Sony's PlayStation Plus revamp is only the beginning
PlayStation's virtuous cycle means no sudden shifts, but the work continues.
Sony's long-rumored "Spartacus" service is here, or at least most of the details are. This revamp is notable for what it's doing by combining existing services, while it's also noticeable in what it's not doing: Bringing first-party games to a subscription day one.
This is something that was spelled out before the reveal by multiple reports — this is a reshuffling and relaunch of PlayStation Plus, not a new service — but it's something doubled down on by Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan.
"We feel like we are in a good virtuous cycle with the studios," says Ryan, speaking with GamesIndustry.biz (opens in new tab). "Where the investment delivers success, which enables yet more investment, which delivers yet more success. We like that cycle and we think our gamers like that cycle."
At first glance, Ryan's perspective is easily understood. PlayStation has built something of a name, associating the first-party brand with quality and prestige, with critical and commercial success. Guerrilla Games' 2017 hit Horizon Zero Dawn has sold over 20 million copies across PS4 and PC. The sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, launched in February 2022 and landing at the #2 spot on the February 2022 NPD chart.
This isn't an outlier of success either, as Sony Santa Monica's 2018 God of War recently crossed 19 million copies before hitting PC, while PS5 launch title Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales is well over 6.5 million copies sold.
God of War: Ragnarok is currently slated to launch later in 2022 and whenever it arrives, Sony is no doubt hoping that it puts up similar performance to its predecessor. Almost all of these games put up big sales numbers, something PlayStation doesn't want to see potentially cut into with day-one subscription launches.
Ryan notes that "nothing is forever," pointing to how Sony has begun publishing some of its PS4 library across PC, bringing games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Days Gone, God of War and soon Uncharted: Legacy of Thieves Collection to a completely new audience. It's a major shift for a company historically focused on console-only exclusive games, a change that Ryan says "everybody has made their peace with" and "is completely at ease with" moving forward.
While the temptation will be overwhelming to view the new PlayStation Plus as in direct competition to Xbox Game Pass and thus as lackluster, I don't think it's fair to think this is the end. Ryan's carefully-chosen words suggest that Sony is open to changes moving ahead, that the focus isn't on instantly pivoting to match Microsoft's model but instead giving PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now a much-needed refresh while preparing for a possible shift in the background.
Keeping players in a subscription model requires different kinds of games, and while PlayStation has carved out its path in the market with expensive blockbuster titles, the company has a self-admitted lack of ongoing titles and multiplayer experiences, something PlayStation Studios head Hermen Hulst has been working to address.
Sony is spending $3.6 billion to acquire Destiny 2 developer Bungie, a move meant to garner online experience rather than exclusive games, as other teams at PlayStation can leverage the live-service experience of Bungie when building more multiplayer games.
Meanwhile, other investments have seen PlayStation bring Haven Studios in-house as work continues on a live service game, in addition to partnerships with Firewalk and Deviation for even more multiplayer titles. But big games take time, and the fruits of these efforts won't be seen for some years yet.
Looking ahead, it's not impossible to imagine that Sony will test the waters as more and more of these ongoing games start to launch. Technically, the publisher has already gone this route in the past, making Lucid Games' Destruction AllStars available for PlayStation Plus subscribers for two months at launch.
Even the games available in the upcoming refreshed PlayStation Plus library point to ever-so-slight changes, with Housemarque's Returnal being part of the confirmed lineup despite launching in April 2021.
As the market leader of the past generation, Sony is no doubt a bit complacent, eager to stay the course and continue to reap the benefits of the best PS5 games, leaning on what has worked in the past. At the same time, despite that continued insistence on using traditional models, the signs are there for the company to change directions if the industry forces its hands.
It just won't be right now.
PlayStation Plus is about to get better, with three different tiers offering special benefits like a library of extra games and PlayStation Now game streaming.
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Samuel Tolbert is a freelance writer covering gaming news, previews, reviews, interviews and different aspects of the gaming industry, specifically focusing on PlayStation on Android Central. You can find him on Twitter @SamuelTolbert