If you believe what you read on most forums and mainstream game media, the Playstation Network is touted as the best model for online console gaming. The reasons are many – the marketplace is easy to navigate, the content is priced properly, there’s a wide open space to interact with other gamers, and so on. Most of these justifications are perfectly sound and completely valid. I’ve enjoyed dancing in a line in the middle of the PSN Home movie theater with the best of them.
But when those arguments are broken down and filtered out, the real reason for its support is loud and clear. The PSN is free for all. But everyone should know by now that free doesn’t necessarily equal good. When a service is free it is accountable to noone but the people who are offering it. And in this case, where Sony is concerned, free equals a dubious amount of investment in the wrong areas and ignoring the core, fundamental faults as to why PSN is at serious disadvantage when compared to Xbox Live.
When the PS3 was in its initial stages of hype and development, Sony touted that the PSN would be everything that Xbox Live was, but without the price tag. Free downloadable content, matchmaking, message services and the like. Big glossy beta images promised a killer online experience. But what we got in the original launch stages was woeful. No XMB in games. Shoddy slow marketplace. No rewards system. Sony was already taking the hit for having a prohibitively expensive system, so touting a free but substandard online experience wasn’t really on anyone’s features list.
Over time, Sony did begin to come good on its promises. You could access messages from players in game, trophies were introduced, matchmaking improved and so on. But something substantial was still missing. PSN didn’t feel like a community. You can’t dump an online service on gamers and expect them to welcome it with open arms. The soul of PSN had been lost in its rush to be created as a competitor. It was still difficult to feel like the online component encompassed the console like XBL did for the 360. The whole interface came alive when you connected, where the PS3, well, it had a news ticker.
Sony needed something big, it needed a place where gamers could congregate before and after games. It developed Home.
To me, Home is the perfect example of an already dubious concept gone completely wrong. It was as if a team of executives found a way to make meeting in a virtual space even more boring and plastic, by making everyone look the same and providing distractions from the fact that you were essentially trapped in an online box with a thousand other people all as confused and bored as yourself. You’ve got restrictions on everything. How many people can use the bowling alley, the arcade, where they can explore, even how many can join a club or group.
In all, PSN fails because it’s not natural. Here’s a few of my ideas on how Sony can turn it around.
Home was a bad idea from the start. Pumping millions of dollars into a system where people actually feel enclosed in a virtual space was a feat even I thought was impossible. Even if it was opened up and players could shape it, Sony would lose the ability to control the experience. It’s a lose/lose situation, and removing it now before it becomes its own expensive quagmire would allow them to push resources in other directions. Sony are pretty good at cutting their losses, but judging from the comments from the upper eclelon, its unlikely this will happen in the next decade.
Wrap the console with the online experience
The 360′s NGE may have its critics but what it does well is provide an avenue for gamers to push themselves into online. Activating a broadband connection tells you everything that’s going on as soon as you boot up – who’s online, what they are doing, what’s new in the marketplace, what events are coming up, what games have released and so on. If you haven’t been on in a while, you can see at a glance what’s happening. It’s easy to join in on any game in progress or join a group of buddies as they do a pub-crawl of gaming.
PSN needs this. It’s far too clumsy to access the separate parts of the network on the system, and the friends list function is appalling. Home doesn’t solve this problem like it was promised to. Sony needs to take advantage of the overwhelming amount of free visual space on the UI and pull the gamer in.
Develop localized regional communities/matchmaking
Outside of the US, one of the major problems for gamers is lag. You only need to hit a few forums to see the compaints about latency spoiling the whole experience for gamers. Sony needs to take the initiative and start prioritizing gamers according to their location. The hype (or hyperbole) of a global community of players has taken second stage to an underwhelming experience of being tossed out of games or suffering through slide-show play time after time. In this case, it’s a problem for both PSN and XBL, but XBL’s system is probably more likely to match you to a local, since it uses its own central servers then relying on the developer’s. Which leads me to my next point.
Create a central system
PSN relies heavily on using servers provided by the developers to host games. Because of this, its impossible to change games on the fly or keep track of what’s going on across all titles. Again, Home was supposed to be the savior of this particular conundrum, but it’s far too chunky, slow and laboured to appeal to fickle gamers. If Home must stay, then allow both a 2D and 3D (if you must) experience for those gamers who just want to PLAY, rather then wander around from box to box, hunting for a “lounge” to “discuss the possibility” of playing Killzone 2. This isn’t World of Warcraft, and this isn’t a raid. I’d just like to be able to jump from Resistance to LBP thanks.
The good news, really, is that Sony is learning, and it is improving. But it’s not fast enough. With every update that Sony catches up to Microsoft, they make yet another step ahead. And if they want to make PSN the console gamer’s true choice, they need to make some tough decisions. Because just being flashy and free doesn’t equate to holding the crown on the online King. The rising numbers of paying XBL users shows this.
So what do you guys think? How can PSN be improved?
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