One of the leverage points Sony have had over Microsoft in the never-ending console war of the modern era has been the online free-to-play model.
While this isn't about to change any time soon, it was inevitable that Sony would eventually incorporate a premium content service in an attempt to trawl the bottom of the ocean for any gamers who currently fulfil the description of "in a recession" and "has spare money". They're calling it PlayStation Plus, and we've spent a bit of time with it over the last few weeks to ascertain if it's a worthwhile investment.
Released in PS3 firmware 3.40, and accessible through the PlayStation Store, Plus is a subscription service that allows gamers to access either free, exclusive, or discounted content. That's really the service in it's entirety, and apart from the additional "plus" symbol graciously granted to your profile, it's a relatively low-key affair.
The cost for this subscription service is $89.95 for a one-year membership and $26.95 for a 90-day membership. This pricing was extracted from the NZ PlayStation website (with some difficulty, I might add) where, in addition, Sony have stated that your fee will provide you with at least $400 worth of value per year. It's really difficult to quantify exactly how accurate this is, given that some of the content is exclusive to PlayStation Plus and therefore doesn't have it's own RRP value anyway, but based on the offerings this month it's clear that you're going to get back more than you put in.
The current content available is comprised of 16 individual downloadable items, varying in scope from a free copy of 1998's Medieval, a couple of free Mini games such as Blast Off and Alien Zombie Death, and a discount on GTI Club+ (was $18.90, now $9.45). There's also a couple of Heavy Rain avatars, a $3.78 discount on the WipeOut HD Fury expansion pack, and a Playstation Plus Dynamic Theme pack, in case you wish to casually remind visitors that you are indeed a person of substance.
The quality and value of each item varies wildly. The free Mini games may encourage subscribers to check off their calender each month for new arrivals, but it seems pretty difficult to get excited about a $0.78 discount on Earth Defence Table Game Pack (down to $3.12 from $3.90). It strikes me as somewhat unlikely that if you haven't been compelled to spend $3.90 on this game already, the inclusion of it in PlayStation Plus will do anything to change your mind. It appears too that most international regions have different items on offer - it must be an unenviable task dictating the content for New Zealand, being next to impossible to keep everyone happy.
The introduction of full game trials is a positive step. This month, you can trial the 14-month-old inFamous for one hour, during which time any trophies you manage to pick up will remain your property, along with game saves. You can also buy the game directly for $53.90 through the PlayStation Store, although with bandwidth costs factored in, you're not all that far ahead of the retail $59.95 charge now that the game has gone platinum. A solid concept, all that's needed really is to replace inFamous with something less than three months old, and it'll have a lot more appeal.
The automatic download service, whilst a good idea in concept, seems a little redundant. PlayStation Plus subscribers have the ability to enable the PS3 to power up every 48 hours at a time of their choice and haul down PlayStation Plus content. This includes system software upgrades too, although these still need to be manually installed. It also seems like a way to rampantly download a heap of data without knowing, so you'd want to be cautious in enabling it.
This long-overdue subscription service from Sony isn't as simple as it appears from the outset. Here's the real problem; would you really have otherwise purchased the content you're now getting for free? Or, had you not been offered a discount item, would you have considered buying it in the first place? Are you setting yourself up for the expectation that you'll need to take advantage of these discounts in order to justify spending the subscription fee in the first place?
PlayStation Plus doesn't appear to issue a forward release schedule anywhere I could see, so the answer to these questions very much depend on the kind of gamer you are. If you're dedicated to blockbuster PlayStation releases and have never considered browsing the PlayStation Store for any reason other than to download specific avatar or map packs then it's unlikely you'll see much value in the content on offer. Likewise, if you use your PS3 as a media hub and rarely treat gaming as little more than a distraction, this isn't for you.
However if you're a real PS3 fan and spend the majority of your gaming life ensconced on the sofa, controller in one hand and perhaps some kind of voodoo doll in the form of Xbox's Major Nelson in the other, you'll want to subscribe. Not because it's a guaranteed treasure chest of bargains necessarily, it's just that there's enough variety on offer for those willing to invest the time that others with a more specific gaming focus simply won't bother with. It's also likely that you won't be concerned about losing any of the content you've tirelessly collected should your Plus subscription lapse.
The current content appears to be valid from the 4th to the 31st of each month, so if you're considering signing up, the suggestion here is that you check the PlayStation website and ascertain if the games/discounts on offer are worth taking the plunge. If the content on offer this month is no good to you, wait until next.
If you find yourself waiting several months, you have your answer.