Introduction to PlayStation Now
A lot can change in three years. Take, for example, PlayStation Now.
On July 2, 2012, Sony bought the then-barely-known cloud gaming service, GaiKai, to the tune of $380 million (£242 million, AU$518). The decision was met with tepid excitement and heaps of skepticism.
The excitement made sense. Though a foreign idea at the time, game-streaming sounded like an ambitious way to replace the derelict brick and mortar rental stores. (Sorry, Blockbuster!) The skepticism, however, was also understandable.
How could the average user expect a stable, quick connection for an entire gaming session? And how could Sony price it so that both consumers and developers get a fair deal?
Now, three years after the acquisition of GaiKai, one year after the service left beta testing in the US and several months after arriving in the UK, I can finally answer those questions.
PlayStation Now: what is it?
PlayStation Now is a digital game-streaming service from Sony. In simplest terms: you pay Sony some cash and they’ll let you borrow a game for a limited amount of time.
The system currently works in two ways: an a la carte, pay-for-what-you-want model where you pay only for the amount of time you want the game for; and a recurring subscription that’s similar, in some respects, to Netflix.
For a long time, PlayStation Now was exclusive to the PS4, but that’s slowly changed over the last year. Currently, you can find PlayStation Now on the PS3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation TV, select Sony 2014 and 2015 TVs, Sony Blu-ray players and some Samsung TVs.
Most of these systems require a PlayStation 4 DualShock 4 controller to work, but in some cases you’ll be able to save some money and use a DualShock 3 controller instead.
As far as what games you can expect, it’s probably best to keep expectations low. Sony has added over 100 titles in the past six months from renowned third-party publishers, like Ubisoft and Capcom, but there’s still plenty of gaps in the coverage.
Most games are from the PS3 era, but you can find a handful of PlayStation Vita titles there in the mix, as well as a few PS4 games. We recently caught wind of a PlayStation 2 emulator on the PS4, which could mean that games from that generation could arrive some time in 2016.
Once you pick a game, the service will connect you to a remote server that will host your session. There’s a bit of a wait, while Sony strings it all together, before you’re thrown into the action, no need to download the game.
There was a time that we hoped, perhaps somewhat naively, that PlayStation Now would be the Netflix of video game streaming. The hope was that we could shell out a paltry $8.99 (£6, AU$12) a month and access any game on the service forever – so long as we didn’t let our subscription lapse.
PlayStation Now hasn’t quite unfolded that way. That’s not to say that the service is bad, mind you. It’s just … different.
All a streaming video service has to do is push content from a server to your PC. It needs to know when you pause, obviously, but other than a few small commands, the service doesn’t really take any input.
That need to always be listening for commands and interpreting them in real time is what makes a service like PlayStation Now a nightmare to code. For you, this point can mean the difference between lag-free gameplay and an unplayable experience.
Before I get into the performance, one of PlayStation Now’s greatest strengths is that it’s worth focusing on its vision for the future.
The service, in its current state, supports over 260 games with no signs of slowing down in the near future. In fact, it looks like that rate might increase as soon as Sony widely releases that emulator it’s teased recently, which could happen as early as next year.
The service could carry over from platform to platform, and become a – pardon my language – game-changing feature for the future of Sony game consoles. Of course, we can’t review the future before it happens nor the promises Sony has made so far. Instead, what follows is a review of the service as I see it today.
Design, game library, pricing and performance
I’ll start at the beginning: the design and layout of the PlayStation Now app, specifically on PS4.
The interface is incredibly simplistic, maybe overly so. All you’ll see, after you get past the paywall are the games. The titles are separated into categories with featured titles, usually grouped by publisher or genre, at the top.
Scrolling down, you’ll find more discrete categories, like 2D fighting games or JRPGs, for example. There are about a dozen categories to pick from, with some titles appearing in multiple categories.
After you pick a game from the list and play it for the first time, the game will appear on the home screen so that you can easily pick it up again in the future.
At last count, PlayStation Now has a bit over 260 games available to stream. They range in value and prestige from some of the must-play games of the last generation, like the standalone DLC for The Last of Us or God of War: Ascension, to small indie darlings to some completely forgettable, bargain bin fodder.
But the decent titles are worth the price of entry. Games like Saints Row 3, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Darksiders and Catherine are all up for grabs, while Sony provides a few platform exclusives, like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus and Ratchet and Clank, that are excellent as well.
Sadly, not every game is worthwhile: Some of the 260 games are clearance pile fodder, and have been for the past few years. I don’t know anyone lining up to play Heavy Fire: Shattered Spear or Jimmie Johnson’s Anything with Wheels, and I’m sure while someone out there really enjoys Wheel of Fortune and Frogger HD, it’s not me.
But the variety offered here should be enough to please a diverse set of tastes.
PlayStation Now could offer the biggest and best games from the company’s 20-year foray into game consoles, but if the pricing is wrong, none of it will matter. Knowing full well that prices and dollar signs are what sinks ships, pricing is one area that Sony has given special attention to over the last year of PlayStation Now’s existence.
If you choose the subscription plan, pricing is relatively straightforward. One month of the service will run you $19.99/£12.99 (around AU$30 when it comes to Australia) or, if you see this becoming a long term love affair, there’s a three-month package that costs $44.99 (or about $15 per month). I’ve found the three-month plan to work better for me, but it’s obviously a "your mileage may vary" situation.
Should you decide to rent games a la carte from the PlayStation Now section of the PlayStation Store, you’ll find a greater selection of games (around 400, according Sony’s PlayStation Now FAQ), but games are divided into four rental periods: four hours, seven days, 30 days and 90 days. The price between the first two typically only differs by one to two dollars, but there’s a major jump in cost that happens between the 30 and 90-day levels.
However, once you purchase time with a game, you can’t buy additional time. Ideally, you should be able to buy a four-hour demo for $2.99 and, once you’ve decided you like it, unlock 7-day access by paying the difference.
As it stands, you’ll need to wait out the four hours and then pay the full 7-day price. There’s no way to transition from one to another without waiting out the time for which you paid.
Thankfully, the rental period begins the first time you play the game – not when you purchase it. However, you must start your game within 30 days of purchasing the rental or that money is wasted.
Here’s a table of three games, one PS3 game; one PSN game; and one more recent PS4 game that display not only the difference in price over each time period, but the difference between games from different platforms as well:
Taken at face value, these don’t seem so bad. Reasonably, this is what brick and mortar stores used to charge for rentals, and while the upper-end seems a bit too high (Bound by Flame was on sale last week for $9.99) it’s something Sony has clearly given a lot of thought to.
Where I can see PlayStation Now finding some traction is with gamers supplementing their PS4 experience with rentals – or, crazier, users giving up their physical media collection completely. This depends largely on how quickly publishers get on board with game-streaming as a way to play. But, in a perfect world in which games launch simultaneously on retail and PS Now, you could be playing the week’s biggest game without leaving your couch for the pittance of $6.99.
There’s a lot of potential here, and obviously some room to improve, but that’s why the subscription option exists.
Another area that could use some sprucing up is the streaming quality. Not only do games take 30 to 45 seconds to load up, but any hiccup in the connection completely derails gameplay.
While Sony is only recommending connection speeds of 5Mbps, it’s not until 10 to 15Mbps that you’ll truly reach the promised land of uninterrupted gameplay.
If you leave this review with one piece advice, have it be this: use an ethernet cable instead of the system’s Wi-Fi. A lost connection to your router will boot you from the game whether you’ve saved 10 seconds ago or 10 minutes ago. I get booted from games multiple times due to a bad connection.
Throughout my tests, I never quite had a perfect connection, despite doing everything in my power to create one. The best I could get was gameplay with infrequent jitters that were fine for platforming games like Braid, but made playing Borderlands tough.
This is an area Sony can improve on in time by optimizing servers and opening more server farms closer to major metropolitan areas. But, until that time, it’s probably best if you take advantage of the seven-day free trial before committing yourself long term to Sony’s new streaming platform.
As it stands, what Sony has created with PlayStation Now is pretty amazing. It’s entered an arena in which so many have failed (remember OnLive?) and has emerged with a viable platform for the future of Sony’s gaming division.
That said, there are still some serious kinks to work out. Unless you’re rocking an insanely fast connection, you’ll always run up against lag, and the pricing still isn’t as logical as it should be. In addition to the library of games offered to customers, these are areas where the service has grown immensely in the last six months and continues to push forward.
Like I said before, if you’re unsure about the service, try out the seven-day free trial to see how you like it. The worst that will happen is one night of aggravatingly slow, jarring gameplay and a few minutes on Sony’s website unsubscribing. The best case scenario, and the more likely one, is that PlayStation Now will genuinely impress you as a proof of concept and a cheap way to binge-play some older games you might’ve missed on the PS3.
As promised, Sony delivered a slew of games. Picking which one of the 260-plus games to download first is a difficult decision, and this is only the beginning. But don’t treat this like the end-all, be-all choice. Because rentals don’t take up any space on your hard drive and there’s zero download time, you can jump from one game to the next to your heart’s content.
Ideally, that means taking advantage of the reasonably priced subscription program, even if it’s only for the seven-day trial period. It’s not that I’m opposed to shelling out for content a la carte, I’m not, but you need to use caution and good judgement before you rent a game for 30 days that you could’ve bought outright for less.
It would’ve been great to escape the slog of buying games and returning them for half their value, but that doesn’t seem possible with PlayStation Now in its current state. Publishers haven’t taken to the idea of putting their latest wares on the service, instead opting to put up classics of varying quality.
The other major problem is that, every once in awhile, streaming can take a huge dip and derail your perfect stream in a first-person shooter or send you careening into a wall in a driving game. Worst of all, if you get booted from your game, you can say goodbye to all the progress you made since your last save.
As a platform, PlayStation Now has vastly improved over the last 10 months. We’ve seen a marked increase in the amount of games (from 80 last year in July 2014 to about 260 in December 2015) as well as the addition of a subscription option that makes joining an easier decision.
There’s still room for Sony’s new service to grow, but considering that this technology has only been in its current state in the wild for a year, there’s a lot to be excited about.
Whether you should subscribe to PlayStation Now comes down to two questions: do you mind games that are a few years old and, more importantly, can you put up with small periods of imprecise controls in exchange for a massive, 260-plus game library?
If your answer is no to either of those, then you might want to press pause on your subscription until more third-party game makers get on-board or Sony at least fronts more recent first-party games on the subscription side of the service.
It’s clear that there’s a future in PlayStation Now not just for Sony, but for how we purchase games on the whole. However, as the service stands today, more needs to be done before it can be recommended outright.