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.
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