Sony's PlayStation Now is a service that is designed to solve the age-old issue of backwards compatibility for game consoles. Rather than trying to build such compatibility into the hardware (expensive) or emulate it via software (unreliable), Sony has developed a system that allows gamers to stream games to their local PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, or PlayStation TV. Sure, it requires a fast, consistent Internet connection, but it really is a clean, easy solution to the problem.
Thought PS Now is still in open beta, there are plenty of games available to play. And the service works pretty well with a fast enough connection. But there are a few aspects of the PS Now service that aren't fully understood or appreciated.
Right Now, It's All PS3 Games, But It Doesn't Have To Be
The list of playable games includes some heavy-hitters (Final Fantasy XIII) and some casual diversions (Pure Chess). It includes games from long ago (Space Ace) and games from last year (Contrast). The one constant is that all these games run on the PS3.
This means that almost any game that runs on the currently-available PS3 should be eligible for PS Now. Even the PSOne classics that have been adapted to run on the PS3 and PSP (Metal Slug 2) should work.
Unfortunately, this means that original PS2 games are not currently playable via PS Now. Many of the PS2's best-sellers (Ratchet & Clank) have received the HD treatment for the PS3 already, and these updated versions may already be available (The Sly Collection). But purists who want to play the originals and lovers of PS2 games that haven't received updates won't find any relief through PS Now just yet. But given that the PS2 era represents the heyday of PlayStation gaming, I have to believe that Sony will eventually change this.
Console Gaming Without The Console
I don't know if it has happened yet, but Sony and other manufacturers will eventually release television sets with PS Now apps baked in. That means that you'll be able to play a PS3 game without a PlayStation of any sort. Just get a compatible controller and start gaming directly on your set.
The PS TV already gives us the ability to do this with a lightweight microconsole. It's diminutive size makes it easy to move to any television or monitor and start gaming. This means that a person's ability to play an anticipated PlayStation game won't be limited by his inability to buy a PlayStation.
Backwards Compatibility Is Cool, But What About Forward Compatibility?
PS Now currently plays PS3 games. I expect that it will play PS2 games in the future. But what about playing PS4 games? What about PS5 and PS6 games? Once you have the infrastructure to stream games, you eventually realize that you can stream any game.
PS Now already allows the PS Vita to play "out of its league" by streaming full home console PS3 games. If PS Now ever offers PS4 games, it would mean that PS3 users could play them! Imagine being able to play a current-generation game on a last-generation console. It's one of the reasons why some wonder whether this will be the last generation of home consoles that we buy. By the time the PS4 reaches the end of its life, we may be ready for an all-streaming future where gaming will be delivered via a microconsole or some other device.
Why Does It Cost More To Rent A Game Than To Buy It?
The pricing structure of PS Now games is still being worked out, so take this last bit with a grain of salt, but many gamers (including me) have complained about the price structure of PS Now game rentals. In many cases, especially with older games, it's more expensive to rent the game for 30 or 90 days than it is to buy the game outright. And that's based on the prices in Sony's own PlayStation Store; start hunting on Amazon and the disparities get even worse.
Why is that? Well, it's because when you buy a digital game from the PS Store, you only need to download it once. Even if the download is huge, it is done in a single lump and then it's over.
When you stream a game, however, you require continuous bandwidth, and lots of it. And as fast as your connection must be to play the game adequately, Sony's servers have to be even faster to send it to you. During gaming, you might be streaming a gigabyte per second. Now imagine doing that for several hours a day over three months. That network capacity doesn't come free, and Sony has to factor in that cost.
A Better Pricing Model? Maybe...
Ideally, Sony might decide to offer a subscription for PS Now that allows users access to all the games (or a significant subset of them) for a fixed monthly cost. If not that, then maybe they'll allow gamers to stream copies of games which they already have in their digital libraries. This is thinking optimistically, of course, but Sony has to be considering such options.
Without these options, many gamers will find that it's still best to just buy their games on disc or via digital download. In that case, PS Now might be useful for people who want extended "demo time" with particular title, or with short games that can be completed easily within a few hours or days.
With the infrastructure in place, it's possible that we may see Sony use the technology for purposes other than gaming. Given Sony's access to media, streaming movies or TV shows would be an easy first step. Thinking outside the box, maybe they could offer access to virtual machines and gaming development environments for budding programmers who can't afford high-end hardware of their own. The possibilities are mind-blowing.
In what direction would you like to see Sony take PlayStation Now?