21 April 2013

Why Paid Multiplayer Services Aren't Going Anywhere

There have been several articles over the years arguing that PlayStation Plus is a better service than Xbox Live, such an opinion of course is entirely subjective (though there are often viable objective arguments to back up that assertion). Of course, PlayStation Network has a tendency towards much longer service downtime and everyone remembers the notorious hack of the system two years ago which denied PS3 owners the opportunity for multiplayer gaming for a month.

For PlayStation Network users this was a great inconvenience tempered somewhat by the fact the service is free, for PlayStation Plus users it was another matter. It's events like this, as well as the difficulty faced by many Xbox Live users logging in several weeks ago, which show we are not quite ready for always online consoles.

However, a great many people pay Microsoft for the privilege of playing games online and many people also pay for PlayStation Plus which, while not required for online play, nonetheless comes with a host of subscriber only benefits.

This week Microsoft released a raft of figures concerning their console and its online platform. 77 million Xbox 360s have been sold to date and of those 46 million are Xbox Live subscribers, or roughly 60% market penetration. If all of those Xbox Live accounts were Gold that would equal $256 million in annual revenues, if even half that number were Free and the other half Gold it would still net Microsoft $128 million a year.

To put that another way, Microsoft would need to sell an additional five million consoles annually to match what they would lose if they didn't charge for Gold at the $256 million figure or two and a half million at the $128 million level.

Inevitably Sony must be looking at these figures and calculating how much they're losing out on. The PlayStation maker has never revealed the number of PlayStation Plus subscribers but they have revealed that there are over 100 million PlayStation Network accounts.

A large part of this can be contributed to the simple fact that the service is free. Were Sony to charge for PSN next-gen they would likely lose a fair chunk of those accounts, the balance to be determined therefore is would the additional revenue from subscriptions outweigh the potential impact on game and console sales?

Free multiplayer is one of the PS3's greatest strength and while it might seem foolhardy to throw that advantage away the fact is millions of people happily (or not so happily as the case may be) pay Microsoft for that very thing each month.

In all likelihood, I suspect, Sony will keep multiplayer free for PS4 but so radically expand the scope of PlayStation Plus that the standard PSN becomes utterly limited in comparison both to Plus and Live. The other option is tiered services, with additional features the more you paid, quite how many tiers might be too many and how much for a subscription might be too much will only be determined by gamers' wallets.

The reality is, Xbox Live fees are not going anywhere and Sony would be mad not to at least consider the possibility. They've said PlayStation Plus will feature prominently on PS4, it remains to be seen just how prominently.

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