Clash of the Titans: Online Console Gaming

October 16, 2006

There is no denying that Xbox Live is a success. With millions of subscribers shelling out a few bucks each month, it is a veritable cash cow for Microsoft. Sony’s model of online play has always been very hands off by simply providing methods by which the individual developers could setup and individually maintain their own online services. This worked well for games where developers considered online play a vital asset to their game and opted to offer it free of charge. It was also a huge downside in that you had to maintain different accounts with each game and possibly pay different fees for each game you wanted to play. This disjointed model was ultimately nowhere near as successful as the offering from Microsoft, which considered online gameplay a vital aspect of success in their new venture of console gaming.

This generation marked a huge shift in the feelings towards online console gaming with Nintendo and Sony announcing plans to take their consoles fully online. Nintendo had an ace up their sleeve with a library of games that people seemingly shell out money for with each new release. These classics make up the lion’s share of Nintendo’s online strategy. Selling games that have paid for themselves 100 times over for $5 a shot and you have a pure profit stream coming into an already perfect business model. It has already been proven that enthusiasts given the right tools will develop their own methods for playing games online, so even with that aspect of the equation out of the picture Nintendo’s online venture would surely be a success. Factor in their additional plans and it could very well be a goldmine.

While Nintendo has been rather forthcoming with information and details on their online aspirations, Sony hasn’t been quite so open, until today. With just a few weeks left until the launch of Sony’s next generation console, hopes and rumors of what Sony had planned were showing up everywhere. scored a nice report from Sony’s UK headquarters in London that detailed many of the aspects that gamers had been speculating about for months now.

One major difference between the PS3 and it’s younger brother, the PS2, is that the PS3 was designed from the ground up with online capabilities in mind. This means that Sony crafted an OS able to update and patch itself over the network, much like the PSP, Xbox, and Xbox 360 are capable of. Another component of a successful online implementation, unless you are Nintendo, is the hard-drive which Sony intelligently is including in all versions of the PS3. It will be interesting to see how that stacks up to Microsoft’s segmented market approach.

When booting up the PS3 you will be greeted by a familiar screen to those PSP owners in the audience. Sony took a unified approach to the interface design and basically ported the already refined PSP interface for use on the PS3. There are a few additions that represent the PS3’s expanded abilities. The PS3 is going to sport a full set of User Profile options including multiple profiles per console. Boot up the PS3 and select your profile to login. Standard fare stuff for Live users. One aspect of the PS3 online system that trumps any offering from Microsoft is the built in browser. This is surprising in that even Nintendo is including a browser. Microsoft being the only one without a browser makes me… well speechless.
Jumping back to the PlayStation Network profiles, there are 2 types of accounts: master and associated. Master accounts can be thought of primary or admin accounts. Associated accounts are useful for parents to limit spending in things like the online Store. Profiles are unique and global just as you are familiar with on Live.

Once you add friends you can do all the typical things such as checking their status and sending and receiving messages to them. Entering text uses the same PSP style keypad or you can plug in a USB keyboard just to type. I have a feeling this may be the preferred method for people who send lots of messages. In addition to text messaging, you will be able to do voice and video chats. One limitation to the messaging system is that it’s not possible to do while still in game. This may or may not be added in a future update.

The one major aspect of the Sony online offering that is drastically different from Live is the cost. Sony is launching the PlayStation Network free of charge. Yes, I said free. Gaming and online services are completely free. Sony hopes to make up the overhead through transactions via the PlayStation Store where demos and other content will cost you something instead of being free like with Live. Initial reactions say that the store looks very similar to Apple’s iTunes Store. Expect the PlayStation Store to see a lot of tweaking prior to launch in November.

From what has been released, it looks like Sony has finally lined up a potentially killer online service to help boost their online presence. It will certainly be interesting to see which model works out best, the tried and true model that has made Microsoft the behemoth in this area of the gaming industry or Sony’s free venture that is sure to shake things up. We will definitely revisit this subject after the PlayStation Network has some time to get established and people start using the service.

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