Sony has reason to celebrate during Gamescom 2014, the annual video game trade show in Cologne, Germany, since their latest console has sold 10 million units. What they're not celebrating is the recent beta release of their PlayStation Now service, a cloud-based system that lets players play PlayStation classics directly on their PS4 by renting them digitally.
What Sony failed to mention is that the prices for renting older games are outrageous. It's currently a ripoff and there's really no justification for paying more to rent a game for a few months than to buy the actual game at retail. Some of the prices have already been adjusted, notably for the shorter multi-hour length rentals, but Sony isn't doing themselves any favors in making Now a service we should care about... right now. It doesn't help when industry analyst Michael Pachter labels the service a "joke."
The situation took a turn for the contradictory last week when Electronic Arts announced a partnership with Microsoft that would bring their own subscription-based EA Access service to Xbox One. EA Access will let players play a library of EA games on Xbox One for a monthly fee of $5 or an annual fee of $30, and it's a service that Sony admitted to turning down. Why? Well, Sony's official response explains that EA Access does "not bring the kind of value PlayStation customers have come to expect."
Because PlayStation customers expect to pay... more? Something does not compute.
CVG asked PlayStation Europe boss Jim Ryan at Gamescom 2014 about the controversy surrounding the PS Now service and its pricing strategy:
"We're learning about all sorts of things and technical stuff, tons of data about the number of people who use the service concurrently and measuring that against install base. So all of that stuff is new to us and we're learning every single day the beta's ongoing.
We're learning about what the right model for consumers is: we're starting off with rental, and [figuring out] what's the right period to rent, what's the right price for the rental, playing with these things. We haven't got them quite right yet, but we will do, and we'll just take learnings from it and do stuff differently as appropriate.
One of the things we're learning is that rental is one model and it's attractive for some people, but others may be more interested in some sort of subscription approach, and that's also something that we're looking at. So, you know, the list is kind of too long to fit into this short chat. 'Learning' is the right word, because this is a new business for us and we have to be kind of humble and accept that we don't understand it yet, and learn quickly."
As a service in beta, PlayStation Now's prices and options will change and change frequently but it still makes you wonder how those prices in today's video game economy were ever selected that way in the first place. And how does Sony get away with bashing the value of a $30 annual service for a library of EA titles when they were charging $30 for a 90-day rental of one older game?
"No, I don't think the two are related. Whether it's rental or whether it's subscription, we'll figure out what's best for PlayStation Now.
You've got to realize that the beta is just the tiny little shoots of what's going to become a big, big thing down the road and when you're looking at a service that's streaming content to multiple devices - some PlayStations, some Sony devices that aren't PlayStations, such as televisions, and before too long non-Sony devices, where you're talking about offering the PlayStation experience to people who won't have to buy a PlayStation in order to get into it - this whole conundrum is way bigger than a subscription service on a competitor platform. So no, the two are not related."
The services are definitely related in our wallets, but this is a sign of the future. We're already seeing retail games become digital downloads that fill our limited console hard drives. The next step is to eliminate the capacity issues by embracing the always-online cloud. The pricing is where it gets tricky because you just know all the major publishers will be asking for their own subscription models plus their own DLC season pass packages, etc.
Do these new services and tests paint a scary future for video game services and prices or is it simply the logical evolution of the business?
Follow Rob on Twitter @rob_keyes.