PlayStation Now needs to be the Netflix of videogames

Earlier this year, Sony unveiled PlayStation Now, a service that will let users stream older games on their PS4s and Vitas. It has the potential to either be an insider’s fan club, rarely used and rarely useful, or the catalyst for a global change in the way videogames are played and consumed and discussed. Ball’s in your court, Sony.

But let’s back up and take a look at where this came from. A startup called Gaikai was founded in 2008 that, by 2010, was doing demos of streaming videogames. By 2011, this streaming was happening in browsers, and by 2012 the service was out of beta, with players able to stream games via the Gaikai website or even Facebook. It didn’t matter how powerful your computer was, you could play brand-new games without installing them on your machine. In July 2012, Sony bought Gaikai for $380 million. Speculation ensued.

On February 2013, at the PlayStation 4 event in New York, people got some answers. Gaikai’s cloud technology would allow you to stream the video of whatever game you were playing to your friends. Your friends could even take control if you got stuck at a certain part. And then Sony noted the PS4’s lack of backwards-compatibility and that Gaikai’s streaming could allow you to play old PlayStation games on the PS4. More details were to come. Speculation continued.

Earlier this month at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas, Sony revealed more about what Gaikai will become. PlayStation Now will let you stream Sony games from all eras of PlayStation on your PlayStation 4 and on your PlayStation Vita handheld. You will also be able to run PlayStation Now on select televisions and set-top boxes. It’s launching this summer with both subscription and a la carte pricing. There was a demo of a handful of games running on Vita and Sony TV’s, like PS3’s God of War: Ascension and The Last of Us.

Anything beyond that is—you guessed it—speculation. But I have keen hopes that there’s someone driving the car out there who will turn this service into a teeming, lovingly curated selection. Not because I want that, but because I think videogames needs it.

We can catch up with culture in weeks, become part of the conversation about a TV show or film series quicker than ever before.

For the last six months people have been talking about Netflix’s original shows House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. And even when we aren’t talking about those shows directly, our culture has latched onto Netflix and the binge-watching it has enabled. It’s not even a term worth dissecting at this point; it’s just something we do. A friend recommends a show like Dexter, and you can burn through all 8 seasons, almost one hundred hours, in weeks. You enjoyed The Master so you skip back to Magnolia, then on to the movies of Robert Altman. We can catch up with culture in weeks, become part of the conversation about a TV show or film series quicker than ever before.

This is a good thing. With a greater number of people part of the conversation around an artwork, creators are more in touch with their audiences, interesting artworks gain steam and can lead to more interesting artworks being financed, and the dialogue around the work leads to smarter, more critical consumers.

During a section of Sony’s Keynote at CES, just minutes before the PlayStation Now name and concept was revealed, the company was discussing its entertainment business. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, was up on stage extolling the virtues of binge-watching, how Netflix helped the show build an audience and gave him freedom to make what he wanted. Sony knows the impact Netflix has had on television. It seems logical to take that next step and extend such an impact to videogames.

I should be able to recommend the Metal Gear Solid games to my friend…and he should be able to…get caught up in time for MGS5.

Sony should make PlayStation Now into Netflix. The variety of games needs to be diverse, from every genre, publisher, country, and, eventually, from every system, in order to truly be impactful. I should be able to recommend the Metal Gear Solid games to my friend who never played them, and he should be able to launch the Now app and get caught up in time for MGS5. The arrival of The Evil Within should trigger an uptick in people playing the original Resident Evil games. People who are only vaguely curious should be able to play Vagrant Story.

How many cult films or shows have made a name for themselves on Netflix after bombing in the box office or on television? Firefly survived in the culture and begat the Serenity film because of word of mouth, because people got the DVDs from Netflix and others later streamed it. There have since been Firefly/Serenity books, comics, and tabletop RPGs. It has survived and spread further through our media landscape.

And how many documentaries became must-sees because it was now easy to watch them in your home versus tracking them down in a theater? Award-winners like Jiro Dreams of Sushi or The Cove, or conversation starters like Forks Over Knife, The Square, and Blackfish. Such content became widely seen because of Netflix. The same can happen to older games that may have been forgotten or happen to small indie titles that previously only survived on a niche audience.

People who are curious about videogames can start playing with a lower barrier to entry. 

But, while it can lead to an increase in videogame literacy among people who already enjoy games, the ultimate effects of a fully actualized PlayStation Now could be bigger than that. The fact that the service will also allow people to access PlayStation games from televisions without an actual game console is huge. This means that people who are curious about videogames can start playing with a lower barrier to entry. Imagine that, when first booting up the system from a set-top box, there was a “first games” section to highlight good titles for this crowd.

This vision would require a lot of work on Sony’s part, but otherwise PlayStation Now will only be an extra for the small group of people with an interest in older games. It needs to be a massively good deal to be worthwhile at all.

There has been a lot of discussion on how videogames should be preserved; whether as perfectly playable—i.e., as books to pull from a shelf—or as cultural artifacts, with all their ephemera intact—i.e., as museum pieces. I don’t have a clear opinion on which method is correct or best, but PlayStation Now has the ability to completely bring the former option into reality. (Proponents of the latter can work on adding that to the service, maybe, creating a sort of utopian encyclopedia of videogaming.) Beyond personal taste, these games need to be made available to students, researchers, historians, developers, and journalists. Beyond personal conversations, a dialogue between scholars, academia, media, and inside the artform itself is necessary to further the art and spread it through culture.

Culture is an exchange. It’s a give and take of ideas between creators and the audience, between audience members, between creators and other creators, between one art form and another, between the past and the present and the future that will be inspired. There are over 10,000 PlayStation games out there. A Netflix-like subscription service that is low-cost and easily accessible will make that exchange more painless and likely a hundredfold more frequent. That counts as a “win” for everything but your free time.

Last image courtesy of Brandy Shaul