31st Jul 2014 | 01:50
It's a PlayStation Now public beta party, and you're on the guest list
Introduction and game library
Update: We've had even more time with PlayStation Now ahead of its public beta launch. Check out page three for our initial impressions from CES 2014 and for more information.
A lot can change in two years.
On July 2, 2012, Sony bought the then-barely-known cloud gaming service, GaiKai, to the tune of $380 million (£242 million). The decision was met with tepid excitement and heaps of skepticism.
The excitement made sense. Though a foreign idea at the time, game-streaming sounded like an ambitious way to replace the derelict brick and mortar rental stores. (Sorry, Blockbuster!) The skepticism, however, was also understandable.
How could the average user expect a stable, quick connection for an entire gaming session? And how could Sony price it so that both consumers and developers get a fair deal?
It's with these questions in mind that we fast-forward to July 2014, wherein the fruit of that union is finally ready for harvest. It's called PlayStation Now, and if you haven't heard of it, it's kind of a big deal.
Until today, the private beta was only open to a select few. Now, the beta's open to the North American public - exclusively on the Sony PS4. (Unfortunately, UK and Australian users will have to wait until later this year to try the service for themselves.)
What follows is my experience with the service and fly-by-night phenomena many didn't believe could even work two short years ago.
We had hoped back then, perhaps somewhat naively, that PlayStation Now would be the Netflix of video game streaming. That we could shell out a paltry $8.99 a month and access any game we choose forever - so long as we didn't let our subscription lapse.
What we got isn't the evolution of Netflix. That's not to say it's bad, mind you. It's just … different.
Let's start at the beginning. PlayStation Now's interface is incredibly subdued. There are only four tabs: Welcome, All Games, Connection Test, and My PS Now Games.
Exploring the Welcome tab reminds you to use a wired connection for the best results and, before you begin streaming a title, test your connection. (If you're wondering, yes you can pass the test if you're using a wireless signal. We managed to pass the test on Wi-Fi, though that may not have been an accurate assessment.)
Sony promised close to 100 titles before the beta goes live, among them first-party behemoths like The Last of Us, God of War: Ascension and Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus.
Sony delivered. Sort of.
I counted nearly 85 games during the private beta in the All Games tab, with 15 to 20 of them being stand out or must-play games. None of them though, at this point, are PS4 games. There was a distinct lack of first-party titles, too. Not to say that this can't or won't change as soon as the beta switches from private to public.
But the good titles are worth the price of entry - which I'll get to soon enough, don't worry. Games like Saints Row 3, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Darksiders and Catherine are all up for grabs. And, if Sony's promise of first-party titles is to be believed, we've got a lot to look forward to in the coming months (e.g. The Last of Us, God of War: Ascension and Ratchet & Clank: Into the Nexus).
Sadly, some of the 85 games are discount bin fodder, and have been for the past few years. I don't know anyone lining up to play Heavy Fire: Shattered Spear or Jimmie Johnson's Anything with Wheels. But the variety offered here should be enough to please a diverse set of tastes.
Pricing, stream quality and early verdict
PlayStation Now could offer the biggest and best games from the company's 20-year foray into game consoles, but if the pricing is wrong, none of it will matter. Nailing down exactly what PlayStation Now's pricing is and how this will shake out, however, is a little tough.
From what I can tell, games are divided into four rental periods: four hours, seven days, 30 days and 90 days. The price between the first two typically only differs by one to two dollars, but there's a major jump in cost that happens between the 30 and 90-day levels.
However, once you purchase time with a game, you can't buy additional time. Ideally, you should be able to buy a four-hour demo for $2.99 and, once you've decided you like it, unlock 7-day access by paying the difference.
As it stands, you'll need to wait out the four hours and pay the full 7-day price. There's no way to transition from one to another without waiting out the time for which you paid.
Thankfully, the rental period begins the first time you play the game not when you purchase it. However, you must start your game within 30 days of purchasing the rental or, I'm assuming, that money is wasted.
Here's a table of three games, one early PS3 game; one PSN game; and one more recent PS3 game displaying not only the difference in price over each time period, but the difference between games altogether as well:
- Metal Gear Solid 4: 4 hours - $ 3.99, 7 days - $7.99, 30 days - $12.99, 90 days - $14.99
- Mega Man 9: 4 hours - $2.99, 7 days - $3.99, 30 days - $5.99, 90 days - $7.99
- Deus Ex: Human Revolution: 4 hours - $4.99, 7 days - $6.99, 30 days - $14.99, 90 days - $29.99
Taken at face value, these don't seem so bad. Reasonably, this is what brick and mortar stores used to charge for rentals, and while the upper-end seems a bit too high, it may make sense once more recent - and better - games fill out the catalog.
But dig in a bit deeper, and these logical prices stop making sense.
Take, for example, Metal Gear Solid 4: it's $7.99 to rent for seven days - not a terrible price when it's isolated without a comparison. But when this game goes for $6.99 used at GameStop, it seems a lot less sensible. Though, the point can be made that you would need an actual PS3 console to play that disc, thanks to the lack of backwards compatibility on the PS4. So, this argument can swing either way.
Where I can see PlayStation Now finding some traction is with gamers supplementing their PS4 experience with rentals - or, crazier, users giving up their physical media collection completely. This depends largely on how quickly games come to the store. But, in a perfect world in which games launch simultaneously on retail and PS Now, you could be playing the week's biggest game without leaving your couch for the pittance of $6.99.
There's a lot of potential here, but the pricing model - especially when compared to the recently announced EA Access's $5 per month for all you can play - isn't all that consumer-friendly.
Games take about 15 seconds to load up, and seem a hair faster than they were at CES. Single player worked seamlessly in Guacamelee!, and local multiplayer wasn't a problem either.
I also noticed that since CES, there was little to no signal degradation. Everything came through in crystal-clear HD or not at all. The only time I saw some stuttering and screen tearing was during an intense, input-heavy game, like Dead or Alive 5.
Whether PlayStation Now can support multiplayer games online, however, remains to be seen. I can only imagine that a signal being relayed from a local PlayStation 4 to a PS Now server then to the game server and back would be too slow to play online. Whether that turns out to be true, though, remains to be seen and is something that requires confirmation from Sony.
What I do know is that you really want to heed Sony's advice on an ethernet cable. A lost connection to your router will boot you from the game whether you've saved 10 seconds ago or 10 minutes ago. I got booted from games multiple times due to a bad connection. Though, this may have to do with the amount of dedicated servers for the beta, and not something indicative of the final service.
It's hard to judge the service on this brief, partial display. Once more server space becomes dedicated to PlayStation Now, many of these complaints may become a moot point.
As promised, Sony delivered a slew of games. Picking which one of the 80-plus games to download first is a difficult decision, and this is only the beginning. Plus, rentals don't take up any space on your hard drive, and there's zero download time - just a quick 20 second setup before you play each game.
Finally, while the service is only available now on the PlayStation 4, it will eventually span the entirety of Sony's gaming and media devices as well as possibly expanding onto smartphones.
It would've be great to cut yourself off entirely from a console, but that doesn't seem possible with PlayStation Now in its current state. There's just not enough of a selection without getting the latest releases on there every week, and even if they were, the prices add up quickly.
Games can sometimes be more for a seven day rental than their retail price. Frankly, I wish PlayStation Now would borrow EA Access's better, consumer-friendly pricing system.
Sony has time to fix the problem with its PlayStation Now pricing model, lack of flexibility, and has plans to step up the amount of content available to stream. There's a lot to look forward to with the service. That is, so long as Sony can adopt a better model to attract the most gamers to the platform.
Hands on: CES 2014
Backwards compatibility may have gone the way of the dodo but now Sony has introduced a way to play its last-gen games, and you don't even need a PlayStation 3 or 4.
PlayStation Now could be the Netflix of video games. Through a subscription or a la carte rental payments players can stream PS3 games in 720p, no console required.
Solid Snake on your iPhone?
When the service launches this summer it'll be exclusive to Sony Bravia TVs, the PS4 and PS3. Sony plans to expand compatibility to the PS Vita handheld and Sony Xperia Android devices.
PlayStation Now won't be exclusive to Sony products forever. The Japanese electronics behemoth has said its goal is to support a "broad range of Internet-connected devices." This includes non-Sony TVs and smartphones.
At Sony's mega booth at CES 2014 I spent a little hands on time crushing mythological monsters and skulking through the apocalyptic wasteland.
My demo used a Sony Bravia TV with DualShock 3 controllers connected directly to the TV. A Sony rep told me that Bluetooth is the only requirement to get controller playing with a TV. At launch, only the PS3's DualShock 3 will be supported for direct television play.
Four games were playable at the CES demo: God of War: Ascension, Puppeteer, The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls. I played the first three and was impressed with the latency of the controls, which showed zero lag.
However, the visuals were a bit of a downgrade. God of War and Last of Us, known for being real system pushers, looked noticeably fuzzy at times. There were also some pretty big initial load times.
The opening load time on The Last of Us, known for being pretty epic, came out to a minute and thirty seconds, according to my iPhone's stopwatch. That could be due to the internet being slammed by convention-goers, or just the early nature of the Now service. Either way I'm hoping performance improves by the time its opened to the public.
The cloud advantage
While latency could be an issue, Sony is saying that a 5 Mbps connection is all that's required for PlayStation Now. Basically, if your internet connection can support Netflix, Now shouldn't be a problem.
And having your data up in the cloud will mean your saves will follow you across your devices, wherever you choose to log in from.
You'll also never need to worry about patching, since the server will always be dishing up the latest version.
A lot is up in the air
Even though Sony was letting people try the service, there's still a lot it won't say about PlayStation Now. First, there's the price.
Sony has said that users will be able to choose between subscription and per title pay-to-play rentals. It hasn't said how any of that will be priced, or if subscriptions will provide unlimited play, or be tied somehow to PS Plus.
Also, Sony has yet to divulge what games will be available at launch, or down the line. Reps at CES couldn't even confirm that the four titles at the demo would be ready to stream. They also wouldn't say anything about PlayStation 2 and original PlayStation games, just that they were "a possibility."
Despite all the unknowns and the graphical half step backwards, PlayStation Now is one of the most exciting bits of gaming news to come out of CES. As a life-long gamer, I sorely miss backwards compatibility. Having Sony's amazing back catalog at my disposal would be incredible, especially for a flat fee.
This could be the HBO GO of video games, and I'm excited to hear more about the lineup, and when I'll be able to play The Last of Us on my Vita. Sony has a closed beta planned for the end of January; expect more news once that kicks off.
Originally contributed by Alex Roth