On the morning of 8 January 2014, Sony announced a complete game-changer for their PlayStation brand with PlayStation Now (PS Now). Its a game streaming service powered by Gaikai and will be offering a range of PlayStation, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 titles to compatible (or approved) internet-connected devices. But what would you need to use PlayStation Now and why would you want it? We have some details after the break that might help answer these questions.
When will it land in South Africa?
No-one knows at this point. According to Ster-Kinekor Entertainment CEO, Mario Dos Santos in an interview with MyGaming, Sony South Africa has no roadmap for the rollout of their Music and Video Unlimited services locally, let alone a streaming service like PlayStation Now. At least we get the benefit of PlayStation Plus and the majority of titles on the PlayStation store, but PlayStation Now is even further out than the US and Canada launches towards the end of 2014.
We’ll probably get the Xbox One before PS Now becomes accessible in this country. We might even see a working demo at rAge 2014, who knows.
If you want to make use of it once the closed beta ends and the service is launched, you’ll need to make use of a VPN to a supported country to make the service work. There’s a signup page for information on the closed beta and you’ll need a US-based PSN account to take advantage of the service. And that’s even assuming, firstly, that you get into the program. You may just end up waiting until after E3 2014 like everyone else.
Which devices are compatible?
Sony’s closed Beta will first start with the PlayStation Vita and connected Bravia televisions. If you’ve bought a Bravia that has a Wi-Fi or ethernet connection in the last three to four years you should be good to go, although it’s possible that Sony will have a list of the TVs in the Bravia family that will and won’t work.
Obviously, PS Now solves the issue of backwards compatibility on the PS3 and PS4, so those consoles will receive their working clients before the end of the year if all goes well. As the program ramps up, it’ll include tablets and smartphones. I suspect, though it hasn’t been confirmed, that you’ll have to play games on these devices using a Dualshock 3 controller. Perhaps this could be the software push that the Xperia Play needs to become useful again.
This won’t come to computers or laptops, however. Because it’s part of the PlayStation brand it will need to belong on devices that bear the Sony brand initially to strengthen it. Despite the fact that quite a few devices from HTC and others that are Playstation Certified already, I don’t expect them to receive the clients anytime soon.
What kind of internet connection will I need?
Sony says at least a 5MB connection is required for PS Now to function properly. The details of how the service actually works are a little unclear, as well as how much compression is applied to your video stream. On the showroom floor at CES 2014 attendees noted that compression and artifacts weren’t easily visible on the Vita, although the colours were muted. On the much larger Bravia’s screen, artifacts from compression and upscaling were visible, hinting that the source video is being upscaled to match your device’s native resolution.
This means that, from what has been observed already, the PS3 games on PS Now are probably being rendered at the internal resolution of the PS Vita at 960 pixels wide by 544 pixels high. Its worth noting that this is pretty close to one of the PS3’s internal resolutions, which is 960 x 1080. It’ll be easy enough for Sony to compress and downscale the video down on devices which have a lower resolution, or use a vertical hardware scaler (as present in the PS3, PS4 and possibly Bravia TVs) to upscale the video to native 1080p.
In fact, it might be more beneficial for the servers to offer two different compatible streams – one that runs in 960 x 544, which requires less bandwidth and will work on handhelds, mobile devices and TVs, and another stream running at 960 x 1080, which at the very least will offer slight artifacts from compression, and look mostly as if the game is running locally on the PS3/PS4.
How does the Bravia thing work?
For Bravia TVs connected to the internet, a client would need to be downloaded through the TV’s app store. Then you need a spare Dualshock 3 controller and a USB cable. You pair up the DS3 to the TV and once done, it should be using Bluetooth for communication, just like the remote your TV shipped with.
Sony hasn’t said which Bravias will and won’t work, so that’s a bit of a puzzle at the moment. If you’ve recently bought one in the past two years, though, you should be all set up for when the service lands in South Africa.
What’s the experience like?
On the CES showroom floor, Polygon noted that load times were similar for the initial start-up of a game, but nearly instantaneous when the service was synced up and the game you last played selected. This likely means that the experience is similar to how swapping between games is handled on the PS4 and Xbox One when you have digital titles on your system – switching back to the game still running is pretty quick, but ditching it and loading up a different one will result in a loading screen.
That said, there are some other benefits to PlayStation Now that may make more sense than owning any of the games physically or on your PSN account – all your trophies are synced online, all the games are constantly updated, there’s no need to download anything beyond updated versions of the PlayStation Now client and your experience of the game across different devices remains the same. Streaming games has always been touted to offer a superior experience across a range of devices and the CES booth, with two devices offering near-identical gameplay, is proof that it can be done.
There’s that latency thing to deal with, isn’t there?
Unfortunately, yes. Latency will always be a factor in an internet service and unless you’re living in a city that will have a PS Now server hooked up to a Gigabit Fiber network which you tap into (giving you pings close to 10ms or less), you’ll have to deal with a lot of delays in animations and character movements. This means that slower-moving games like The Last of Us will be mostly okay, but twitch shooters, driving simulators or rhythm-based titles won’t work as well.
But over time, Sony can lessen the lag by improving server performance, putting up more local servers in countries across the world and ensure they get priority access and a good upload connection. At worst, PlayStation Now will perform similarly to using Remote Play on a PS Vita over Wi-Fi far outside your house, so that’s pretty much the benchmark it has to beat.
Its expensive, isn’t it?
Well, probably. Sony wants to tier the service in two different ways. One, you can rent titles from the service for a limited amount of time, similar to when you go to your local Mr. Video and pick up a game for the weekend to see if you like it. This makes things easier than trying to find a demo that represents what the end product will really be like and the bandwidth cost to you, if you’re on uncapped already, is low enough. There’s no installing to be done, you can just pick up the game, play it for an hour, two, or a whole day and then later decide if you want to own a copy or not.
On a related note, this also means that gaming becomes a little more affordable. You don’t pay the high prices for the physical copy of the game and you can experience some titles that you wouldn’t be able to play otherwise. Of course, this means that you still don’t own anything and if your internet goes kaput you will need to find something on a disc to play.
PlayStation Now is definitely a pro-publisher service, make no mistake, but it does make gaming more accessible as a result.
The second tier is a flat rate per month. PlayStation Now, in fact, very closely mimics the model employed by Netflix, which offers movies and series to customers for a flat rate each month and allows you to watch as much content as you want. By comparison, PS Now will offer something very similar but it’s possible that Sony will find ways of tiering this further by asking you to pay access to different genres – if you like adventure games and shooters, maybe you won’t have to pay for access to racing games because you don’t enjoy them. Sony’s press release even says something to that effect, although no details are concrete yet:
“We want to offer you choice when it comes to how you want to access content on PS Now, so you will be able to rent by title for specific games you are interested in. We’ll also offer a subscription that will enable you to explore a select range of titles,” writes Sony on their blog.
Will it work?
I honestly don’t know. Netflix’s model has earned them gobs of money and the service has been successful in almost every country its been deployed in. Netflix itself is also credited for taking down the obscenely high levels of piracy in Canada since its launch there in 2010.
Would it work for Sony? Movies and static content is one thing, gaming is another completely. Not only do you have to use a Dualshock 3 controller on anything that isn’t a Vita, PS3 or PS4, you also need good Wi-Fi access and a lot of bandwidth. It won’t be at the forefront of Sony’s plans for the PlayStation platform, but it is their move to make sure they’re ready for the future.