Why It’s Okay that Sony Will Charge You to Play Online with the PS4

I was holding off judgment, I really was. After Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One last month, I was a bit skeptical, sure, but I would never completely and utterly judge a product by one showing. I could, quite frankly, care less about TV, but anyone in their right mind knew Microsoft was cooking up some great-looking titles for the system; they just made an error in judgment in how they presented it to the public for the first time. I’m absolutely sure the console itself is pretty solid.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Sony yesterday, though. There was chatter behind the scenes here at DualShockers about how some still felt that the PS4 would be priced comparable to the Xbox One, how they had to have some sort of DRM or used game blockage, that it just made sense given the climate of the industry. Given Sony’s track record with over-priced hardware, we expected the price wouldn’t be as high as the PS3 at launch, but anything other than that was game.

No one expected what Sony did last night. No DRM (aside from what exists on the PS3/Xbox 360 – basically publisher DRM like online passes). No online checks every 24 hours. No restrictions on used games. Region-free, just like the PS3. This was a dream come true. The crowd cheered for what seemed like forever. I can only imagine what it was like to be in that room at that moment in time: where Sony sent a sucker punch straight into Microsoft’s gut. Then they announced the price of $399 and it was all over.

One little detail many people initially missed was that Sony heavily implied that you would have to pay for online gaming now. This was confirmed today. Sony themselves have never directly criticized Microsoft for charging $60 per year for an Xbox Live Gold subscription, although they’ve taken subtle pot-shots at them occasionally through the years since you could always play online for free from the beginning on the PS3. While the quality of the PlayStation Network and online play through the PS3 was questionable early on in the console’s life cycle, in the last couple years with PlayStation Plus, Sony has seriously upped their game.

I saw some people stretching things on Twitter, trying to bring down the high that Sony induced in the entire industry yesterday, by continually pointing out the fact that you now have to pay to play online, but here’s the thing – no one really cares. Why?

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Well, for starters, the PS4 is already, at this point, so much better value than the Xbox One. I’m not saying this as a fanboy of any sort, nor am I talking down the console itself. I’m just stating facts. It’s $100 less, that’s a fact. There are no restrictions of any sort imposed by Sony – none on used games, none on what region your game comes from, none on having to always be around an internet connection. Nothing. These are facts. Those two things in and of itself pretty much make up the difference – one in your wallet and one in your confidence and trust level.

Secondly, there is already so much value in PlayStation Plus that it isn’t even funny. Microsoft has constantly come under criticism, not for the fact that they charge you to play games online, but that, beyond online gaming, there is little to no value in an Xbox Live Gold subscription. They lock your media – things you’re already paying for like Netflix and Hulu – behind an extra cost barrier and you don’t get even half the perks and bonuses that Sony gives you. Have you ever stopped to see how many free games you get as a PlayStation Plus member? I mean, awesome, full PS3 and Vita games like Uncharted 3, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, as well as great games from their PS1 and PS2 libraries that are available on the PSN. (Note: Yes, I’m aware Microsoft has started giving free games away to XBL Gold subscribers (like Fable III), as they announced this week, however, they have a long way to go to catch up with Sony in what perks are available for their paid services.)

Not to mention extra perks as far as PS3 functionality goes, like more online storage for game saves, automatic game updates and uploading saved games and a lot of other stuff. There is an exceptional value there already. And, it seems, Sony is prepared to carry that forward to the PS4; they’ve already announced that the PS4 will support an instant game library of free titles for PS Plus subscribers, as well as many other perks.

Again, no one cares that they now charge you to play online. No one really cares that Microsoft charges you to play online. But, until Microsoft does as much to show they care about consumers and what they want as Sony did yesterday, no one ever will care that what was free at one time is now behind a cost barrier. There’s a lot of value in trust and consumer confidence, and Sony just amped things up to unprecedented levels yesterday. This is going to be very difficult for Microsoft to recover from.

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Just for kicks and giggles, what exactly do they have to do to recover? As Sony discovered a couple years back when the PlayStation Network was hacked, consumer trust is a huge deal. Just like Sony bounced back fairly quickly, Microsoft can do so as well, but they have to play their cards right. It seems to me a lot of their executives are rather – how should I state this? – cold when it comes to what they should know their consumers want and how they deal with their customers. From Adam Orth stating on Twitter that consumers should just “#dealwithit” referring to an always-on connection (when, frankly, it was a big deal to their customers), to Don Mattrick’s comment yesterday that scoffed at backwards compatible devices (which came out of nowhere because the PS4 is not backwards compatible anyway). Whether those statements are true or not in and of themselves isn’t the point, the point is that they project an ice cold persona for the company. That’s something they have to lose immediately to move forward.

Naturally, after that, you have to give the people what they want. Yes, it may impact your bottom line a bit. But, you know what? Consumer trust is worth so much more than a few extra bucks that things are going to be worth it in the long run. This is what Sony discovered two years ago, and is likely what progressed them to the point of completely obliterating Microsoft last night. There still is room in this console generation for both consoles and both strategies – Microsoft has some great-looking exclusives going for them – but things have to be done right and consumers should not be ignored.

Microsoft always seemed like they were trying too hard to make an XBL Gold subscription a value to us, and, by so doing, seemed to make it the butt of a lot of jokes, to the point that, unless you played their exclusives or Call of Duty online, it was worth about as much as a dollar to a dead man. Right at this point in time, even now charging to play online with the PlayStation 4, Sony has some extreme, high-level value for your $50 (per year). So much so that no one really cares about paying to play online.

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