Last week I took a look at the Xbox 360’s Live service and went over the five items I felt that Microsoft needed to look at in order to stay relevant in the online service realm. Obviously when you start talking about consoles, people are passionate and there were a number of large comments with some great points. Now I am going to look at the PlayStation Network (PSN) and the five points they need to look at to stay competitive especially since they are new to this online space.
I will start by saying something that will probably have people screaming that I am a fanboy. When looking at the PSN I had a tough time coming up with five points they need to change/look at…seriously. Sony has been very diligent about listening to feedback and enhancing their online offering. They revamped their store, normalized pricing, offered free media and stepped up their content on a weekly basis. They are really trying to make this a very compelling and competitive online offering and still stick with a free pricing model.
Having said that, there are still a number of sticking points that Sony needs to address to pull ahead of their competitors in the online presence/launchpad offering they are providing. Since online GUIs are everywhere and you can get online and play from your cell phone, PDA, smartphone and many other handhelds like the PSP and Nintendo DS, Microsoft and Sony need to listen and adapt.
Number 5 – More Content, Both Original and Classic Titles – Sony is now starting to give us pretty hefty updates in the form of add-ons, demos and multimedia, but full games are not generally part of the updates. Over the last 12 updates we had eight titles added to the PSN (not counting demos). One was a PSOne classic, three were expansion packs and one was a cross-platform title, so that means in three months we had only four unique games on the service. Sony is finally starting to get the creation machine in full swing and we expect to see many new games arriving this year, but more is needed to compete. I don’t mean diluting the quality either; they need to approach companies and get games like Rez or Ikaruga before Microsoft. They also need to get niche games like Carcassonne and Puzzle Quest on the system to broaden their audience.
Sony also has been strange with their release of the PSOne classics. There are nearly twice as many released on the Europe PSN (see point #4) as there are on the North American Store. People are downloading these classics and loving them. Sony stands to make a ton of money with little investment and I just can’t understand why they are not ramping up the release of these titles. I for one would love to buy any number of classic games, simply to play them on my PSP. Come on Sony, this one is a no-brainer; just please bear in mind pricing needs to make sense.
Number 4 – Unified Updates and Stop Delaying Releases – So if you were keeping count North America is the real winner in the PSN and PlayStation world. We have the Official PlayStation Blog and while it is not cutting edge it often gives insider updates from developers and SCEA brass before it is heard elsewhere. We also have the most content at the best prices, Europe and Japan have less content and Europe in particular pays very high prices for their PSN goodness. It is funny, generally in the comments of the PlayStation Blog we see things like: ‘What about a Mexico store?’, ‘Why isn’t this on the Europe store?’ and other comments. Sony can manage to launch their console in many regions nearly simultaneously and assist in having games like GTAIV and MGS4 launch globally. Why can they not have a unified release cycle for the PSN?
Sony also has a very bad habit of only updating on Thursdays. If a demo drops on Monday or new Rock Band tracks are released Tuesday, PSN users have to wait till Thursday to get their game on. The real issue is on the demo front; I mean if you have Rock Band, you have it on the PS3 or Xbox 360, so waiting is annoying but not deal breaking. Picture a cross-platform game demo being released on the Xbox 360 on Tuesday and you download it. If you love it and you own both consoles which version will you buy right away? Your favorable experience is with the Xbox 360 version and if you don’t want to wait or play the demo twice you may well buy that version. By delaying the releases Sony is literally giving Microsoft a competitive edge that they cannot afford to give.
Number 3 – Release PlayStation Home – Sony is trying to differentiate its online service from Xbox Live and that is great, but the one thing people constantly compare is the lack of an Achievement system on the PSN. While at its heart Achievements are trivial and have no real value, they are very popular and are a form of bragging rights to your peers. Sony has heard us, and their answer to this disparity is PlayStation Home which is much more then Accomplishments/Achievements. Their plan is to include the service for free and incorporate a living space, media viewer, party simulator, second life style avatar/world, game interaction and launchpad as well as trophies for game performance. It is a very ambitious project and as a result delayed and delayed and delayed (there is a new release date of Fall 2008).
Kaz Hirai (President of Sony Computer Entertainment) has said he will not allow it to be released until it is ready, but developers are already ramping up for it. Resistance: Fall of Man, Uncharted: Drakes Fortune and Warhawk all have exciting Home integration as well as trophies for your trophy room. Devil May Cry 4 had Accomplishments that flashed up on a black screen when achieved, presumably once Home is launched something more visual will appear in those screens. Many people are very eagerly awaiting this service and it could be a big push against the dominance of Xbox Live. All I can hope is that Sony has all resources they can spare listening to Beta feedback and getting this out as soon as possible.
Number 2 – Video and Music Should be Here by Now – Sony Pictures is the third top-grossing movie studio worldwide and Sony Music is the third largest music studio worldwide. Naturally that means they have a huge catalog of movies, TV shows and music that they can leverage. This begs the question…why is there no movie and music store on the PSN? There is a rumor that it is forthcoming based on a screen grab from a recent PSN commercial but you have to wonder what the holdup is.
I can only hope that when Sony does finally launch the service it is actually a viable business model and makes sense for a buyer to use it. Convenience is one thing (don’t have to go out) but most television providers have on demand movies and shows which don’t require a download so costing has to be attractive. If anyone is listening from Sony Land here are some items to bear in mind:
Number 1 – In Game XrossMediaBar (XMB) – If there is one anthem that is shouted louder then all others on any Sony forum it is ‘Where is the in-game XMB!?’ What does this mean to the layman reading this article? Well on the Xbox 360 if you hit the Xbox guide button (big X button in the middle), the Xbox Blade menu slides in on the left and you can play music, send friends a message or return to your dashboard easily. Sony has a similar PS button, but when you push it all you get is a black screen with commands to shut off the console or the controller.
This has been a huge sticking point for many fans as the ability to play custom music and interact with friends in-game is very popular but not possible as of yet on the PS3. This is truly one of the biggest differentiators between the two dashboards and I worry for all the forum posters who scream ‘In-game XMB’ every 2 minutes; what will they complain about when this is released?
Sony has said a few times that in-game XMB is indeed coming this year, but no timeline has been proposed; it could be May, it could be December. All I can think of is that the in-game XMB is tied to the launch of Home and that they are trying to add a unique and useful spin on the relatively basic premise. No matter what the reasoning, Sony truly needs to have this feature added and once it is in place that line between services will blur even further. If Sony finishes putting all of these pieces together they have a service roadmap that will make them a market leader again.