Monday, September 22, 2014

Is PlayStation Now the Future?

The future...?
The end of July marked the launch of Sony's new digital rental service into a public beta on PlayStation 4. Through PlayStation Now, gamers will be able to stream a library of PlayStation 3 games to play on their PS4, eliminating the need for backwards compatibility or keeping your PS3 hooked up. The streaming service is being created from Sony's acquisition of Gaikai two years ago, and though there are still many questions to be answered about how the service will work, the public beta gives us an idea of what to expect. After a week of gaming on PlayStation Now, I can report that the service has promise, but there are still kinks to be worked out.

Pricing and Time Limits

The time segments for PlayStation Now are perfectly spaced out. Rentals are broken into four tiers: four hour rental, seven day rental, 30 day rental and 90 day rental. Almost every game follows this time limit, with the few exceptions that only have 90 day rentals. Though the four hour rental is the least useful (except for any individual writing an article about the service, as I only used the four hour rental when playing games this week), the other time tiers are fairly reasonable.  The timing is spaced out enough that going up a tier ensures that you are gaining a substantial amount of time without worrying about still not having enough time to complete the game before the rental is up.

The most divisive part of the service so far has been pricing. Prices start at $2.99, with the four hour rentals usually priced between $2.99 and $4.99, seven day rentals priced between , 30 day rentals between  and 90 day rentals between . Sony has already publicly announced that the lowest price point for rentals will drop to $1.99, and that price drop alone makes the four hour rental much more reasonable, especially if you're playing a small game (like Journey or Flower) or simply testing a game out. The weekly price point is easily the best bang for your buck, making the game cheap enough and the rental long enough to merit the money.

This leaves the last two tiers, which have gained the most vitriol on the web. Admittedly, there are a number of games on PlayStation Now that would be cheaper to buy brand new than to rent for the 30 or 90 day period, such as Final Fantasy XIII-2, which costs to $5.99 rent for a week, $7.99 for 30 days and $14.99 to rent for 60 days, but $9.99 to buy on the PlayStation Store.

Buy What You Want, Leave What You Don't
The pricing difference is obviously a problem, but I say leave it. It is on you to ensure you are getting the most bang for your buck. All the games on PlayStation Now very obviously are licensed games that are costing Sony money to have available to rent. To ensure that the lower level pricing tiers are reasonable, it is important to make up the costs else where. I would much rather have the longer rentals more expensive and keep the tiers that will be most used at a reasonable price point to ensure that the lower tiers stay at a reasonable price point. Plus, if the top tiers are never rented, Sony will be forced to lower the price. Rather than lamenting about the pricing now, it is probably easier to let the gamers speak with their wallets.


Streaming games isn't anything new, but it's a system that has never been perfected. Unlike music and movies, which requires heavy input in only one direction, games require feedback from the user constantly that must be read consistently. Any delay in the gamers input being read leads to frustration and, ultimately, quitting the game. PlayStation Now is good, but it's still not great.

I live in Charlotte, NC. Not exactly the largest place in the States, but definitely not the smallest. Playing games from Friday through Thursday, the system runs fairly smooth. Using the Dual Shock 4 to play PS3 games feels great and the feedback loop is incredibly responsive, except for when my internet slows around 10 at night. Over the course of the week I picked up 5 games of varying complexity: Rise of The Guardians, Way of the Samurai 3, Dead Rising 2, Final Fantasy XIII and Darksiders 2. All the games ran well and even though there were slow down moments within each game, the compensation for the internet slow down was handled decently. There were still times when I would move my character forward and hit a snag in the connection only to come out on the other side with my character falling off a cliff or running into an enemy, but over all these snags were small, lasting only five to ten seconds each.

Delays in Boss Battles are So Fun.
Taking into account that this is still just the beta, I'm not overly angry about running into the slowdown, but I did run into it in every game multiple times. This is an incredibly big problem when you take into account the fact that I was using the four hour rental, which meant my time was incredibly precious while playing. This is the biggest area that needs to be fixed, not because it's terrible all the time, but because those few moments could make or break a users experience in the game.

Emulating The Last Generation

PlayStation Now is essentially a PS3 emulator running on your PS4. This means that all your notifications come in as PS3 notifications, including trophy pops and messages from friends. I still need to test collecting trophies with multiple players, but I assume that you will still only be able to earn trophies under the signed in players name rather than across the board for all players. This also means that all of the nifty features available on PS4, such as live streaming and taking videos/photos are not there. This is expected, but still such a shame, as being able to show off the game I'm playing is starting to be a real driving force for me while I play my games.

It's Back, Just Not As Cluttered.
There is a custom menu linked to the PS Button that allows you to access a stripped down version of the XMB set up of the PS3, which allows access to Trophies, Friends and Save Data Management.

Saving Games

Speaking of saved data, all PlayStation Now data stays on the cloud. This seems to be a separate cloud from the PS Plus cloud and can only be accessed through a PlayStation Now game. This means that if your rental is over, that saved data is still around, but you are forced to rent another game (or the same game again) in order to get to the menu to manipulate that data. You can copy the saved data to you PS Plus cloud saved data to avoid this issue, but it seems a little redundant. An option to just automatically save to your PS Plus cloud would be extremely useful.

Timing is Everything

Due to the timed nature of the rentals and the heavy load of data that is required to stream these games, there are a few timing issues that every player should know. For one, not interacting with the game while you're streaming can lead to the game shutting down. This time period is between 5 and 7 minutes long, but during heavy traffic times the time limit seems to aim at the lower end of the spectrum.

This makes sense, as there is only so much room for memory on the servers. However, when you're streaming a four hour rental, this forces you to be extremely careful. This comes from the nature of the four hour rental, which begins the countdown the second you start your game and continues counting down in real time. So if you start the rental for an hour, turn it off for two hours and come back to play, you only have an hour left. This makes sense for the other price tiers, as most games do not have a weeks worth of content (hour wise), but the smallest tier should be equated to the time you play the game, specifically because these games are being streamed and not downloaded. For instance, if you rent the game for four hours and the server hits its load limit, you are stuck suffering through the poor quality stream, with no choice to put it down and come back later.

If Only I'd Saved at That Save Point 15 Minutes Earlier...
Sure there are plenty of other rental services that let you stream media, such as movies, that have time limits that are set time limits and not linked to the amount you play that media, but the smallest amount of time you can play that media is usually 24 hours, which still gives you enough time to turn off the stream and come back at a convenient time within the 24 hours. Setting the four hour limit to in game play time will make the four hour rental far more enticing for gamers without being punished.

Another issue is the end of the rental notification. A minute before your rental is up you are notified to get to stopping point or pay for another rental. A MINUTE!? Sure, most games have automatic saves, but there are plenty of older PS3 games that require you to save. AT SAVE POINTS! A minute is an extremely unreasonable time limit to notify the user that the rental is almost over. Hell, you can't even move your saved data and synch your PS3 trophies in one minute, let alone get to a save point of any kind. Sure, I don't want a bunch of notification ticking away at my clock, but three notifications letting me know at 30 minutes, five minutes and one minute would work incredibly well and allow me to slowly wind down my gaming.

The Future?

The biggest questions for PlayStation Now still have yet to be answered. For now Sony is focusing on bringing PS3 games to PS4. However, the plan is to eventually have libraries from all of Sony's consoles on the service. What's the roll out time for this? No one knows, and Sony seems keen to launch with just PS3 titles.

There are also plans to bring the service to all of Sony's current platforms, including PS3, PS Vita and Sony smart TV's. The time line for these launches is also a mystery, and again Sony is keen to keep gamers in the dark.

Probably Too Early To Tell
The final question relates to a subscription based PlayStation Now, which is how the service was announced. At the moment, there is no talk of anything involving a subscription, so we still have no idea about roll out plans or pricing. Will it be a part of PS Plus? Will there be a way to wrap the two services together for a discounted price? Nothing is certain, but Tokyo Game Show is next week, so there may be some answers to be had.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I'm happy with PlayStation Now, but I can't see myself using it a whole lot. The game library is diverse, but is still lacking in truly compelling games (especially Sony exclusives) and the quality is just not there yet. With some work, this could be a great system to try out games or utilize for temporary circumstances, such as parties or when a friend is in town. I have some faith, but only time will tell if Sony will listen to it's users and give PlayStation Now the attention it needs.

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