Spotify, Netflix and Now, PlayStation: streaming finally trickles down to videogames

PS3 is the number one device in the world for watching Netflix in the living room, said Andrew House at CES.

If there is to be a Netflix or Spotify for games, PlayStation Now will likely be it. At CES 2014 Sony announced that the new service, built on the Gaikai technology it acquired for $380 million in 2012, will be launched in the US this summer and allow PS1, PS2 and PS3 games to be played on PS4 and Vita through the cloud, with similar services for Sony TVs, tablets and smartphones to follow.

Games, by their heftier and more complex nature, tend to get these things last. Spotify and Netflix have helped turn music, TV and films from real things that you buy into on-demand services you buy into. The natural next step is for someone to do the same for videogames, and in the absence of any real competition, Sony now looks most likely to do that.

OnLive – remember that? – was an admirable, ambitious attempt to build a catalogue of games, a brand and a global audience overnight. It failed because that grand task was always too great for a plucky little startup, but PlayStation has all of those elements in place already. With the acquisition of Gaikai, it bought the key with which to unlock its formidable back catalogue; PlayStation Now will be what OnLive always intended to be – a credible videogame streaming service which could yet transform the way we play games.

That dream is seductive, but its execution may prove more troublesome. Obviously, PlayStation Now will require a consistent and robust net connection to work, and it’s pure fantasy to expect an entirely-lag free service. This month’s beta and the slated summer rollout is currently only for US players, PlayStation’s European blog already acknowledging that the complexities of Europe’s many different territories, internet providers and varying connection speeds means that it can’t pin down an EU launchdate just yet. “We need a little more time to ensure a smooth and successful roll-out,” it said as the service was announced last night. And in Japan, players are still waiting for PS4 to launch, so it feels premature to expect anything on top of that before February. It’ll be interesting to discover what PlayStation Now means for PS Vita TV, though.

There’s also the fundamental issue of controls. On the showfloor at CES, Sony is demoing The Last Of Us, God Of War: Ascension, Puppeteer and Beyond: Two Souls, playable through PlayStation Now on Bravia TVs and Vitas. On TVs and later on tablets and smartphones, Sony must surely now release a generic DualShock pad able to connect to a multitude of devices if its platform-agnostic dream is to be realised. Playing complex console games on a touchscreen simply won’t do.

And judging by the continued use of terms like “soon”, “in the future” and “eventually” during Sony’s CES event, the service is in its early stages. It’ll be exclusive to Sony consoles initially, and then its own TVs, tablets and smartphones. But it’s an important first step towards opening it out to billions of non-Sony branded internet-enabled devices of all shapes and sizes. Players will be able to purchase individual games to play, but that’ll be a potent gateway drug for the full subscription service, an enticing all-you-can-play library of PlayStation games which could run into thousands by the time thirdparties sign up to rerelease their old games through PlayStation Now.

Once we’re able to stream Ico on our iPads or Flower on our phones, perhaps Sony will be the platform holder to truly quicken the march towards that inevitable digital-only future. Going to a shop to buy a disc will soon seem as quaint as it does now for music, TV and film. That change is coming. It’s when, not if.

And Sony is already gently nudging us towards that behaviour, subtly turning its excellent, once-optional PlayStation Plus service into a near-mandatory one for PS4. PlayStation Now could yet turn Sony’s Instant Game Collection into a vast Instant Game Library. It’d certainly make Microsoft’s own catch-up Games With Gold offering seem all the more underwhelming.

President of Sony Computer Entertainment Andrew House confirms PS4′s lead over Xbox One at CES 2014.

Sony continues to outwit its fiercest rival. For all Microsoft’s talk of the cloud in the lead-up to Xbox One’s launch, in PlayStation Now we can see a use of that technology more meaningful than Drivatars or the vague promise of additional processing power. Importantly, Sony is making its cloud proposition additive, rather than compulsory; as we discovered at E3 last year, plenty of players aren’t ready to accept that their videogame collection will soon exist only in the cloud instead of on their shelves at home.

It’s also a cute, coincidental quirk of CES timetabling that has brought us this news the day after Valve revealed the first wave of Steam Machines. Just as these apparently futuristic gameboxes make their debut, Sony reveals a plan which makes them seem anything but. PlayStation Now will be up and running in the US by the time any of that SteamOS-based hardware launches.

PS4 is ahead of Xbox One globally – PS4 has sold 4.2 million compared to Xbox One’s 3 million at the end of 2013, according to each manufacturer – and in PlayStation Now we can see Sony ready for a cloud-based future, but not prepared to force it upon its audience.

Many might tire of the constant comparison between the new Xbox and PlayStation, but having two consoles so closely matched and a marketplace so fiercely contested can only bring out the best in each. We await Microsoft’s own vision of on-demand, cloud-based play with relish.