Analysis of PS3 online

Any comments from anyone (ahem, Redeye) who can make statements on the accuracy of this?

Until recently, Sony has been remarkably quiet about the online capabilities of their long-awaited console. We are finally seeing the first concrete details of Sony's online offering for the PS3. Over the next couple days I'll be examining the pros and cons of Sony's response to Microsoft's Xbox Live service. After a lackluster showing on the PS2, Sony has vowed to match Microsoft's online service feature for feature, and offer exclusives of its own.

PS3 Online: The Good
Sony has recently unveiled the first in-depth look at the PlayStation Network. Members of the press corps were allowed to experiment with the Cross Media Bar (XMB) and the PlayStation Store. The XMB is reminiscent of the PSP interface, which comes as no surprise given expectations that the PSP and PS3 will be interoperable. You'll eventually be able to download content from your PS3 to your PSP. This includes movies, demos, and even PS1 games.

Even a cursory look at the XMB reveals that Sony has put a lot of thought into the design. The interface is sleek and simple to use. The XMB lays out all of PS3's most anticipated features the PS3 in easily accessible buttons: Videos, Music, Photos, Games, etc. The media bar also provides all the standard functionality of a friends list, allowing you to send messages, add friends, and so on. Unfortunately, the media bar cannot currently be accessed from within any game.

The PlayStation Store has been designed with the same level of care as the XMB. A consistent interface makes for easy store navigation; many would consider this is an improvement over MS's hectic Marketplace environment. It is also obvious that the site is designed to take on the iTunes Store.

Although there are no official plans for this yet, it is possible that the store will eventually be accessible on the Internet as well as the PS3. The design of the store certainly suggests that this wouldn't be too difficult to accomplish. Being able to access your account from work would allow you to download demos and videos so that they are ready for you by the time you get home.

Sony also provides a web browser at no extra cost. It remains to be seen who exactly Sony is targeting with the web browser (perhaps the WebTV demographic), but it is consistent with their goal of making the PS3 a computer. I personally can't see why you'd ever want to browse the web without a mouse or keyboard, but the PS3 also caters for that with their support of all USB standard devices. You can plug in any USB keyboard, and it'll be instantly recognized.

Sony's best new feature is their Electronic Distribution Initiative (EDI). At first, the severe shortage of information on this initiative was alarming. It came across as a hackneyed, half-thought out response to Microsoft's Live Arcade service. However, more information has slowly trickled out in the past few weeks, and the EDI could turn out to be Sony's brightest feature in the next-gen race.

EDI is not just a place for game developers to regurgitate old titles with slightly retooled graphics, nor just a dumping ground for casual games. It is a honest attempt at creating a space for indie games in the console world. EDI has been quietly working with a number of teams to come out with smaller scale games which would benefit from such an approach ("about 40" exclusive titles). One has to only look as far as David Jaffe's latest offering to contemplate the possibilities of such a system. Yes, Sony still has a long way to go to fulfill the potential of EDI, but what we've seen so far is very promising.

Finally, Sony's downloadable service in general seems very promising (EDI being just one part). Game demos and trailers will be available for free. You'll be able to download PS1 games to play on your PSP (and one day on your PS3). Players will be able to access new game content and casual games at varying costs. It wouldn't be a surprise either to eventually see downloadable movies and music available in the PlayStation Store.

All in all, Sony is making a very decent attempt at creating a competitor to the Xbox Live service. However, not everything is perfect with the PS3 online and tomorrow I will explore some of the problems surrounding Sony's strategy.

This is the second article in a 3-part series on the PS3 online. You can find the other parts here and here.

PS3 online: The Bad
Nothing is perfect, and Sony's PlayStation Network is no exception. Not once did I mention multiplayer games in the
previous piece. In fact, if you scour the internet, you'll find very little mention of it anywhere; there is very little real information on the multiplayer support of the launch titles available out there.

The fact is, in its quest to surpass Microsoft's Xbox Live service, Sony may have overlooked the most fundamental reason for online connectivity: playing online games with others.

Sony has carefully avoided all discussion on this topic, save for mentioning that Resistance: Fall of Man will support 40 players. The developers themselves are the only ones to have made any comments on the service provided. Resistance will offer up a full suite of online support, including "its own buddy list, clan registry, in-game messaging and chat services". This is unfortunately damning for Sony as none of the PlayStation Network's functionality is integrated into the game. The game's buddy list, and Sony's are two completely distinct entities.

The developers explain that Sony did not deliver the online libraries in a timely fashion. However, the author suggests that Sony never planned on providing a fully featured online system. He implies that Sony has only recently realized their mistakes and attempted to correct it. As we'll see tomorrow, this assessment is actually closer to the truth than one might expect.

The reality is that the friend's list support that Sony have provided in their libraries is terrible. From within a game, you are notified when your friends sign on and sign off (with a nice translucent overlay)...and that's about it. Developers have no way of interfacing with this list in any useful manner. You can't find out if your friends are watching a movie, surfing the net or playing another game. If you send them an invite, you have to hope they sign on to the same game you're playing before they'll even see it. Furthermore, there is currently no functionality to even "accept" the invite. It's just a message to come join a game; it won't actually take you to the game. Developers have to deal with that problem themselves.

Meanwhile, online stores are also proving to be a headache for developers. Nothing except rudimentary access to the Sony Wallet has been provided. Originally, these stores were only supposed to be skinned versions of the Sony Store. Developers are now expected to write their own in-game stores from scratch. While, you can still browse for a specific game's content in the main Sony Store, I anticipate very few games will sport an online store, at least until Sony drastically improves their libraries. Sony needs to provide a complete commerce API to the its developers.

Several other games are having trouble with the PS3 online. Sega's Virtua Tennis and Tony Hawk Project 8 have both dropped online support for the PS3. More precisely, they announced they never intended to support an online mode on the PS3. Of course, this is just PR speak meant to minimize embarrassment to Sony. We should ignore the fact that both games will still have multiplayer support on the Xbox 360. All this just screams to users: if you want a solid online experience, buy a Xbox 360. How embarrassing for Sony.

Virtua Tennis is not even due till March 2007. Does Sega really have no confidence in the online market for Sony's console? Or are they just minimizing their risks?

Other games are also conspicuously hushed about their online support. MotorStorm will apparently not have online support in Japan. The games F.E.A.R. And Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Las Vegas all have extensive coverage of their online modes for the Xbox 360, but nary a word is mentioned in regards to the PS3.

Currently, there is also no default headset support, no voice support on the PS3. This feature has been a TRC requirement for every online game for the Xbox. Let me rephrase that: since the launch of Xbox Live (over 4 years ago), every online game released had to support voice chat. And of course, Microsoft provided libraries. If developers want to support voice chat on the PS3 right now, they have to implement it themselves.

The following quote from the developers of Marvel Nemesis (a PS3 launch title), best illustrates the situation:

"Unfortunately for PS3 owners, there is no headset support for this game. Feel free to give Sony the stink eye if you don't like it."

Other problems that developers are experiencing is the lack of basic access to the GUI interface used by the Sony PS3 OS. Unlike the Xbox, developers cannot position the overlays of the Sony GUI messages themselves; they have to work around them instead.

In online services, multiplayer support is the glue that holds everything together. You can not offer all the complimentary online services without first offering the core service of multiplayer support. Furthermore, these complimentary services (like a friends list, and downloadable content) need to be well integrated with all the online games.

Several areas of the PS3 online service look extremely polished, especially the cross media bar. In stark contrast, other areas look very incomplete, and not very well thought out. I get the distinct impression that Sony plans to patch a lot of this functionality in over time. The system is not ready for prime-time now. What will consumers think in the meantime? What about the games that have to launch with these sub-par libraries?

Sony has made serious in-roads in the online market with the PS3, but still falls short in several key areas, especially in developer support. The multiplayer support is still closer to the PS2 experience than Xbox Live. Things will have to improve in the long run. Please join us tomorrow, where I will examine why things have gone so awry for Sony.

This is the final article in a 3-part series on the PS3 online. You can find the other parts here and here.

After exploring the good and bad of Sony's PlayStation Network, it's time to explore the ugly side of their online strategy: development support. This particular subject has not been made public except for a few rumblings here and there. It's time to cut to the chase, and actually discuss the difficulties developers have encountered trying to work with Sony's online libraries. These issues are important to highlight because they have had (and will continue to have) direct consequences on the quality of online/multiplayer games, and end-user's experience.

PS3 Online: The Ugly

Unfortunately for Sony, we are no longer in the PS2 era, where everyone owned a PS2, and every developer had to create games for the console, if they hoped to turn a profit. Since Sony was so far ahead of the competition, it could provide terrible tools, and developers could do nothing about it. However, Microsoft has made significant inroads into the console market, and is now a very viable alternative to Sony for developers. Out of the three console makers, Microsoft provides by far the best development tools and support. Even Sony realizes this and has promised to provide better development tools this time around.

The problem remains that the PS3 is a difficult console to program due to the complex design of the hardware. Sony is a hardware company; its forte does not lie in software. As consequence, Sony's development tools still lag far behind Microsoft's.

To compound matters further, the Sony's online support can only be described as poor to atrocious. Perhaps one day this will improve -- after all, the console hasn't even launched yet -- but right now, the situation is dire. Sony seems to have taken the usual laissez-faire approach, which is to provide rudimentary online libraries and let individual developers figure out how they want to create lobbies, provide matchmaking abilities, track online scores and records. They are providing very few tools, and very little infrastructure.

The libraries seem to have been developed in a very ad-hoc way, with no clear goal in mind. For a long time, it seemed that developers were expected to implement every aspect of the online experience. Then Sony seemed to change their minds, and claim they would provide all the tools the developers would need. But then the promised features have rarely shown up. When they have appeared, it's been in a very incomplete format, with the vague promise that things would be patched up in the future.

If the poor quality of the libraries wasn't enough to hinder developers, then the repeated delays would definitely drive the nail in the coffin. Sony has been so slow in providing libraries and test hardware that it is surreal that it even expects developers to release launch games with online support. Even as recently as this summer, developers had still not received access to the Sony online test servers.

The development support in itself is already a serious issue, but it almost pales in comparison with the internal politics and friction that lies with the three major game divisions in Sony: Sony Japan (SCEI), Sony Europe (SCEE) and Sony America (SCEA). The creation of the worldwide games studios division was supposed to solve all the issues of internal divisiveness. Instead, it has done very little to stem the tide. No region seems to be clearly in charge of its own destiny. As a developer, you don't produce a game for Sony, you produce it for one of the regions. If you release a game worldwide, then you must go through at least 3 separate QA processes. The worst problem is that each division has different strategies and different requirements, especially when it comes to online functionality.

Instead of working together to offer an online system and APIs to rival Xbox Live, they've each gone on their own developing their own systems, undercutting one another. Each region has a different idea of how important online support is, and whether or not games need to produce downloadable content, or have online support available at launch. For example, no Sony game can launch in North America without online support, whereas Sony Japan will accept games without it as long as they can be patched in later.

This disparity can be useful to cater to the different markets and peculiarities of each region. It becomes problematic for the developers who have to deal with conflicting demands. It just makes their lives more difficult.

The problems between different regions should not be understated. Sony Japan always has final say in any discussion, but different regions have trouble even communication with each other. Sony Japan rarely discusses anything with the two other divisions, let alone keeping them updated on what is in the pipeline. They just like to hand down unilateral decisions every once in a while. Sony Japan wants to continue to run the show, even though Sony America is a lot more experienced in online support.

As a relevant example, SCEA had apparently developed a complete online solution for the PS3 (to put it on par with Xbox Live for multiplayer support, ranking, achievements, etc). Sony Japan reportedly came in and cancelled the whole thing, simply saying, "no, you have to use the libraries we've put together".

Perhaps what is most alarming is that several games scheduled for the US market have announced that they will be using Xfire as a middleware solution for their online support. The deal between Sony and Xfire comes at an extremely late stage in the run-up to the launch. It is clearly a move born out of desperation. It's is a last minute decision to use middleware to ensure that games will launch with online support in the US, and it speaks volumes on Sony's own online support (or lack thereof).

Xfire is simply a stand-in for the entire matchmaking and multiplayer side of the service Sony was supposed to offer (never mind that Xfire offers messaging as well). The following quote is most telling as to the gap in service in Sony's offering.

"We support the PlayStation Network friends, matchmaking, and messaging service, and we've also integrated Xfire," said Sites. "So you can use both, or you can choose to use Xfire, or just the PlayStation Network. We've integrated them so they work well together."

The lack of a consistent system to offer multiplayer support will lead to vastly different levels of quality across different games. In comparison, Microsoft has only ever allowed one publisher to handle their own multiplayer service on Xbox Live: EA. And judging by how poorly consumers are responding to EA's online support, EA is paying a steep price for its arrogant belief that they can always do better.

The route Sony has taken so far will only further fracture its online community into several smaller communities, unable to talk to one another, or interact with each other effectively.

When you speak to developers privately, they express a stunning level of frustration. Repeated delays in the delivery of online APIs, delays in coming-up with online testing kit, incomplete or missing libraries, promised features that are never delivered. The list goes on and on. They have to deal with the bloat of the OS, which eats up nearly 100 MB of memory (and one SPU), and provides very little functionality to the game. In comparison, the OS for the Xbox is rumored to only use up 3.5 MB. (Correction: an anonymous poster suggests that the Xbox reserves 32 MB for the OS. Please see the comments below.)

"At present, however, there's no system for actually reading or responding to messages while you're still in the game, as the operating system doesn't take resources away from games in order to do that - however, according to Harrison, that functionality may well appear in an OS update, presumably based on whether users actually express a desire for it or not."

It's surprising that the OS can take so much memory, and without being able to provide a mechanism for reading or responding to messages. Another example of bloat: if you want to draw the OS keyboard in game, it will use up a further 16 MB of memory. The OS will eat up another 16 MB of memory on top of the 100 MB it's already using up; the amount of memory used by the OS is simply ludicrous.

I personally question Sony's goal with their online service. It comes across as a purely money grabbing effort. Of course they are a business, and will seek to make as much money as possible. However, the only bright spot is the PlayStation Store, which is hoped to become the center for millions of micro-transactions. Every thing appears to be geared around the moneymaking side of the service. Meanwhile, the actual user online experience will suffer. It is as if Sony's management failed to see the obvious fact that a poor multiplayer experience will not generate more sales in their online store.

As to the notion that - unlike Xbox Live with its subscription-based charges- to the fact that the service is free, the reality is that you get what you pay for. The multiplayer experience on the PS3 will pale in comparison to Xbox Live. The only games that will do well are the ones using Xfire, or those where the developer has invested a lot of their time creating a fun multiplayer experience.

It seems that Sony hasn't actually learned their lesson from their days supporting developers on the PS2. Perhaps they will only realize their mistake once they have been knocked off their perch at the top. Let's hope it's not too late by then.

Whoa, 100mb of memory devoted to the OS? What the hell? Isn't half the advantage of consoles that the OS is tiny and developers can work, for the most part, directly with the hardware?

Very interesting article.

"As to the notion that - unlike Xbox Live with its subscription-based charges- to the fact that the service is free, the reality is that you get what you pay for. The multiplayer experience on the PS3 will pale in comparison to Xbox Live."

I think Xbox owners all knew that. Sony's online strategy with the PS3 isn't too different from their PS2 online strategy - Letting the third-parties work out their online offerings. Very few people played PS2 online compared to Xbox Live. Live on the 360 is even better and really does feel like a community, especially being able to see what games my friends are playing, look up gamerscores, compete in leaderboard rankings, etc.

The bad PS3 news just continues to roll in...

I will get and support the PS3 as for me personally, the online gaming component isn't that important. I personally play PC games for that kind of interaction.

However it really fucking bums me out to read that. How can Sony be so dense as to no work with developers to get the basic tools working. They've even had 4 years to rip off ideas from XBox and learn from their improvements.

Ah well, we'll see how it plays out in a year. Online gaming won't influence my choice TOO much and I think the arrogance Sony has shown to developers in making them develop their own tools etc. will bite them in the arse.

This is kind of good though. It forces everyone to lift their game. Without competition, things stagnate. However I loathe Microsoft for trying to dominate the world on all electronic entertainment fronts.

MS is truly breaking it off in Sony this generation


Honestly ??nothing new.

It was said before in interviews shit like

"XBL is to restrictive , we will allow the developers creative freedom "

"we want to allow gamers to have the freedom to choose how they play the game"

which means " Your SOL guys" or " its free cause we aint doing shit with it"

"However I loathe Microsoft for trying to dominate the world on all electronic entertainment fronts."

Why? That should be the goal of all companies. I assure you, Sony is attempting to do the same thing, if not worse with all of their proprietary formats they force on consumers.

But Apple, for instance, is making serious inroads against MS on the OS front, and five or ten years from now could be a SERIOUS player, rather than a niche player as they are now. That's the nature of capitalism.

I don't debate it should be the goal of all business but there should be limits of control.

I very much disagree that Apple will ever be more that a minor market share compared to MS. Sure more people MAY embrace it however it simply is not a solution for larger corporations. They have a looooong way to go. Decent LINUX is more of a threat IMO.

There is an inherent danger in letting Microsoft 'rule the world'. If they make the largest selling game console, online marketplace (off the back of that), if the Zune (or whatever the fucking thing is called) catches up with the iPod and THEN start making media centres for everyone that doesn't want/have a game console that can connect to their home and office PC.....if all that happens then we will have a singular view of electronic entertainment forced down our throats.

Pessimistic? Sure but I just do not like the thought of Microsoft ruling the world.

I sympathize with you, but I think there will always be people making superior products. For instance, I don't think the Zune will come close to overtaking the iPod, although I'm glad it's there, because competition is good for you and me. Now I hope we see an 80gb widescreen video iPod with wireless capabilities for $300.

I also agree with you that good, desktop Linux is still the largest threat to MS, especially if it makes inroads in business environments. Though Apple has doubled their marketshare, I believe, in the last couple of years, which is impressive.

But yeah, to sum up: If Microsoft makes superior products, they'll dominate. If not, someone will knock them off their perch. While they've got a hit with the 360, the Zune will flop.