#79: Plus, ca change

Think Sony's going to 'take on' Game Pass? Let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Much as I am enjoying the immediacy of writing online after a decade working in print, sometimes you can still end up being out of date as soon as you hit publish on something. So it proved last Friday when, minutes before the day’s Hit Points landed in inboxes worldwide, in part lamenting the lack of value provided of late by PlayStation Plus, Bloomberg broke the news that Sony is working behind the scenes on a substantial overhaul of its monthly subscription service “to take on Game Pass”. Supposedly a three-tier service is in the works. The base level is Plus as we know it today; the next folds in PS4 and (eventually) PS5 games; the highest adds cloud streaming to the aforementioned, and access to a suite of classic games from Sony consoles of yore. If only Bloomberg had sat on the story for an hour or so. Could’ve called myself a thought leader.

Anyway, said overhaul is codenamed Spartacus, which is a pretty funny name for a copycat. How Sony intends to respond to Game Pass has been one of the most important questions of the year, I think, albeit one that’s been largely ignored while everyone argues about price tags and acquisitions. Sony has the better-selling hardware; it has the greater brand cachet; it has a more attractive firstparty slate. The only area in which Microsoft has a clear advantage is in services, and that is primarily down to Game Pass. The question now is how exactly Sony chooses to structure its response.

I am not expecting much, honestly, and certainly not the all-in counterplay that ‘taking on’ Game Pass implies — that is, putting firstparty games on the service from launch — because that would require a total upending of the PlayStation division’s business model. Sony makes games at colossal expense and prices them accordingly. It is the market leader, and hugely profitable, and I do not see it risking all that to build up a subscription business; when you’re this far out in front, you leave the risks to the chasing pack. Even given the greater economies of scale in play thanks to the larger PlayStation userbase, I’m not sure I see a way for the Game Pass approach to be financially viable for Sony without it being too expensive for players.

I expect the base tier will be pretty much what Plus is at the moment, and the second one will be PlayStation Now: a collection of ageing firstparty games and some 7/10 thirdparty stuff that’s probably already on Game Pass. Where things get interesting is in the third tier, though the big question mark is over just how Sony will package up the retro stuff. Will this be a tightly curated, slowly expanding selection of classics, similar to Switch Online? Or will it be the service that exists in my dreams, where I can fire up my PS5 and play Gitaroo Man, God Hand and so on? Has Sony invested in proper emulation of its old consoles, or is it avoiding the logistical and technical headaches of emulation by cloud-streaming games using native hardware? Will there be resolution and framera- nah, not even finishing that sentence. I think we know the answer already.

I’m actually not sure which way to lean on this. Backwards compatibility is a huge challenge — despite devoting considerable effort and resources to it, Microsoft has dropped the curtain on Xbox 360 backwards compatibility with less than 30% of the console’s total library supported. The cloud can help with that, but only to a point: there are legal and licensing issues to navigate as well as technical concerns. Besides, I’m still waiting for my first positive cloud-gaming experience, and the thought of playing Gitaroo Man over the internet gives me the shivers.

If I were a betting man I’d probably back a Switch Online equivalent. A carefully chosen selection of disappointingly obvious picks from the biggest and most varied back catalogue the industry has known. Just Tekkens and Killzones, Gods Of War and Metal Gearseses stretching off to the horizon with nary a Katamari or Mad Maestro in sight. But who knows. For now I’m happy enough to hear that a company I’ve felt has been resting on its laurels is finally doing something about its shortcomings. And while we wait for more details, I suppose I could always get the PS2 down from the loft. It has been far too long.


  • Everywhere’s Geoff Keighley says that Activision will not be involved at The Game Awards on Thursday, adding: “There is no place for abuse, harassment or predatory practices in any company or any community.” Activision games are shortlisted for a couple of awards, however, and company president Robert Kostich sits on The Game Awards’ advisory board. This is an awkward spot for Keighley, the industry’s great cheerleader, and I’m curious to see how he navigates it on the night.
  • Sticking with nobody’s favourite publisher for a moment: a third of QA staff at COD support studio Raven Software are being laid off, despite having been led to believe that Activision was working on a better pay deal for them. A spectacularly poor reading of the room, this. As I write this, a group of staff is organising a walkout.
  • Ico is 20 years old! I am still not entirely sure how to pronounce it. Here are some very tender tributes to Ueda’s classic from various industry figures, with thanks to VGC for the translation. Suda51 praises the sofa save system, which means we are now best friends. The theme from that was my phone alarm for many years.
  • Sony has fired George Cacioppo, a senior VP of engineering for PlayStation Network, after he was caught in a paedophile sting.
  • Exasperated moderators locked down the Halo subreddit over the weekend in response to widespread toxicity on all sides. "Someone criticising the game doesn't mean you get to say they're an 'entitled crybaby manchild',” a moderator sobbed. "Someone saying they're fine with the game or to give it some time doesn't mean you can call them a 'bootlicking dicksucker'.” Wonderful stuff.
  • Ludwig’s been banned again. Incredible.

There’s your lot! I hope you all had an excellent weekend. We put the Christmas tree up and things are beginning to feel rather festive. Nice, isn’t it. Have a grand couple of days, and I’ll see you Wednesday.