Gamescom proves it's Sony's online service that's now the innovator

It’s easy to forget how bad things were for Sony at the start of PlayStation 3’s lifecycle. Sure, Xbox 360 had its ‘red ring of death’ issue, but that had been spotted and was being dealt with. At massive cost, sure, but the good ship Xbox was off the rocks and out into clear waters. PlayStation 3, on the other hand was floundering. And the only thing Sony could do was to play catch-up to Microsoft.

Setting aside the awful early multi-platform ports and rumble shenanigans, it was the online services that proved just how far ahead Microsoft really was. Having nurtured the fledgling Xbox Live for almost an entire generation already on the original Xbox, Live on Xbox 360 was truly a premium service in all senses of the word. A barnstorming example of how to do online gaming.

In fact, price was the only thing that PS3 could offer that was genuinely superior to Xbox Live. Free online multiplayer was a decent shouting point, but it was easier to shout down. Cross-game chat was the main counter argument. Then there was the superior selection of arcade games. Sony had to combat massive XBLA games like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved with disappointing knock-offs like Blast Factor. If the online service wars were a game of chess, Sony was using up every turn just trying to counter another tactical Microsoft masterstroke.

And so it continued for years… until PlayStation Plus came along and, incredibly, put the boot on the other foot.

Perhaps Microsoft didn’t feel that boot being removed. Perhaps it was so comfortable resting on its laurels that it had dozed off, the metaphorical equivalent of the hare vs the tortoise. XBLA was so far ahead of Sony, it didn’t need any improvement. Instead, the focus went on making Kinect and expanding Xbox Live’s ‘entertainment’ features--both elements of the Xbox package that weren’t catering for its core customers. The people who want to play games.

By comparison, PlayStation Plus positively sweetened the deal for gamers. And not just PS3 gamers, but PS Vita owners too. The advent of PS4 doesn’t *only* represent another platform for PlayStation Plus to filter through, offering discounted prices and interesting freebies. PlayStation Plus is an intrinsic part of the service the new console offers, built into its very design. It's no wonder Sony are pushing it so much with 90-day bonuses for 12-month subscriptions, plus a free 14-day trial for everyone who buys a PS4. They want every customer to get on it.

I've explained before why it's a good thing that the console practically demands you subscribe to PS Plus. It’s necessary for online multiplayer, offers an Instant Game Collection and gives you up to a year’s worth of free content that you can safely pay for at launch, knowing you’re going to be supported fully for the duration of your subscription. This is a service that's growing, not shrinking.

But the service's 'pretty much essential' status didn’t come overnight. At its inception, PS Plus was a nice idea, but looked like something only PlayStation diehards would ever really love or need. But things have changed. And now it’s Microsoft that’s playing catch-up.

Sony introduced the Instant Game Collection and Microsoft followed suit. But the games offered free on Gold are older and less vital, almost as if Microsoft is reluctant to be seen to give anything away. It wasn’t part of the plan (or at least that’s how it appears) to give away anything for ‘free’. I don't doubt Microsoft had footage recording planned for Xbox One, but even that was announced after PlayStation's Gaikai-driven sharing system was announced.

Sony has also incorporated Indie games into PlayStation Plus, giving away key titles like Binding of Isaac: Rebirth for free to subscribers. Microsoft may well have made (yet another) U-turn and allowed indie devs to use Xbox One as a dev kit, but that’s surely just a knee-jerk reaction to PS4’s indie stance considering a more closed approach was intended back in May. And, yet again, it’s a cautious and reluctant opening of the doors. PS4 allows indie devs access to everything that AAA devs have, right down to every last drop of RAM the PS4 has to offer. Xbox One, reportedly, does not.

Sony has crept up from behind and managed to sneak into the lead in the battle for 'best online service'. Compared to the situation in 2007, it’s now Microsoft that’s playing catch-up, at least as far as the core gaming audience is concerned. Sony is now the innovator and Microsoft is being forced to concede reactionary U-turns in order to keep pace.

Maybe it was never Microsoft’s intent to stick around in the gaming space, instead opting to infiltrate the living room with an all-purpose entertainment centre and make loads of money off single and multiple-use licenses for various media. But now that’s evidently blown up in its face, it all comes back to what the core gaming audience wants and arguably needs. It’s taken Sony years to turn things around, but that’s exactly what PS Plus is doing and has arguably done. PSN is going somewhere. Comparatively, Xbox Live isn't. At least, not anywhere I want to go.

You know that intoxicated pigeon at parties who talks too much? Drink in hand, way too good-looking, ponderously well-educated in topics no one in their right mind should know about? Loud? Well, that pigeon’s occasionally us. GR Editorials is a semi-regular feature where we share our informed insights on the news at hand. Sharp, funny, and finger-on-the-pulse, it’s the information you need to know even when you don't know you need it.

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  • DaniBeck - August 25, 2013 6:36 a.m.

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  • Mightygil - August 22, 2013 2:19 p.m.

    yes, I prefer and own a 360 and not a ps3, and maybe i don't know all the online features for the next gen consoles, but how does giving away free games suddenly put sony not only up there with microsoft, but ahead?? All the features that were better on the 360 are still better, online services are MUCH, MUCH more than just free stuff. Sure I would love to get some of the free games sony has given, but it's gotta do a lot more changes before i would ever consider switching to sony
  • Origibro - August 22, 2013 6:21 p.m.

    Sony are a better gaming company overall, it's extremely evident microsoft are playing money-hog here and I don't see why you would want to be in the hands of a confused company, PlayStation Plus is becoming "the thing" Live is becoming something old a tattered that isn't as cool as it used to be. Even the Genesis is offering more than the Xbox One.
  • gaseoussnake - August 22, 2013 6:29 a.m.

    Good to hear. I've always said that I wish PSN was a pay service just so that it would be on par with XBL. PS+ was the answer letting the willing pay while others that did not want to pay keep their free service. Keep up the good work Sony.
  • N7Spartan95 - August 22, 2013 4:29 a.m.

    I'm more of an Xbox guy, but good on Sony for moving ahead of the pack in terms of providing good online services. Hell, if it wasn't for their policies and the fact that the PS4 was crushing the Xbox One in preorders because of them, the Xbox One would still have all that crappy DRM. So yeah, hats off to Sony.
  • awesomesauce - August 21, 2013 9:14 p.m.

    So many emotionally and wallet-hurt xbox fans here
  • winner2 - August 21, 2013 8:46 p.m.

    I ain't payin shit for either
  • dns - August 21, 2013 5:51 p.m.

    You pay for a service that you can't chose the game you get and if they stop paying you can't access these games? How is that a great deal? And the next generation you won't be able to play online with some games? People are deluded of "free" games, so they will keep paying. It's probably the best shot Sony did this generation. I personally prefer PC gaming model: Don't pay to play online (at least most games...), cheapest price for games that are actually mine and I can even earn money by playing games (Thanks Steam Trade Cards!).
  • ste-ohara - August 22, 2013 8:02 a.m.

    so what if u cant play them once ur plus is gone, most people renew just before it goes anyway. and id rather get the like of hitman absolution, nfs, and next month ac3 rather then an arcade game, the original ac2 and crackdown. im an xbox gamer mostly too and ps plus is definately better as the games free are better, apart from the slow download speeds
  • dns - August 22, 2013 5:37 p.m.

    Again, how can you pay for PSN+ and say these are free games?
  • dns - August 23, 2013 6:22 p.m.

    Actually you don't need Steam to start some games on Steam (Go directly on the folder and play the game). Also in same cases you got a key of a game and you can retrieve in other services (EA games, for instance, you can get another key to download on Origin). As I said before it's ok to people pay for this service and get games. The problem is believing they got it for free. No, they paid for these games, and they can't even choose. Some people might be happy that they will be able do play AC3, but I'd pissed off if I got last year and instead of Sony choosing a game I didn't played yet they picked exactly one I already played.
  • GOD - August 21, 2013 5:21 p.m.

    Because of PS+ (I payed for the year long back in October) I have continuously gotten great games for free and discounts on games I wanted..... I only buy games that I'm really wanting, but besides that I just keep playing the great free games I've been getting. I got Demons' Souls that I was always interested in and loved it, got introduced to great games I never would have known about for free like Malicious, and just recently got Rayman Origins and Bit Trip Runner: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien for free. If I ever do get a Vita I'll also have access right off the bat to many of the best Vita games, and once PS4 launches the free games will continue where as where as Xbox Gold is only doing that temporarily to try and create parity.
  • GamesRadarCollanderCooper - August 21, 2013 1:34 p.m.

    Until Sony fixes the PlayStation Store, they haven't innovated shit
  • awesomesauce - August 21, 2013 9:20 p.m.

  • gaseoussnake - August 22, 2013 6:24 a.m.

    This isn't about the store jackass. Leave jealous at the login. Lead by example and post meaningful comments, not the first blood of a flame war.
  • GamesRadarCollanderCooper - August 22, 2013 8:28 p.m.

    I own a PS3, jackass. The article is about Sony's online network, which includes the Playstation Store