Sony may have been in the console race for longer than Microsoft has, but one thing is evident: Microsoft know how to create a strong online offering. They’ve been at it for the last ten years, who else could be doing a better job? Well, up until around a two years ago that may well have been the case, but now they’re no longer top dog when it comes to offering consumers value for money. For me, the tables began to turn on the Washington based giant thanks to the arrival of Sony’s PlayStation Plus.
Now, Xbox Live subscribers, don’t get up in arms at that claim. I’ve been an Xbox Live subscriber for the last nine and a half years and, while it’s been a reliable service that’s given me hours of entertainment, it’s become even more apparent that Sony’s offering is more tantalising in comparison. Even if it means I have to accept regular maintenance and the occasional hiccup with servers – after all, I’m not paying to play online, I’m paying for so much more.
With Xbox Live you fork out £39.99 for 12 months so you can play online and use other premium apps, that usually require another from of payment or subscription – such as Sky and Netflix. Of course there are even more multimedia applications you can use in the US if you have Xbox Live Gold, but for the most part they’re not focused upon bringing subscribers game enhancing content. Can you comfortably sit there and say you’re happy with the features you gain for shelling out £40 a year?
Personally I see little benefit, especially when over on my PlayStation 3 or PlayStation Vita I’m getting the exact same things without having to fork out a penny. The same goes for the millions playing on PC, they don’t pay a penny for enjoying their games online – besides from those MMOs that haven’t already jumped ship to the increasingly popular Free to Play model.
Without wanting this to come out sounding like an advertorial for the many features of PlayStation Plus, it’s hard for anyone to deny that PlayStation users definitely get the better end of the deal. For the exact same price of £39.99 you get an incredible, game focused, package that now works across both PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Vita.
Before you factor in all the money off you get through discounts, you’ll also be bagging 63 full games a year for nothing. Clearly this can only be the greatest thing to happen to gamers who, for the most part, are eternally torn by what big title to purchase due to the constraints of money. For less than the cost of a standard retail release, you’ll get a wonderful mixture of new indie and low-key games alongside the bigger releases of the last year or so on both your PS3 and PS Vita.
If that wasn’t enough you’ll also get some incredible discounts over standard sale prices and current full priced releases. Even picking up Music Unlimited is incredibly cheap thanks to PS Plus, knocking off a crazy 89% from the price. But here’s the thing, it’s such a tantalising service because Sony have clued themselves up on the digital era and how users want their content – an area that Microsoft and, for argument’s sake, Nintendo are seriously lacking in.
While the PlayStation Store’s day one releases and pre-order incentives for digital titles are horrifically overpriced – £59.99 for Need for Speed: Most Wanted anyone? – Sony has no control as publishers set their own prices. However, they’re offering the opportunity to anyone who’s naïve enough to snap it up at such a price. And that’s a key point: they give you choice.
Microsoft, on the other hand, have their own service for bringing full retail releases digitally to your console. However, if you decide to pick a title up through Games On Demand for launch you’re going to be bitterly disappointed – unless you go out and pick up a retail copy – as it typically takes around half a year since from release for Microsoft to bring new games to the service. By that point they’re vastly overpriced as retailers have reduced costs or the pre-owned market has opened up. What’s worrying is that Xbox Live UK’s product manager Pav Bhardwaj says that they have absolutely no intention of changing this dated model: “We release a game roughly six months after it arrives at retail at full ERP. That’s our model and we’ll be sticking to that.”
And herein lies the problem: Microsoft isn’t progressing with the times. They’ve sat on top for too long with their online offering. They soaked up the fame of having, what once was, a brilliant online infrastructure, and now they’re not changing to match the increased competition. What Microsoft could do with is rewarding their subscribers more. Currently they’ve begun a reward scheme that offers meagre returns on the copious amounts of money users invest into their service. What’s needed is free content that free users would have to pay for, map packs or discounts on DLC for example.
Maybe it’s just me, but to fight against a world that’s so very quickly turning nearly entirely digital seems very foolish. I’m all for the retaining of bricks and mortar stores and the supremacy of physical media – after all nothing beats a shelf full of games or peeling back the cellophane and inhaling that prepackaged stale factory smell. But gamers want games at their fingertips. They don’t want to wait just because their preferred method of purchase isn’t favoured by Microsoft. Nintendo have learnt from their mistakes and are making changes for the next-generation of hardware, and just look at the explosion of digital distribution services like GOG in the last year or so.
Sony clearly know where they’re going with their online service. They’re acutely aware of what their consumers want from their consoles. They’re offering more of what players ask for and they aren’t being shy when it comes to promoting the benefits. While I’m also sure that Microsoft is very much aware of what their users want too from a console, I have a feeling that the money they make through Xbox Live Gold subscriptions – estimated at over $1 billion in 2010 by Bloomberg - is far too alluring for them to forego the model.
Perhaps Microsoft’s next-generation hardware will offer more bang for your buck where online interactivity is concerned. Hopefully they’ll expand their offering towards video games over their desire to be the all-in-one media centre for the home. After having tasted both digital pies from the kitchens of Sony and Microsoft, I know which one tastes sweeter to me.
What are your thoughts on the matter? Does PS Plus not appeal to you over Xbox Live? Why? Let us know!