Without realising it, we may have been given a sneak peek at a new, convenient, and – best of all – affordable game-delivery model in the final days of the current generation.
When Sony first announced the PlayStation Plus service back at E3 2010, it was largely dismissed as something of a joke; a me-too grab for that sweet, on-going utilities revenue that Microsoft has raked in since the launch of Xbox Live in late 2002. The problem with Sony’s offering was that it presented little in the way of value proposition above and beyond what was already available for free. Initially, the benefits included early beta invites, one-hour full-game trials, automatic downloads, and the occasional free but largely unappealing PlayStation Network game. It was hardly an incentive to fork out an additional AU$70 a year.
Fast forward two years, and all that changed with a single announcement at E3 2012. Without increasing the asking price for the service, Sony added the Instant Game Collection initiative to its list of features. From that moment, subscribers immediately gained unfettered digital access to a library of full-fledged game content, provided they continued to pay the annual PlayStation Plus subscription fee. The library of available games rotates on a regular basis, and all games downloaded by users remain accessible on their hard drives until their subscriptions expire. To date, blockbuster games like Red Dead Redemption, Crysis 2, Batman: Arkham City, Infamous 2, Bulletstorm, and more have featured on the service, which averages out to a cost of around AU$5.83 a month.
Enabling users to get their money’s worth many times over, the addition of Instant Game Collection instantly and single-handedly vindicated the existence of PlayStation Plus. Of course, there’s some understandable time lag between a game’s release and its appearance on Instant Game Collection. But the service is no less appealing, and it’s bound to have an impact on future retail sales and possibly even pricing schemes.
Emulate the great
PlayStation Plus draws parallels to distribution models recently adopted by other mediums, such as music, film and television. Services such as Rdio, Spotify and MOG grant subscribers access to a vast library of streaming music in return for a subscription fee that’s anything but unreasonable. Similarly, the likes of Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant Video have done much the same in the television and film space.
Such services have proved to be something of a breakthrough in the digital battle for consumer dollars. The asking price is generally so nominal and the access to the media so simple that users are increasingly happy to do business, perhaps even ditching piracy in the process.
Not only this, but in the music space, the Spotify platform is increasingly viewed as a growing revenue stream for major and indie record labels alike. It got off to a shaky start, with a number of individual artists complaining about the pittances their royalty cheques supposedly constituted. But as the model matures and the service’s user base grows, it seems to be a legitimate money maker for content producers. Netflix is said to pay out something in the region of US$1 billion per year in order to secure content licenses with its providers, and it’s expected that figure will only continue to grow along with the business.
Of course, the only evidence we have for the success of the Instant Game Collection model in the gaming space at this stage is anecdotal. Sony, much like Microsoft, has kept mum regarding the exact number of PlayStation Plus subscribers. Jack Buser, senior director of PlayStation Digital Platforms even told Kotaku in September of last year that Sony is “extremely proud of the number” before declining to specify what that number actually was.
For publishers and console manufacturers, Instant Game Collection-style services present an opportunity to reach the lucrative so-called “mid-core” market. When applied to a sector of the market as opposed to a type of game, this term is generally understood as those who might not be there on day one for the latest AAA releases, but who enjoy such experiences and factor them around their lifestyle. This is in contrast to those in the “hardcore” market, who are said to schedule their lifestyles around their gaming habits, and those in the “casual” market, who play accessible games only when time permits.
Another appealing aspect of PlayStation Plus from a publisher’s perspective is the second lease on life it provides for unsuccessful or long-forgotten games. While Gameplanet was unable to obtain details pertaining to a revenue split between Sony and third-party publishers, it’s hard to believe there’s nothing in it whatsoever for the third-parties.
Take something like Sega’s Vanquish, for instance: available on Instant Game Collection at the time of writing, it never set the retail world on fire despite impressing critics, and failed to breach the one million sales mark even after a year on the market. As a new IP with no multiplayer component, it was perhaps a hard sell – a gamble for consumers – at the typical AU$80+ price point. For those consumers, an initiative like Instant Game Collection removes the risk altogether and, theoretically, gets such games – those that feature near the bottom of most gamers’ priority lists – into more hands.
Without being on the inside, it’s hard to gauge how worthwhile involvement in such a program is for the respective third-parties. At best, it could be the beginnings of a lucrative opportunity for publishers that leads to a more comprehensive offering for consumers. At the very least, it’s simply another revenue stream for publishers, irrespective of the size. But it’s a potential game changer in an industry that’s increasingly facing dire straits in figuring out how best to monetize the medium.
At this late stage, Sony has pulled out a trump card that will put considerable pressure on its competitors. You can bet that Microsoft is watching this development with interest, and surely putting the pieces in place to deliver a similar service of its own.