The online PSN service has long been heralded as one of the PlayStation 3’s greatest assets, principally because, unlike its arch-rival the Xbox 360, it is available without the need to pay for the privilege of online gaming. Imagine, then, the faces of bewilderment as SCEA President Jack Tretton announced with enforced enthusiasm PlayStation Plus, a new premium service available exclusively for the charge of a subscription fee.
The idea is that hardcore PSN users will be showered with a stupendous supply of freebies, discounts and early demo and beta privileges, which sounds jolly spiffing on internet paper. But is it such a tantalising prospect in practice?
You have two choices when it comes to purchasing PlayStation Plus: for £11.99/$17.99 you can sample the service for three months, or you can commit for a whole year for a modest sum of £39.99/$49.99.
From here, you will gain access to a stash of content on a monthly basis, comprised of a free PSN game, minis and a PSOne game, along with various discounts and the promise of early access to game demos and betas in the future. A free DLC pack is also included, along with dynamic themes and avatars, full game trials and even an automated download service that allows the lazy man within us all to set the console to automatically download game patches and firmware updates without ever having to stretch your stubby fingers.
Sony insists that this accumulates into a package that is terrific value for money, and it is…sort of. It’s true to say that, if you are a compulsive user of the PSN who frequently makes irrational impulse purchases, there are plenty of discounts and freebies to take advantage of. But what if I don’t actually own Killzone 2 in order to utilise the DLC that Sony so generously supplied or have no interest whatsoever in the free PSOne game during a particular month?
It’s this grating lack of user choice that causes a bit of a downpour on the service. As I mentioned, there is some potential for hardcore users to save some monies, but the ability to choose your own free games and discounts would make PlayStation Plus a substantially more worthwhile and endearing venture – what they should have done is make it akin to a discount card that allows you to select a predetermined number of free games and special offers of your own free choice each month.
Without any forecast of the quality of future titles on offer, it simply doesn’t seem beneficial at this point to make the commitment, and if Sony fails to maintain a consistent standard of quality for the next few months then they could well see some users lose interest and not bother to renew their subscription. Again, some choice on the user’s part would eradicate this completely.
To blindly fork out £40 is a tall order for a selection of games that you a) might already own, b) never wanted in the first place and c) have no direct choice over, which is why more casual PSN users aren’t as likely to reap the benefits and will end up with a waste bin of leftover gaming gruel. As for the more hardcore audience the service really wants to cater for, at this point the chances are you already own most of the free content anyway since the majority of releases thus far have been available for quite some time.
As for the full game trials, you are allotted one hour’s access to a full game (first up is inFamous), before being given the opportunity to purchase it. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily equate to a full hours slot of play time as the 60 minutes is allocated via your system clock. What this therefore means is that idle breaks are not taken into consideration even if the console is switched off, so you will have to ensure you have a full, uninterrupted hour available – having your schedule dictated by Sony certainly isn’t appreciated.
To me, playable demos are just as sufficient for sampling a game on a try before you buy basis, and also have the advantage of being re-playable and don’t require you to download the full, space-hogging game in advance. Oh, and they also happen to be free, which raises a cause for concern if Sony start to favour “Plus” game trials that are restricted to paying subscribers over free playable demos accessible to everyone.
Then there’s the lack of unification between our neighbouring continents. In what has sadly become a common occurrence in the weekly PSN updates, the US Store has so far been bestowed with a significantly more generous helping of content compared to that of the European PSN Store, particularly with the amount of discounts on offer. What’s more, the content for the US Store is currently being periodically distributed every week to coincide with the standard PSN update, whereas Europeans receive all of their Plus content up front at the start of each month. It’s a bizarre contrast, and one that even the official PlayStation Blog struggled to explain.
A free subscription to digital magazine Quore was even included, yet Europeans received no such offer for their FirstPlay counterpart. Then again, early European adopters of a full year’s subscription did receive a digital copy of the charming LittleBigPlanet for free, but anyone who openly admits to not already owning one of the console’s mascot games in the first place deserves to be mortally mutilated by Sackboy himself.
But that’s not my biggest gripe. Criminally, it turns out that all of the free games you will have collected over the course of the year will abruptly cease to exist once your subscription comes to an end unless you renew it. Because of this, it’s hard not to shake off the nagging notion that PlayStation Plus has all the merits of a glorified rental service: come on Sony, this is just obscenely tight-fisted.
On the plus side (no pun intended), purchasers of the service are rewarded with a most prestigious “+” badge beside your username, allowing you to reign superior amongst your fellow poverty stricken peers. It’s Sony’s way of granting you a glistening gold star for conforming.
Still, the real plus point (pun intended this time) is that the core PSN online facility remains free and you are of course under no obligation to subscribe to Plus, so it will be interesting to see how many users will board the bandwagon. Once the planned early access to beta trials start to roll out then there might be more incentive for me to give it a trial, but for now the benefits of Plus seem too few and far between.
Sony should really start to focus their attentions on improving the PSN for everyone: cross-game chat, anyone? Oh wait, you’ll probably have to be a Plus subscriber for that. Nevermind.