During his E3 presentation, President and CEO of Sony Entertainment America Jack Tretton looked like a man enjoying himself. And why wouldn’t he be? His company’s principal rival had for weeks battled bad press following its Xbox One reveal in May, and while Microsoft’s presentation at E3 revealed a strong lineup of games, the confusing details surrounding the One’s handling of second hand games at the time cast a shadow over its entire presentation. Everyone loves presenting good news, and the audience was eating it up. The PS4 would have no used games restrictions, no disk online check-in and no authentication every 24 hours. (Microsoft has since reversed these policies.) Coupling that with the announcement that the price of the PS4 would be one hundred dollars cheaper in the States than the Xbox One had gamers literally out of their seats. Tretton’s revelation that PlayStation Plus would be required to access online play on the PS4 was seen by some in the gaming press as a negative on the new system. During the life of the current generation the PS3 has been playing catch up on Xbox’s excellent Live service, yet it was assumed by many that multiplayer would remain a free part of Sony’s platform. Some game journalists queried how Sony was able to coast over this news, but PlayStation Plus has been a boon for Sony and I believe it’s success is crucial in understanding why Sony is succeeding in exciting gamers for their next generation console.
The PlayStation Plus membership service had been announced by Tretton at E3 in 2010, offering the ability to download demos, offering small discounts on PSN games and allowing automatic system software updates. Its take-up rate was slow at first and paled in comparison to Microsoft’s Live membership. Fast forward a few years and PlayStation Plus has become enormously popular for Sony, with the company revealing a recent survey that showed a 97% satisfaction rating for and an amazing 93% retention rate for the service. It seems clear that today Plus is adding to Sony’s brand and creating strong loyalty to the PlayStation line-up.
All of this is even more striking considering the public relations storm that the company faced only two years ago. Between the 17th and 19th of April 2011, Sony’s PlayStation Network was hacked, compromising the personal information of 77 million users. An unmitigated disaster for the company, it took 24 days for services to be restored and caused incalculable damage to the PlayStation brand and Sony’s reputation. This resulted in a welcome back program where Sony announced a number of PS3 and PSP games would be offered for free, as well as 30 days of PlayStation Plus for all users. The free games Sony offered as compensation included Infamous and Little Big Planet and while they were hardly brand new at the time, it was a gesture from Sony acknowledging their responsibility and was taken up by many users.
The compensation was well received, and a year later in June 2012 they unveiled the Instant Game Collection, a selection of 12 games rotated monthly that included smaller indie titles as well as AAA behemoths. Titles such as Mass Effect 3, Sleeping Dogs, Spec Ops: The Line and Uncharted 3 have all been featured. As long as gamers retain Plus membership they can access these games indefinitely. The Instant Game Collection works so well because it encourages players to try a game they may have heard about yet not wanted to pay money for. If they enjoy the game Sony has the chance of creating extra sales through DLC and other titles in the series. For years I had heard God of War fans rave over the franchise, but with seven games in the series I worried about my pile of shame becoming a mound, or even a hill. The original God of War – remastered in HD and released in 2010 – was recently offered as part of the collection. Since downloading it, I haven’t been able to put it down. Mass Effect 3 also appeared on plus, and I after enjoying it as much as I did, I purchased the previous two entries. Plus isn’t just giving games away here, it’s generating awareness and sales of the titles on their platform and engendering continued loyalty in every happy customer. Each month a price cut is included for the DLC for the free games, encouraging further transactions for Sony and the associated publishers. This is truly a win-win situation for gamers and the company.
Microsoft has obviously taken notice. Just as Sony has been left chasing the Xbox’s superior multiplayer offerings, Microsoft has found itself in a position where it needs to compete with Plus. Microsoft’s E3 press conference saw the announcement of Games With Gold, a bi-monthly offering of a free game to Xbox Live Gold members at least until the launch of the Xbox One. It wasn’t surprising though, to see a lukewarm reaction to games like Fable 3 and Assassins Creed 2, older titles which many have already played. Imagine if they were to offer Assassins Creed 3 for free. This more recent title would see gamers rushing to download it to their 360’s. By having so many new people try the game out, the hype surrounding Assassins Creed 4 would be likely be enhanced and gamers would be further encouraged to play through the new adventure on the Xbox One. Ironically, PlayStation Plus has just added Assassin’s Creed 3 to the September line-up of free games in PAL territories. It remains to be seen if Microsoft will eventually ramp up their Games With Gold offerings or even extend them to next gen, although you’d have to assume they’ll be addressing it in some way.
For their part, Sony has announced the Instant Game Collection on PlayStation Plus will continue with the launch of the PS4, and their latest racer Drive Club will be the first free game for the new console. While this will be a cut down version of the game, it ensures the PS4 will from day one have a large base of gamers trying out the new online offerings and, I’d think, driving further sales. No doubt a wide range of DLC will be on offer to ensure Plus members who enjoy the game will be able to support it financially.
PlayStation has come a long way from the dark blacked out days of April 2011 and PlayStation Plus has played an important role in restoring Sony’s reputation. As the new console generation looms, it’s going to be fascinating to see how each company moves forward. Will Microsoft continue offering free games to entice consumers? Will gaming on Sony’s new system be as seamless and enjoyable as Live? Whatever the case, gamers should be happy to see the competition continue, driving each brand to innovate and push the boundaries of services, infrastructure and quality gaming experiences.