3 or Vita.
Unless – and here’s the catch – your Plus subscription runs out.
Actually, it’s disingenuous to call it a ‘catch’, but this is the beauty of Plus – the longer you’re a subscriber the more reliant you’ll become; the more games you build up from the collections offered, the more you’ll need to keep that (admittedly rather small) fee leaving your wallet. If you don’t, the games simply won’t load up. Re-join at any time, though, and they’ll be available to you again.
It’s genius, because the value to the gamer with plenty of free time to play is tremendously high and yet the outlay is almost negligible, and if you’re smart and grab a yearly sub then once paid you won’t even need to worry about it.
And it’s not just games, of course – Plus subscribers get better online storage for save games, automatic patch and firmware updates, discounts on games in the Store and early access to demos and betas. It’s like an exclusive, high value club without the high value joining fee. And, crucially, against the likes of Xbox Live Gold which is pretty much a necessity if you’re a 360 owner, Plus simply offers a secondary level without alienating anyone else.
Because the PS3 offers online play out of the box without any other commitments (a selling point that Sony never really made the most of) Plus acts as a tier above what Sony’s competition think people should be paying for anyway. Xbox Live Gold’s paywall approach to pretty much everything is a huge turn off if you’re not a dedicated gamer wanting to spend lots of time online, but Plus never really feels like anything other than a good deal.
Let’s not pretend that every game offered in the Instant Game Collection is a top notch title, though. Sure, BioShock 2 is a wonderful shooter and next month’s Sleeping Dogs is a beauty, but there’s been a few lesser games thrown into the mix, sometimes with the impression that Sony are having to make up the numbers occasionally.
And then there’s the issue that I’ve seen almost every time there’s a PlayStation Plus update post – the games are rarely brand new, and thus there’s a high chance that the game offered as part of the subscription has already been bought – either full price or (as seen with Sleeping Dogs) purchased cheaper as part of an online sale.
Does this point Plus towards being for the more casual gamer, looking to expand their library gradually, or is this just a case of eager gamers unwilling to wait for the possibility that their chosen game will eventually end up as part of a Plus promotion, either reduced in price or – crucially – free? And is there a risk (as anecdotal evidence suggests) that some will simply just wait it out regardless, meaning new releases suffer as gamers just wait and see whether they’ll appear on Plus?
It’s a tricky balancing act for Sony that obviously needs to keep its cards close to its chest. But some of the timing recently has been sublime (the latest Batman coming onto the service for free just as it lands on the Wii U at upwards of £50, for example) and the reasons for keeping upcoming Plus games a secret shouldn’t really need pointing out.
The inclusion of Vita games was a masterstroke though – Sony know its most loyal gamers have both a PS3 and a Vita, and the recent move towards offering free games to the portable in addition to the main console was a sharp one. Now, more than ever, Plus is really getting into its stride, and doesn’t show much signs of slowing down.
I have a suspicion that Plus will be hugely important next generation, and now that Sony have laid the groundwork for the service and ticked all the right boxes, the PlayStation 4 may well offer up two (or more) levels of functionality, depending on whether or not the individual user is a subscriber. I’m hopeful that online play will remain free for all, but it’s likely that Plus, whilst not necessarily being about free games at first, will be used to great effect.
Gaikai, of course, is the big one – Sony’s acquisition of the online streaming service was a lauded one last year, and whilst we’ve not heard much since chances are the two companies are gearing up for something special for PS4 owners. Will that be the way the PS4 can offer backwards compatibility? Online streaming of PS3 (and, naturally, PS1 and PS2) games via Gaikai’s network and know-how seems a no brainer. Perhaps you’ll need Plus to do this, too.
But regardless, Sony have got (at the moment, anyway) Plus just right. It’s great for the consumer, publishers and developers love it (as it gets their games some much needed publicity) and it’s hopefully got Microsoft thinking that they desperately need to revisit their current subscription structures, which now seem greedy and unrealistic in the face of what Plus offers.