The gaming landscape at the start of this new generation is very different to the one at the beginning of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One era, when Sony and Microsoft simply had to make good consoles and games. The former managed to pull that off, but the latter fumbled out of the gate and never fully recovered.
It's hard to imagine that the failures of the Xbox One — and franchises like Halo that were once industry darlings — didn't play a large role in the company pivoting to one of the most consequential developments in the industry: Xbox Game Pass.
Don't fix what isn't broken
Nowadays, the talk around consoles is only partly about the boxes themselves. Studio acquisitions, subscription services, and cloud strategies are just as important as the hardware itself. In this regard, Microsoft's Game Pass really had the medium's first fleshed out ecosystem — complete with every first party game for the platform as well as a healthy mix of third party titles. But since its launch in 2017, the question has always been: when will Sony's PlayStation get its own Game Pass?
Sony, while occasionally acknowledging the success of its competitor's subscription service, has been coy about its own plans to offer a competing platform for PlayStation customers. That's because the company is keenly aware of its intellectual property's value, a fact only highlighted by the news of its tremendously successful 2020 holiday season.
PlayStation Studios is firing on all cylinders. It has new installments of existing IP with The Last of Us Part II. It's revitalized franchises, such as God of War, have garnered praise from critics and long-term fans alike. It's also making exclusive experiences with fan-favorite characters like Spider-Man: Miles Morales. Sony has even seen success at one of the toughest things to do in the industry, creating new properties like Ghost of Tsushima. The only video game company that comes close to having a portfolio of titles as valuable as Sony is Nintendo, and even they struggle to have as diverse an offering, relying heavily on nearly 40 year old franchises to continue selling games and consoles.
Despite Sony's success, however, Xbox Game Pass has undeniably applied as much pressure as it possibly could to the PS5 manufacturer. Not enough to hurt the company's sales, but enough to have it rethink the value of its current subscription offerings. Since the launch of the PS5, PlayStation Plus became a new service overnight, now including access to around 20 first and third party games as a part of the "PS Plus Collection," essentially acting as a heavily curated Game Pass bundled in with the same subscription they've been offering PlayStation customers for the last decade.
Getting with the times
While PS Plus has always given away a handful of games each month, its lineup of "free" offerings since November have been the most impressive the service has ever had. This month's selection includes Destruction AllStars, a former launch title for the PS5 that was once attached to a $70 price tag. The game is certainly fun to play, but might have been eviscerated during the already packed holiday launch. Coming out in a less crowded month, as a part of people's existing subscriptions, elevates the game's value.
While PlayStation has given a lot of love to its Plus subscription, the same cannot be said for its PS Now service. Launched during the early days of the PS4, the cloud gaming platform acted as a way for PlayStation players to access games from previous generations, as the system itself did not support backwards compatibility. The service is clearly Sony's most egregious misstep since the launch of the architecturally convoluted PS3, being far too expensive at launch and the streaming being spotty — an issue that other cloud gaming services have moved beyond.
PS Now has been slowly improving since, adding the ability to download games and seeing a significant price cut, but it has never lived up to its true potential. The logical step for Sony is to merge PS Plus and Now into one singular subscription, migrating the hundreds of games in the latter library to the PS Plus collection.
Not all press is good press
The execution of this is going to be crucial, as Sony doesn't want to find itself in the position that Microsoft does now. Despite tremendous good will being given to Xbox for its customer-first decisions, it recently came under fire for increasing the price for Xbox Live Gold. Gold is bundled in with Game Pass Ultimate, a $15 month subscription that also provides users access to the console and PC Game Pass libraries and cloud streaming.
Microsoft altering the cost of vanilla Gold was seen as a pretty clear attempt to drive those subscribers to Game Pass Ultimate. Outrage against this action was so fervent that not only did the company reverse the decision later that day, they actually said that going forward, free-to-play games would not require a Gold subscription to play online.
Microsoft has bought itself so much goodwill that any wrong move is compounded tenfold. The company is currently stuck with Gold and is absolutely strategizing on how to upgrade that customer base to the future of its gaming sector, Game Pass. If the reaction to changing Gold's price has shown us anything, it's going to be tricky to pull off.
Sony doesn't want that smoke — and it certainly doesn't want to risk losing all the momentum built by its lineup of first party titles. The only thing that could force them to create a "PlayStation Game Pass" is if Xbox's studio acquisitions pay off the way Microsoft hopes, growing the library of hit exclusive to the company. Until then, PlayStation will keep marching to the beat of its own drum; believing in the worth of its portfolio and slowly, iteratively improving its current subscription offerings.