An abrupt announcement from Sony at E3 2013 revealed that the PlayStation Network’s heralded free-to-play business model would be vanishing for the PlayStation 4. In spite of this, the news has only recently moved past the initial knee-jerk outrage and been recognized by the majority as an inevitable and necessary change. Although additional clarification from Sony has helped deal with the somewhat bitter pill, the true implications of a required PlayStation Plus subscription have yet to be fully realized, and it will likely remain so until the PlayStation population hooks up their PS4s this holiday.
However, we do know the answers to some of the bigger, more divisive maybes. Jack Tretton’s initial reveal of the shift in PS+ pertained only to the “multiplayer experience” on PlayStation 4, which has proven to be fairly accurate. Basic web services such as Netflix will not require an active PlayStation Plus subscription, nor will PS3 and Vita services be affected by the change. Equally important is that free-to-play games with multiplayer will not require PS+ either, and, of course, current PS+ subscriptions will carry over for PS4, as one subscription (by PSN ID) effectively covers all PlayStation devices in use.
Despite all this, there’s still two more integral bits of information to be had. First and foremost is that Sony is leaving the decision of requiring a PlayStation Plus subscription for multiplayer access up to individual publishers. In addition, a recent announcement revealed that Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida has confirmed that the streaming and sharing functions of PlayStation 4 will not require a subscription. This may appear relatively inconsequential at first glance (I know I’m not too gung-ho on the feature, though I can’t say I’m opposed to it either), but it offers valuable insight as to what Sony expects to do with the PlayStation Network going forward.
As previous updates show, the driving force behind the shift to a paid model for PSN is the balancing act of quality of service and price. As Yoshida himself explained (via GameSpot), that balance has reached a tipping point with the PS4, and in order to “continue to offer a good service,” funding, via increased PS+ users, is necessary. “Considering the cost,” Yoshida detailed, “to try to keep such a service free and consequently lower the quality would be absurd.”
Yoshida’s testimony clearly cites requiring PlayStation Plus as a means of improving the PlayStation Network as a whole. The free service was nice while it lasted, but in order to stay competitive, Sony needs to improve their online network, and it seems this is the best way. Consequently, this raises a number of uncertainties regarding how PlayStation games may be affected as well as what sort of results the many new PS+ subscribers can expect to see. After all, Sony can sugarcoat the change as much as it likes, but is there any real reason to believe that PSN will see improvement due to the new fee?
There are two key factors to consider here. One, Sony is actively promoting the living daylights out of PlayStation Plus. We’ve even got PS4 day-one bundles that come pre-packaged with a year’s subscription of PS+. Second, and less obvious, is the role of publishers in the multiplayer dichotomy. Simply put, why would Sony leave the enforcement of paid multiplayer up to each game?
Naturally, they don’t want to strong-arm developers into their system. There is, however, another potential reason: They don’t want to look like the bad guy.
If the majority of publishers willingly take part in Sony’s paid multiplayer, it dramatically lessens the inevitable flak that Sony will receive, simply because Sony’s no longer the only one doing it. We’ve already seen this through the cushioning effect that Microsoft’s continuation of their Xbox Live model has provided for Sony.
If first-party titles are the only ones requiring a PS+ subscription, then the notion of improving PSN quickly devolves to self-serving consumer gouging. For this reason, Sony will genuinely want the new service to be worth pursuing, if not for the sake of the PlayStation population, then for the incentive of the publishers. Luckily, these two motives coincide, and, as I’ve said before, PlayStation gamers can only profit from the new subscription, whether they throw their money at it or not.
The question then becomes, would Sony restrict or outright diminish free-to-play multiplayer functionality in order to further incentivize publishers to get on-board with the paid model? I doubt it. Sure, there are few things more convincing than a sharp prod, but in this case, the game on the receiving end could easily seek publication elsewhere—namely the Xbox One, Wii U, or even Steam. Sony is a respectable company, but they’re also not made of happiness and sunshine. However, they are running a business and looking to build a game empire, and actively deterring prospective developers isn’t a quick way to the top, nor does it align with the company’s openly “developer-centric” and consumer-friendly philosophies.