Is Sony’s Playstation Now a Game Changer?

Any gamer can attest to the fact that one of the biggest sources of frustration with a new console generation is backwards compatibility. While some like the Nintendo Wii and Wii U debuted with support for the full features of their previous devices, Sony’s Playstation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One offer no such way to play the physical media of their last iterations.

Announced last week, Playstation Now has been pitched as a solution to this problem. Sony debuted details of the service at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, and while we’re still waiting on full specs and pricing, it’s essentially a cloud-based subscription service that will let users stream classic Playstation titles from previous generations on the new Playstation 4. It will also be supported on the Playstation 3 and Playstation Vita, as well as non-Sony devices like smartphones and tablets.

What this means for gamers is a less cluttered living room, and easier access to Sony’s acclaimed franchises from the past. Excited by the notion is Keyvan Acosta, course director for our Game Design I class, and one of our resident console gaming experts, who recently offered his take on what the new service means for players and the industry.

“I think about it most in terms of convenience, why would I want to keep switching discs if I can just access them through streaming from a console menu,” he says. “It’s as simple as pressing a button and it plays – thank you for making it easy for me. It also cuts down on piracy. Companies that make it easier to access their older games have much less of a chance of people stealing them online. If the way for accessing it is easy, more will gladly buy it.”

Of course there have been some concerns with the new platform, with many left wondering about the effect on retailers. In addition to selling new software, Gamestop thrives on trade-in deals and used software. It may also affect Gamefly, the mail order subscription service that ships physical disc rentals to consumers. Add to that the possibility of stability and performance issues, and it will be interesting to see how the model is embraced by consumers.

“I see streaming as a complement to buying physical media,” Keyvan says. “I think some games will also inform the players that they’re better purchased than streamed, the games that are super high-res and twitch-based – that’s going to require a one-on-one experience because they can’t have any lag or stutter. My main concern is that people see this as a panacea, and it won’t be. It’ll be used for nostalgia reasons or global designs that can be perfectly streamed. Physical media will likely be there in some way for a long time, even as a ‘just in case.’”

By offering software on other devices like phones or tablets, Playstation Now may also be able to court gamers who don’t own a console. You don’t just need a Sony system anymore to experience their games. You can get big budget productions, a casual game, or an old favorite. It’s all allowed to be there.

“If the hardest decision I have to make is which device I want to play a game I know I already like on, that’s only a good thing,” Keyvan says. “The more choices there are for devices to have that service, the more people getting that service is a foregone conclusion.”

Another potential benefit is that this will allow younger players access to classic titles they may never had a chance to experience otherwise. Would you rather be able to stream Crash Bandicoot or Wipeout, or go to the trouble of buying an original Playstation and these games through an online auction?

“It’s a great setup in my mind if you pay a fee you can play a game for the rest of your life wherever you want even if the old hardware isn’t available anymore,” Keyvan says. “You never have to worry about a graphics card, driver issues, scratched discs, or installations because it’s all done on the server side. That’s why it’s so good, those problems are solved somewhere else so all that matters is that you’re experiencing the game.”

Sony has yet to detail the cost or official launch date for Playstation Now, but they are promising summer of this year for the Playstation 3 and 4 in the United States, with support for other platforms and territories arriving later. Early reports suggest that they’ll kick off with recent Playstation 3 exclusives that many gamers may not have experienced during the recent console generation shift, something that Keyvan potentially sees as the most influential byproduct of this new business model.

“It sets up the future of many game companies to create a game that will continue to be there forever,” he says. “It’s not going to be dismissed later on because it doesn’t play on the next system, it’s playable forever. Companies can not only present-proof the purchase for the customer, but also future-proofs games so they keep you loyal. Nintendo has done that to an extent with their Virtual Console on the Wii U and all those games we’re still playing 30 years after because they’re still good.”