PlayStation Now Subscriptions Available

I have been following the development of PlayStation Now for several months now, so I'm not sure how this escaped me, but last week Sony took PS Now out of beta and began offering subscriptions to their streaming service.

Even when it was still in beta, PlayStation Now was a stable service and worth using for anyone whose Internet connection is up to the task. But the technical aspects of the service were never in question for most gamers; it was the pricing that left something to be desired. In particular, most gamers questioned why it was more expensive to rent a game for 30 or 90 days than to buy the game outright.  As I explained in the previous post, it's because with PS Now you're not paying for the game; you're paying for the bandwidth to stream it.

But with the subscription service, Sony hopes to ameliorate some of these pricing concerns.  Their subscription costs $20 per month or $45 for three months. Currently, this gives access to a bit more than 100 games, which is a subset of the 200 or so games currently available for individual rental. That means, of course, that there will still be some games that can only be streamed by renting them at Sony's exorbitant rates.

To be fair, the list of available games already includes classics like BioShock Infinite and Batman: Arkham City as well as PlayStation exclusives like The Last of Us and Uncharted: Drake's Fortune. And the list is bound to improve as Sony promises to add new games each month with removals from the list being possible but rare.

I can't help to compare Sony's PS Now offering the OnLive's PlayPack subscription service, which currently gives you access to a library of more than 250 PC games for $10 per month. OnLive's service is more mature and has more games, but those aren't exclusive titles that are available only on one platform.  The exclusive games undoubtedly add a premium to what Sony charges.  (Though, frankly, Sony charges a premium for almost everything they sell.)

OnLive also has a CloudLift streaming service which allows you to stream games from your Steam library for $8 per month, or for $13 total if bundled with the aforementioned PlayPack service. Unfortunately, Sony doesn't yet have any equivalent of the CloudLift service that will allow you to stream games that you already have in your digital library. That would be tremendously convenient for playing games that you don't have enough free storage to install. It would also allow gamers to play a game immediately rather than waiting hours for a download to complete.

Currently, the PS Now subscription stands alone from the PlayStation Plus subscription, and one offers no benefits to the other. It will be interesting to see if gamers take to Sony's new offering or if they still believe the price is too high. We should know which happens based on the moves that Sony makes with PlayStation Now later in the year.

Check out HardcoreGamer's comparison of locally-played PlayStation 3 and streaming PlayStation Now games.

Why We Need the PS Vita and 3DS

Sony PlayStation Vita

The PlayStation Vita, Sony's latest entry in the handheld gaming space, is available for general release in the US today.  Retail outlets that had any unclaimed units available for sale were swarmed and sold out quickly in my area, so if you didn't pre-order, chances are that you're out of luck for now.

I don't have a PS Vita (yet) but there are already plenty of reviews that detail the high points and the low points of the Vita as a gaming device. But nearly every early review that I have read so far asks the question of why Sony made another portable game system. Is the Vita is a device that consumers will even want?

See, most people think that the PlayStation Portable (PSP) was a fine game system when it was released in 2005. Upon playing with it, I commented that it had the most beautilful screen that I had ever seen on a portable device. And although Nintendo had just released their DS (which people were still trying to understand), the PSP seemed tailored toward a higher-end part of the gaming market that wanted a console-style experience on the go. Simply put, the PSP was the closest approximation of gaming on a PlayStation 2 that could be achieved without being in front of a television.

Fast forward to 2012, and things have changed dramatically. In particular, the widespread adoption of smartphones and tablets has altered the way that we think of mobile gaming. The trend started with the original iPhone which not only had a decent-sized, attractive screen, but it had the hardware to run a pretty good 3D renderer, which is the backbone of most modern-day games. Android and Windows Phone followed suit, and now it is generally accepted that any smartphone or tablet will be a large, touch-screen display with the capability of playing games reasonably well.  Given the number of dedicated functions that have already been subsumed by the cellular phone, it appeared that mobile gaming would be next.

Look, there's no denying that mobile phone gaming has come a long way since the early days when advanced phones came with a built-in copy of "Snake." Whether it's a casual classic like Angry Birds or an impressive Unreal-engine port like Infinty Blade, modern-day smartphones have made many waits in the bank line or the doctor's office more tolerable than they would be otherwise. But at this point, the smartphone is still best for short-form gaming; there's not much to recommend it for the long-form activities that most die-hard gamers prefer.

What do I mean by "long-form" gaming? Well, consider the things that you can do with a smartphone. Now consider the things that you want or prefer to do with a smartphone. For example, I can watch movies on my phone, but I prefer to watch them on my television. My wife loves to read, and even though she could read on her phone or tablet, she would much rather use her dedicated e-reader, which is less harsh on the eyes over an extended time. And if you hired a photographer for an event and he walked in and started snapping pictures with an iPhone, you would probably ask for your deposit back.  These are all examples of capabilities that the typical phone or tablet has, but which are best used within certain limitations. Gaming is no different.

Look in the iTunes App Store reviews for a game like Dead Space or Batman: Arkham City Lockdown and you'll often see comments complaining that the game is too short or needs more levels. Granted, I don't know how much entertainment these consumers expected for their $2.99, but these are usually gamers who want more from their mobile gaming experience than they can get in most apps. They were hoping for long-form entertainment even as they made a short-form purchase.

The iPhone 4S (the top model currently available) is a fantastic device with speedy hardware. Many respected game developers are on the record claiming that the iPhone 4S blows the PSP completely away in terms of sheer computational performance, and that may be true. But the iPhone 4S will always be a mobile phone first and a gaming device second. Some of its impressive CPU power must always be reserved to handle incoming calls, text messages, or emails. It will never have the fluid input scheme that most gamers view as second nature. It will usually require a two-year commitment to a monthly voice and data plan. And as much as we love to play, most of us would rather not run our battery down so low playing Where's My Water? that we aren't able to make phone calls afterward.

Nintendo 3DS

The smartphone and tablet are great gaming devices when I'm in line or waiting for someone to end a phone call. I've filled in more five to ten minute gaps with gaming apps on my phone than I can count. And for casual gamers, that's probably all the gaming device that they'll ever need. But those of us who love playing on our XBOX 360 or PlayStation 3 want a bigger experience, something that approximates the gaming experience we get in our living rooms for times when we're on a three-hour cross-country flight or an overnight stay with relatives. We want an experience that draws us in with bigger challenges and an engrossing story and online multiplayer. And for that type of experience, we need devices like the Nintendo 3DS and the Sony PlayStation Vita. No, they aren't devices that everyone will want, but until somebody perfects the marriage between a smartphone and a game controller, there will be a market for dedicated gaming handhelds.

Sony Releases System Update 4.10 for PlayStation 3

Sony released new firmware for the PlayStation 3 today.  System Update version 4.10 (not yet mentioned on the update website as of this writing) claims browser improvements as its biggest feature, so I decided to give the browser a test run after I installed the new firmware (in order to be able to log on to the PlayStation Network).

Admittedly, the browser has come a long way since it was introduced on the PS3.  It is now comparable to a good mobile browser, which is to say that it's not perfect, but it's more than adequate for rendering most web sites.  Does it render every page perfectly?  No, but it's about as good as most smartphones or tablets.

A rendering error in the PS3 browser.Most of the problems in rendering revolve around fonts.  The CSS layouts are presented well enough, but the limited selection and sizes of fonts in the PS3's repertoire give it fewer options for finding the perfectly-sized font to fit the designers vision of how the web page should appear.  As a result, some text sections overflow their boundaries or don't line up exactly where they should be.

The browser does have a plug-in that supports some Flash content, but not all of it.  Flash animations and transitions worked fine in my testing, but Flash video did not.  This means that Flash-heavy sites like Cartoon Network will produce mixed results.  The more complicated or recent the Flash content, the less likely it is to work.

Of course all of this belies the question of whether browsing on a PS3 is worthwhile.  I don't use my console for surfing the web.  If I'm on the sofa, it usually because I want to watch something else on TV.  In that case, I would use a second screen like a smartphone or tablet to do some light surfing without taking myself away from the show.  And if I need to do any heavy lifting on the web, I want a computer with a full keyboard.  Unlike video content, web pages aren't any more appealing to me at forty inches than they are at thirteen inches.

Furthermore, web pages on the PS3 load slowly.  This is likely because the PS3 was optimized for pushing polygons and doing linear algebra and vector arithmetic, not network transmission.  And trying to type on the PS3's onscreen keyboard is a chore.  As a result, I probably could bounce through a series of web pages faster with a good smartphone than with the PS3.

Apple set a new standard for what mobile web browsing could be with the original iPhone and other non-computer browser makers have been playing catch-up ever since.  As an additional feature that's included with the cost of admission to PS3 ownership, the browser works pretty well.  But it is a questionable replacement for people who are likely to have better options for surfing at their disposal.