Sony’s PlayStation Now: Architecturally Interesting, Financially Infeasible.

My stance on game streaming services has been well known for some time now but for the uninitiated let me sum it up for you: I think they’re rubbish. The investment in capital required to get them to work well at scale seems incompatible with the number of potential users who’d want such a service and nearly all offerings in this space priced the games similarly to their full blooded, non-streamed cousins. Sony doesn’t share my view on this however having invested several hundred million dollars into buying game streaming service Gaikai and committing to providing a sort-of backwards compatibility service using that platform. Since I wasn’t entirely interested in the idea I hadn’t looked into it much further but at a tech level it’s quite interesting, even if I think the service won’t be the cash cow I’m sure Sony thinks it’ll be.

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I’ve mentioned in the past that there weren’t too many ways for backwards compatibility to make it’s way onto current generation consoles even if some form of streaming service was going to be offered. I postulated around the potential ways of doing it, either by running a whole bunch of old consoles in a data center or developing an emulation framework, neither of which I felt was going to be particularly scalable due to my percieved lack of demand for the service. As it turns out Sony has gone with the former option for their streaming service, opting to run a bunch of PlayStation3s in the cloud and providing access to them through their new PlayStation Now service. However they’re not consoles as you’d recognise them, they’re in fact all new hardware.

Sony has developed a custom motherboard that contains on it 8 PlayStation3 chips allowing them to achieve a pretty incredible amount of density when compared to simply racking consumer units. Some back of the napkin calculations puts this at about 384 PlayStation 3s per rack, quite a decent number although I’m sure the cost of that hardware is going to be non-trivial. This custom solution does have its benefits though like them being able to throw in a new network interface and hardware video encoder, reducing the latency between the customer and their PlayStation3 in the cloud. This might not be enough to make the service feasible but it’ll do a lot to make the majority of games on their far more playable than they would be otherwise.

Right now the service offers up about 200 titles for individual rent or an all you can eat subscription that has a selection of 100 titles for $15 per month at the cheapest option. That’s a damn sight better than pretty much every other game streaming service I’ve seen before but it still suffers from the same restricted availability (only select US and Canada  areas currently) issues which hamstrung other services. The one thing the service does have going for it though is the veritable cornucopia of devices that PlayStation Now can run on, including Sony’s recent range of TVs and even DVD players. That’s definitely an advantage that other competitors didn’t have since they all required another hardware purchase but I’m still not sure there’ll be enough demand even if the barrier to entry is low for Sony’s more loyal customers.

With the average cost of producing a PS3 apparently down around the $280 mark (which I’ll assume is relatively similar for the custom solution) it will take Sony around 18 months to recoup the costs invested in hardware based on the current subscription fees which doesn’t take into account the licensing arrangements for streaming. There’s potential for them to make up a bit more margin with the single rentals which appear to be quite a bit more pricey but it still seems like a long time for the investment to pay off. That being said with the life of consoles now getting dangerously close to 10 years there’s potential for it to work but I still think it’s a bit of a gamble on the part of Sony.

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