A closer look at PlayStation Now: The future of video gaming

At CES 2014 this week, Sony announced PlayStation Now, a game streaming service that would incorporate the much-discussed Gaikai streaming tech the company purchased back in 2012. Since then, gamers assumed Sony would use the technology to bring backwards compatibility to current-gen platforms – a beloved feature that was abandoned halfway through the PlayStation 3’s life cycle.

The further along we travel in the age of consoles and the larger our libraries get, the more valuable backwards compatibility becomes. So, a way to instantly and inexpensively include an entire company’s back catalogue on a future console would be a huge selling point – after all, we don’t want all of the games we sunk money into to become useless every handful of years. With PlayStation Now, Sony has not only marked the beginning of games never becoming useless again, but the eventual age of an all-streaming games library.

Though details regarding PlayStation Now are currently slim, what we do already know hints at something bigger than a good idea that ultimately goes nowhere – something we’ve already seen with Sony’s PlayStation Mobile platform, which aimed to bring console games to mobile devices. In fact, PS Now can not only bring games to mobile devices, but virtually any device that accepts human input, has a screen, and can connect to the internet.

At CES 2014, Sony had PS Now demos running on select Bravia televisions, with users controlling the streamed games via DualShock 3 controllers connected over Bluetooth. PS Now wasn’t just offering some Crash Bandicoot cart racing game, but one of Sony’s premier games, The Last of Us. Not only is TLOU by far one of the best video game experiences to release in years, but it was placed on PlayStation Now only seven months after its initial release. It would seem Sony isn’t just relegating PS Now to old games we’ve already played – and purchased – a million times over.

Sony stated that a closed beta for PlayStation Now will begin at the end of this month, and the service is planned to release sometime this summer. However, we likely shouldn’t expect the foundation of gaming to be rocked much just yet. Unlike its surname suggests, PlayStation Now is about the future.

Thanks to Steam and PC gaming, it appeared as though the gaming industry was headed towards an all-digital library, cutting ties with retail stores, allowing us to queue up new releases and wait for them to download. Unfortunately, console gaming won’t get there this generation. The world’s average Internet speed is always the main culprit as to why, but the PS4 and Xbox One’s meagre 500GB hard drives are also to blame. Over time, the consoles will be refreshed with higher capacity drives – perhaps even SSDs or hybrids – but the initial inclusion of such a small amount of storage space suggests that both Sony and Microsoft don’t have their eyes on an all-digital distribution system this generation.

The PS3 and Xbox 360 lasted around eight years. If the PS4 and Xbox One manage the same, Sony could use that near-decade to ensure PlayStation Now’s quality, and by the time the PS5 and Xbox Two roll around, could skip digital downloads entirely in favour of streaming. It would be a monumental failure on the tech industry’s part if Internet speeds have not become reliable enough to stream games almost a decade from now.

Meanwhile, you might think that an all-streaming games platform that can load games on any device would never happen because it’d mean consumers would have absolutely no reason to purchase new consoles. That’s right – we wouldn’t need consoles at that point; after all, PS Now has The Last of Us running on a television without a PS3. However, console manufacturers wouldn’t necessarily lose money if they can no longer sell consoles. They would not only save a ton of money on manufacturing costs – especially considering most modern consoles either lose money on every sale, or barely break even – but could simply charge a one-time, console-priced entry fee.

If video games can perfectly and instantly stream on your television, phone, and tablet, then Sony could charge a one-time, say, £350 sign-up fee, or could even move to a subscription model. Paying £350 for what would essentially be a Netflix-style app might sound off-putting at first, but when consumers realise how much more flexible it is than a single console that can only be connected to a single display, it likely wouldn’t be a tough sell.

A service like this would require heavy restrictions in order to prevent Netflix-style account sharing, but that could open up more payment structures for Sony to offer. As Sony showed this generation in response to Microsoft’s original draconian game-sharing policies, the company is fine with two people sharing one disc. It could offer a Family and Friends style plan where customers pay extra to “add” people onto their £350 game-streaming service, and it would only allow for a game to be streamed to one person at a time – just like Steam’s Family Sharing.

Paying something like £350 for an app is quite an off-putting prospect, but in theory that’s much more flexible than a black box that’s stuck under your TV. Relying on Sony’s servers and hardware is not as comforting as relying on yourself and your own console. However, it would allow Sony to focus on developing its one big streaming centre, perhaps allowing them to develop much more powerful hardware than something they have to stick into millions of affordable black boxes.

Both manufacturers and consumers are not yet ready for an all-streaming games industry, but that’s undoubtedly where things are headed. Movies, music, and television are already there, and games will surely follow. If Sony sticks with and fosters PlayStation Now, games could get there much sooner than we all think.