It’s finally happening: As promised earlier this year, Sony is bringing PlayStation 4 games to PlayStation Now subscribers on both Windows PCs and PlayStation 4. The new games, 20 total out of the gate, are due today, July 6.
Here’s the starting lineup: Killzone Shadow Fall, God of War 3 Remastered, Saints Row IV: Re-Elected, WWE 2K16, Tropico 5, Ultra Street Fighter IV, F1 2015, Darksiders II Deathfinitive Edition, Evolve, MX vs ATV Supercross Encore, Resogun, Helldivers, Broken Age, Dead Nation: Apocalypse Edition, Grim Fandango Remastered, Akiba’s Beat, Castlestorm Definitive Edition, Exist Archive: The Other Side of the Sky, Nidhogg and Super Mega Baseball.
They’re all older games, as you’d expect from a flat-rate subscription service Sony doesn’t want undercutting premiere PlayStation 4 games. “At this point, we’re not looking to debut new content in PS Now,” says PlayStation Network boss Eric Lempel. “We do want to continue to promote the PlayStation 4 front line releases and typical software lifecycle. But we also haven’t set any firm criteria around when titles can come into the service.” In other words, Sony is open to exploring timeframes, he adds.
Sony says additional titles will appear along per its monthly content updates. Subscriptions run $99.99 for 12 months or $19.99 per month, and newcomers can hop on for $9.99 per the first month, then $19.99 per month thereafter. Existing subscribers get the new PlayStation 4 titles immediately at no additional cost.
PS Now is Sony’s Netflix-like game streaming service, the heir apparent to once renowned startups like OnLive and Gaikai. Sony bought Gaikai in 2012, spun out its PS Now service (which launched in January 2015), shifted to an all-you-can-play monthly subscription model and now boasts a library of over 500 PlayStation 3 games. The service has been available on PlayStation 3, PS Vita, PS TV as well as select Sony and Samsung TVs. But as of August 15, 2017, it will be exclusive to Sony’s PlayStation 4 as well as any Windows PC.
When I asked Lempel how PS Now was doing in general, he declined to give subscriber totals, but offered two general statistics. It’s hard to wrap your head around what these numbers signify, since they’re decoupled from baselines, thus figures like a 63% increase in play sessions from 2015 to 2016, or 40% active subscriber growth for the same period year-on-year, don’t provide the connective tissue necessary to gauge contextual performance. Sony’s take is bullish, of course: “We set goals for the service and we’re achieving those goals, and I can say that 40% growth is really healthy compared to our initial forecast,” adds Lempel.
Another concern, admittedly more for purists who fret over the sort of visual aberrations that can momentarily glitch streaming content when Internet speeds yo-yo, is what Sony’s been doing to improve the so-called “last mile” quality of service.
“Gaming, unlike other media, has to function well in real-time,” concedes Lempel. “You have to be able to hit a baseball, or jump out of the way of a bullet, or duck behind something, and all of that must happen when you want it to happen or it’s not a good experience.”
Lempel says that while Sony continues to work to enhance the service’s topological capabilities, consumers are already pretty happy with its performance. “You’re really not giving up anything in terms of the quality of the experience at this point,” he says. “You’re still getting the experience the developers intended.”
It was also no low-hanging endeavor bringing PlayStation 4 games to PS Now, says Sony. Games have bespoke platform backends, and the PlayStation 4’s is obviously quite different from the PlayStation 3’s. “It’s a lot of work, any time you do any of these things,” says Lempel. “Because the PlayStation 4 is a different platform, it does require a different delivery path and did require a lot of testing.”
That includes platform-standard stuff like gameplay status updates, unlocking trophies, dispatching multiplayer invites (which doesn’t require a PS Plus subscription) and copying save files to and from cloud storage, which facilitates seamless interaction between the PS Now and discrete PS4 versions of these games (this does requires a PS Plus subscription). It also involves getting the PS Now versions of PlayStation 4 games to “play nice” with the rest of the platform’s base, a multiplying figure that recently surpassed 60 million units sold worldwide.
“We have fully featured games that interact well with the community, independent of how they’re playing the game,” says Lempel. “But it does depend if there are different versions of the title.” Where there’s DLC available, in some cases Sony may bundle that, but in some cases it won’t, depending on the title. (A Sony rep adds that the PS Now versions of these games will often appear in their “ultimate” or “game of the year” incarnations, inclusive of post-release content.)
That a company like Sony is doubling down on streaming significant segments of its legacy content — adjunct to its flagship PlayStation 4 as well as Windows PCs — speaks well of the technology’s prospects. Not long ago the opposite seemed true: vanguard games streamer OnLive crashed in 2012, and the takeaway (like virtual reality in the 1990s) was your classic “too much, too soon.”
One of OnLive’s philosophical tenets involved founder Steve Perlman’s belief that streaming would at some point overtake and supplant local play — the true “Netflix of gaming” model. Does Sony see that as aspirational in its own designs, with a service like PS Now replacing or at least surpassing demand for local games content at some point down the pike?
“The technology keeps getting better, bandwidth speeds keep getting higher — a few years ago if you said you would have the ability to near-instantly start over 500 PlayStation 3 and 4 games from home, that would be this proposition that I think would blow people’s minds,” says Lempel. “From here, I like the fact that we’re engaging people who don’t have a PlayStation 4 through the PC version of PS Now. And I think there’s a balance of consumer understanding and technology that has to come together. Once it clicks and people get it, I think we really unleash the true potential of streaming and the games catalogue.”
The company is also mindful of requests from users on alternate platforms, say Apple’s MacOS or Linux, for a version of the PS Now client. “It’s something we’re exploring,” says Lempel. “Any change to a platform, any new device, involves a significant engineering effort, but we continue to look for new ways to bring this content to a wider audience.”
Though don’t look for PlayStation VR support by way of PS Now anytime soon. I realize it seems a silly question given streaming’s latency limitations, which are at stark odds with virtual reality’s comfort-driven ulra-low-latency requirements. But what if at some point they weren’t? “It’s something we haven’t looked at yet, but I suspect it would probably be a bit of a challenge,” says Lempel, laughing.