June 29th 2015 marks the five-year anniversary of Sony’s landmark subscription service, PlayStation Plus. Originally planned as a service that would complement the standard PlayStation Network services available on the PS3 and PSVita, PlayStation Plus has evolved into an almost necessary service for those who wish to access certain online components with the PS4. What better time than now to take a look at how the service began and where it stands today?
In the months leading up to 2010’s E3, rumours were circulating that Sony was going to launch a subscription service to allow access to online content for the PS3. Microsoft already had a paid online service for the dominant Xbox 360, so naturally some expected that Sony would also charge for an online subscription as a way to recoup some of the lost revenue of the high cost console. This news did nothing to quell the console war; meanwhile, PC fans sat smugly in their chairs saying, “We’ll never have to pay for an online subscription.”
On June 15th at E3, Sony announced exactly what PlayStation Plus was to be. The service was not going to be compulsory if you wanted to play online games, but instead was an optional service that would provide hundreds of dollars of content over the following year for a measly $69AUD. This content included automatic patch and firmware updates, early access to demos or betas, and most importantly, a selection of “free” games per month. These “free” games rotated each month with the proviso that if you cancelled your PlayStation Plus subscription, you would lose access to those games. The benefit, however, was that if your subscription lapsed and you picked it up at a later stage, you could then regain access to those games, but not the ones that had been released during your non-subscription period.
At its launch PlayStation Plus offered Wipeout HD, PSOne classic Rally Cross, a trial of Infamous, and two PlayStation Mini games. For a while, the format was to offer a single PS3 game, a PSOne game, and a few mini games, later evolving through customer surveys to remove the minis and PSOne games and focus on some higher quality games. Sony dabbled with the idea of having a set of “permanent” games, which would rotate every twelve months, and this would work as the framework for what is now known as the Instant Game Collection. This set of “permanent” games were eventually phased out to allow for what PlayStation Plus has evolved into today.
With the arrival of the undervalued PSVita, Sony decided to bring that platform under the PlayStation Plus umbrella. For the same subscription cost, users could get enough PS3 and PSVita games to tide them over until the next month’s update. Minis and PSOne games soon made way for more PS3 and PSVita titles.
Flash forward to the announcement of the PS4, and rumours again started to surface that the PS4 would require PlayStation Plus to access online play. Unlike online access for the PS3 and PSVita, this turned out to be true. Amazingly, for the same price, users could access two PS4 games as well as the two PS3 games and two PSVita games on offer. On the surface, Sony was providing a service that rewarded the Sony fanboy out there who had all of the available consoles.
Yet, with this ever-evolving service came a few added features, as well as a few alterations. Gone was the bonus subscription to the long-forgotten Qore service. Seemingly forgotten was the ability to download a game and trial the first hour for free, as well as the promise of beta access for some games. In their place was the promise that Sony would provide games from at least the last two years, as well as games with a metacritic rating of at least 75%.
Sony also started to selectively listen to some of the requests that fans had long been asking for. Cross-game chat became a feature of the PS4 – but not the PS3. Automatic downloading of game updates arrived, as well as 3GB worth of cloud storage for game saves.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the console war, Microsoft soon found that the flubbed announcement of the Xbox One and the subsequent poor sell through meant they needed to step up their game. They in turn started the Games With Gold service. Their subscription service for online usage previously was a bare bones service that simply provided online access only, but now evolved to providing that service plus a new game for both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One each month.
Microsoft had been commonly considered to have superior servers that could provide reliable online connections, whereas Sony was known for having servers that required more than regular maintenance, not to mention the well known outage of 2011. Server reliability aside, the format of PlayStation Plus had some competition with Microsoft’s Games With Gold. With the arrival of the PS4, it felt like finally Sony was on a level playing field with Microsoft.
So after all these years, where does this toddler-aged PlayStation Plus stand as a service?
It’s ok. Putting aside the fact that it’s a compulsory service for online play, I’ve spent $70 on worse things. Heck, I bought the collector’s edition of Aliens: Colonial Marines on day one and spent more on that than I care to admit to both myself or my wife. Let’s take a look at the three different platforms and the variety of games on offer.
Starting off with the PS3, where PlayStation Plus began, we note that Sony is still committed to this console like the unloved child that it always has been. Just like the PSVita and the PS4, the PS3 still receives its obligatory two games a month. Throughout the life of PSPlus, there have been some very solid triple-A titles on offer. Ranging from the almost perfect Red Dead Redemption to the underrated Kingdom of Amalur, the games on offer have been consistently good.
Lately, though, the idea of offering recent games has gone out the window, with games like 2012’s The Unfinished Swan and Prototype 2 on offer. These are still highly regarded games, but not exactly recent. Whether this is simply because the PS3 is a console on its way out, or because the desire to fill the newer generation consoles with Super-HD remakes of last gen games means their older versions may not be offered.
One of the great ideas that Sony has implemented for specific games that are available on all systems is Cross-Buy. This means that if you buy the PS4 version of a game – like The Unfinished Swan or Hotline Miami, for example – the PS3 and PSVita versions are bundled along with it. So whilst there may be two PS4, two PS3, and two PSVita games offered on PSPlus every month, the PS4 or PS3 game may support Cross-Buy, making it a worthwhile deal.
However, this is where I start to question the ‘all in’ aspect of PlayStation Plus. By providing games that are available as Cross-Buy, players are often less likely to fork out the money for games on the supported platforms. The mentality of “waiting for games to hit PlayStation Plus” means that there could be fewer day one purchases for certain consoles. PS3 game sales are less critical as that system has been superseded by the PS4; however, the PSVita is a platform that is crying for increased support from Sony. Instead, they’ve thrown around the term “legacy” in regards to the PSVita, and have noted that they will be developing fewer first-party titles for the console. This is a discussion for a different time, though.
Going back to those high quality games that Sony had promised to subscribers, let’s specifically look at the PS4 and the day one release games added as part of the Instant Game Collection. In this year alone, there have been three notable day one releases as part of PSPlus for the PS4. They are Aaru’s Awakening, Apotheon and Ether One. All brand new, day one releases for the PS4.
Starting off with Aaru’s Awakening with its Metacritic score of 59. I reviewed it and gave it a 2.5/10, calling it a terrible game that worked against you at every chance. It’s clear that this game does not meet Sony’s high Metacritic review standard.
Apotheon, on the other hand, is an enjoyable game with some truly fantastic mechanics at play. Visually, it’s superb and is a nice take on well covered Greek mythology. However, as I sat down to review the game, I found it was plagued with some terrible game-breaking bugs. As any proper gamer should, I played through the game with multiple save files. At one point, though, an enemy somehow managed to knock me off the platform and into the environment. I was trapped under the platform, unable to get out. No problem, I thought, this is probably a small glitch. I reloaded an early save file and found that the bug had plagued that save file as well. I had enjoyed the game to that point, but this bug made me not want to even consider restarting from the beginning. The buggy experience I had with Apotheon may be an isolated experience, but for a first-day release it feels like something that could have been avoided.
Then there was another buggy experience with Ether One. One of the more recent PlayStation Plus titles on offer, Ether One is essentially a third-person version of To the Moon. It has some interesting puzzle elements that worked well in theory, but just like Apotheon, there were a few game-breaking bugs here too, which hampered progress. Where Apotheon has been receiving great reviews on other platforms, Ether One was receiving only average reviews, settling with a Metacritic score of 69.
These three experiences have lead me to question day one releases for PlayStation Plus. Yes, the exposure for these new titles is there, which is great, but it also means that these often unreviewed games are launched onto the service. In the case of Aaru’s Awakening, they start to cheapen the service in a way that it shouldn’t be.
Finally, there’s the much talked about Driveclub, which years ago had been announced would have a PlayStation Plus edition available at launch. Of course, that didn’t happen, as bugs with this version were discovered prior to release. However, Driveclub has now been out for a good ten months and sits with a Metacritic score of 71. I’m not sure if anyone even noticed when it was released just this week.
It’s this lack of triple-A titles on the PS4 side of Playstation Plus that makes it feel like Sony has finally reached the point that they had wanted to reach when they announced the service five years ago – a paid online access service. To be able to provide new indie games each month is nice, and there’s no denying that people are still getting their money’s worth, but by consistently releasing average games (and at times buggy games) into the collection, it makes the service feel cheap.
Where will we see PlayStation Plus five years from now? Of course, the PS3 and the PSVita will eventually be phased out of the collection. Whether that means that the PS4 will be the sole console that PlayStation Plus services or if Sony announces a new handheld console – or even the PS5 – well, that’s all up for speculation. There’s no doubt that Sony will try and get as much life out of the PS3 as possible, whilst still treating the PSVita like the ugly cousin they think it is, only giving it a birthday present out of obligation rather than desire.
Overall, as a day one subscriber, I do have fond feelings for PlayStation Plus, as it has given me access to games I would not have usually considered playing, but it has also delivered games that make me question Sony’s service at times. I’m looking forward to seeing what games will be announced for their anniversary release.