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Is free PSN dead?

Opinion: PSM3's Duncan Harris ponders if passes and premium-tier services threaten Sony's network

"You can't charge money for network matching and other basic services," Ken Kutaragi, then chairman of Sony Europe, told the PC Impress Watch site in 2006. "These things are just taken for granted on the PC.

On the PS3... content will be the bread and butter of our business." So was signed the constitution of a free Network, cited time and again as a chief advantage over subscription-based Xbox Live.

Cut to November 2009. At an otherwise mundane investors conference, a single slide sends PS3 fandom into uproar. The PlayStation Network slide reads, 'New revenue stream from subscription.' Had Sony broken its promise? Just hours later, new chairman Kaz Hirai urgently addressed the online pitchforks and torches.

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"We are studying the possibility of introducing a subscription model, offering premium content and services, in addition to the current free services." Things died down and free PSN lived. Until now?

Here's the thing. There's a flaw in Kutaragi's original statement. It speaks of 'content' and 'basic services' as if they're distinct. But they're not. Multiplayer, especially, is a fusion of the two; PSN is the conduit, but when it comes to actually joining a server, the cost isn't Sony's to decide. As online increasingly becomes the place for publishers to make money, just how 'free' can those 'services' remain?

The first threat to free PSN is the online pass, a one-time code to access multiplayer (and other stuff ) for each copy. A direct attack on the used game market, it's proving increasingly popular and is now becoming standard - it's favoured by Electronic Arts for its EA Sports games plus Need For Speed Shift 2 and Mass Effect 2; by Ubisoft, whose online Uplay passport is £7.99; and by Warner Bros in Mortal Kombat and Fear 3. This, however, is not actually a new situation.

PAY TO PLAY
An aggressive approach to piracy - and resale - has been a part of PC gaming since publishers started using CD keys. It's why used PC sales have all but died over the past two years; almost every game requires authentication just to work, and shops simply won't buy them back, knowing the disc is useless. This push, then, is consoles catching up - and at least we're getting something extra.

"As a community, we've come to an understanding: games that deliver a high-end online experience elongate the average playtime, which increases the value," says Jesse Divinch, VP at Electronic Entertainment Design And Research. "It is only right that publishers explore additional opportunities to generate revenue, well past the point of purchase."

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It's not just easy cash, though. "We've found the games that offer online passes typically sell for five to seven percent lower on the used market, indicating that consumers take these additional charges into account," says Divinch. "However, because the difference in pricing is minimal, it would suggest very few used consumers actually buy these passes. Publishers and devs are not getting rich off these programmes, but they are impacting the used ecosystem, to some degree."

We did a little research of our own. At a branch of Blockbuster, the assistant (who insisted on anonymity) painted a different picture. "I'm not aware of any price difference, though we have had a few complaints," he said. "The latest Need For Speed, FIFA 11... because we sell those used for around £5 cheaper at launch, there isn't much of a discount. So when people get them home and can't play online... We've made suggestions, things like an extra discount or free PSN Store cards."

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