Next Gen: Battle of the Online Services
At the dawn of this generation, Xbox Live ignited a revolution. In previous console generations, games were for the most part a lonely experience limited to yourself or a few local players, but this generation’s advancements have meant playing video games is now one of the most social experiences we can have at home.
Xbox has continually refined existing features to provide an all-round excellent service, but for a premium. Playstation, through years of development, now has a comparable service that lacks some of the flash but excels at the basics, and whilst it offers a premium service, the standard features come at no extra cost. Transitioning into next gen, how will Microsoft justify the cost of Xbox Live when their competitor’s service is increasing exponentially in quality whilst remaining free? It could be that Microsoft somehow manages to stay ahead of the game, but that’s a grand feat that requires very consistent ingenuity. More likely, in this scenario the only way PSN won’t leap past XBL is if Microsoft manages to give their 40 million or so users from the 360 fantastic incentives to stay subscribed, and if all the investments players made on XBL on 360 cross-over… a feat that may prove even grander.
The above paragraph begs the question: Will Microsoft even keep the same model?
The reason why it has been so successful is because it started with a bang whilst Playstation whimpered. This got players to choose the Xbox 360 over PS3, and they became incredibly invested in the system with their XBLA games, gamerscore, XBL friends… this investment kept players loyal to Xbox, or at least made it their primary console. However, a new generation offers a fresh start, and there may not be such a huge investment to lose out on when choosing a new system. If PS’s answer suddenly looks more appealing than millions of users could switch in that transition zone.
The best option Microsoft has is finding a compromise: offering standard features free of charge, which would make the initial choice between consoles easier and make the service generally a lot more appealing. At the same time it can offer a premium service for it’s more loyal players, which is what will help it remain profitable. Sound familiar? It should, I mean PS+ is the one area of the online space that PS runs rings around Xbox. It offers value to consumers and adds to the standard features. Unlike the PS model, the current Xbox model charges a premium for seemingly standard features, like being able to play online. Playstation’s answer seems more rewarding, and leaves the unpaid-version feeling far less restrictive than the Xbox counter-part. It’s only logical that Xbox would imitate this in some capacity.
This is the best balance, and this will be a huge selling point in the wake of their next gen release, or at the very least it’ll negate Sony’s promotion of their service being the free service. It could even be spun as some great fan service to loyal 360 subscribers.
Looking beyond their financial models, what major points of conflict can we expect?
The general presentation of each service is a start. PSN has made strides over the years, but in comparison to Xbox Live it’s uninviting and lacks that previously mentioned “flash”. This is an area where Playstation seriously needs to up their game; navigation of online features, whether it be the PS store or the friends list, needs to be seamless and intuitive, and it needs to have an attractive, consistent and distinctive look. Microsoft is a software giant, making the progression of Xbox Live’s interfaces relatively easy compared to the mountain Sony have to climb here.
A new front that’s likely to arise next gen is cloud gaming. Sony look to have a head-start is this sphere; we can only assume they have big plans for the 2nd largest game-streaming service, Gaikai, they spent $380 million acquiring. But although Sony already have the infrastructure in place, Microsoft definitely have the resources to create their equivalent, so it really comes down to how the cloud is used. Games from preceding consoles could be streamed as a sort of pseudo-BC, cloud storage could be further utilized, offering more space than the current gen consoles do, integration between platforms like the PS Vita for Sony or Windows Phones and the home consoles could prove important… so the potential is glaring, but it’ll be up to Microsoft and Sony to reach it.
With digital distribution becoming more popular in recent years, it’s definitely going to play a large role going forward. The pricing of AAA games on PS3 and Xbox 360 is currently ludicrous, with costs being higher than retail counterparts whilst being substantially cheaper to distribute. To be competitive and take DD to anywhere meaningful on their platform, they’re going to have to take a more reasonable approach, i.e. the Steam approach. Take the pricing down to at the very least retail levels, and have constant, compelling sales. Gaben’s baby is an outstanding example to follow, and whichever company follows it best will reap many rewards as we transition into the digital age.
Who’s service will prevail next-gen? How will they evolve? Tell us what you think in the comments.