Sony is reportedly revising its subscription services, with a new initiative codenamed Project Spartacus being touted behind closed company walls. This, it’s rumoured, will phase out streaming option PS Now and create three new PS Plus tiers. For many, the service will remain unchanged, offering the existing mix of discounts, cloud saves, and monthly games. However, an additional tier will see the inclusion of a library of PS5 and PS4 games, while a third premium option will promise features like streaming, extended demos, and access to retro titles.
Of course, this is all according to preliminary documentation obtained by Bloomberg, and it sounds like the platform holder is still devising the final details. Change does appear to be afoot, however, as evidenced by the recent removal of annual PS Now memberships from retail chains, and its reluctance to discount the service’s 12-month tier in recent promotional periods. Clearly, the manufacturer will phase that service out at some point in 2022.
So it raises the question, what can we reasonably expect from Project Spartacus? Ignoring what’s happening elsewhere in the industry, Sony’s subscriptions have been due a reboot for a good couple of years now, but as the public opinion increasingly sways towards Xbox Game Pass’ unprecedented value offering, the Japanese giant finds itself in an increasingly awkward spot. While questions are rarely ever asked of fellow rivals Nintendo, it’s expected for PlayStation to follow suit.
Jim Ryan, the company president, has insisted in the past that he will not put his firm’s games on a subscription service at launch: “We are not going to go down the road of putting new release titles into a subscription model. These games cost many millions of dollars, well over $100 million, to develop. We just don't see that as sustainable.” This was what he said before MLB The Show 21, a title developed by one of Sony’s first-party teams, launched into Game Pass.
It’s likely that PlayStation had its arm twisted on that front: MLB published the Xbox version of the baseball sim and presumably struck the deal with Sony’s Redmond rival. Furthermore, there’s no mention of first-party games like the upcoming God of War Ragnarok ever being part of the rumoured Project Spartacus at launch. This already puts the PlayStation alternative at a distinct comparative disadvantage, and it’s something that the organisation is going to have to navigate extremely delicately come launch.
Without day one first-party releases, then, how exactly can PlayStation make up for a perceived value deficit? Well, it’s probably safe to assume that Project Spartacus is going to have to come in at a cheaper price. For the most basic tier, we doubt there’ll be a change to PS Plus’ standard £49.99/$59.99 annual fee, and we expect the second option, which will apparently include access to a library of games, to be propositioned as a bolt-on, similarly to Nintendo Switch Online’s Expansion Pack.
It’s the premium tier that we’re most interested in: will Sony switch to a monthly fee for that? The most basic tier of Xbox Game Pass costs £7.99/$9.99, and that feels like the price that PlayStation will be targeting – although it could be argued it would need to undercut Microsoft if it’s not going to offer the same incentives of first-party games. One alternative may be for the manufacturer to provide heavy PS Store discounts on exclusives, incentivising purchases within its storefront – but again, there’s still a perceived value drop-off.
It’s going to be particularly fascinating to see whether the platform holder turns to third-party titles to make up the difference. In addition to Microsoft’s own releases, Game Pass has garnered a reputation for giving away third-party releases at launch, spanning both indie and major titles. Games like Outriders have launched into the service on day one, and that seems like an area that Sony could perhaps target – albeit at considerable expense to the organisation’s bottom line.
Perhaps it’s in retro content that Sony could make up for the deficit. It’s rumoured that PlayStation will offer PS1, PS2, and PS3 games as part of its highest tier subscription, again perhaps drawing parallels to Nintendo Switch Online’s Expansion Pack, where you get an application with new Nintendo 64 releases among others. This feels like it could work for PS1 titles at least, although it’s admittedly odd for the company to take a sudden interest in its back catalogue after largely dismissing it for years.
Game trials, similar to the way they’re implemented with EA Play, could also add some value we suppose. EA allows players to download games in their entirety and play them for 10 hours, although this largely suits the multiplayer focus of its releases – and the publisher’s conveniently excluded single player titles like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order from receiving full-length demos in the past. Given the types of games Sony makes, we’re not sure how it’s going to make this work.
The company could commit to adding full-length first-party games after a set period of time, say, six months – a little like Disney+ has done. While this may be appealing to some, it could ultimately harm launch day sales of games, without really doing anything to bridge the value chasm between whatever Sony’s offering and Game Pass. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Disney+ has still found success against Netflix, despite generally shying away from day one availability.
Therefore it’s this challenging middle-ground that PlayStation’s going to have to strike. We imagine it’s going to have to lean heavily on partnerships with third-party publishers and indie developers, but whether it can compete with the bottomless pockets of Microsoft remains to be seen. All of this puts Sony in a precarious position: can it offer significant value to its customers without detracting from its existing business model and simultaneously avoid the pitfalls of a poor comparison against its competition?
We don’t envy Jim Ryan and upper-management’s position here – it’s going to have to really earn its corn on this one. As we’ve written in the past, some kind of rejigging of its subscription services feels necessary, but PlayStation can’t afford to half-arse this. PS Now has been stagnant for years now, and while PS Plus has its ups-and-downs, it’s clear there’s a need and demand for Sony to overhaul its offerings.
It looks like we’re going to get our wishes and a revision will roll out at some point this year. And yet this could be a defining moment for the PS5, as PlayStation looks to compete against seemingly impossible odds. PS Plus and PS Now need improving, but outside of its own ecosystem Sony needs to close the gap between its own services and Game Pass. A direct competitor seems unlikely, but PlayStation will need to work extremely hard to carve out that Disney+-esque gap in between.
Realistically, what do you expect from Project Spartacus and what would convince you to subscribe to its highest possible tier? How can Sony protect its existing business model without succumbing to a significant value deficit against a rebounding rival, and what does it need to offer to ensure your ongoing investment? Pay monthly in the comments section below.