With the announcement of Sony’s streaming service Playstation Now on many fan’s minds, one feature that has yet to have much detailing is the idea of digital game rentals. Sure, you can stream your games over the internet (connection determined), but what if you don’t want to shell out a full $60 for the new Killzone game? Why not rent the game for a week, finish it up, and go back to another favorite when you’re done? Renting remains convenient: play a little bit for a short period of time without having to empty your wallet. While digital rentals aren’t anything too new, Playstation Now is a way for the idea to finally get legs beyond the obscurity of select titles and time periods. Sony has the market presence and catalog to make digital rentals palatable, even if a lot of the limitations of the service have yet to be cleared up.
Game rentals have been a part of gaming since the very start, following in the footsteps of the home video market once VHS reached a marketable price. Local stores and bigger chains like Blockbuster became cornerstones in checking out new games before you spent a full retail price to buy them. The brick-and-mortar stores continued well into the new millennium, but the steady increase in convenient vendor kiosks like RedBox and mail-order services like Gamefly caused game rental stores to steadily fall into obscurity. With the widespread success of video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, many brick-and-mortar stores were unable to produce a viable market for home video, taking their game rental services down with them. While there are still brick-and-mortar rental stores scattered about the nation (many of which are locally owned), the collapse of chains like Blockbuster gave way to a big change in rental procedures.
With digital downloads becoming a great way to buy content without leaving the house, new services appeared alongside their respective consoles. Buying games was easier than ever, but gamers were still buying games, which as we know, is an expensive matter even with lower digital prices. The reasonable prices for a week-long rental were not appearing, or at least not as much. Digital rentals seem like the perfect progression, a way to get timed rentals to consumers without having to manage relations, licenses or pricing with rental stores. According to recently leaked images, Playstation Now’s rental durations are variable (with respective pricing), so you won’t have to pay for a week-long rental if you’re playing a game that can be completed in a single day. And since Sony is managing the distribution itself, DRM-related ideas like the online pass won’t need to be put into play. In the case of the teased Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception rental, the game (hypothetically) could be downloaded in full instead of just the single-player, no online pass required for multiplayer gameplay.
The teased selection lists a number of high-profile Playstation exclusives like The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls and God of War: Ascension. Potential partnerships with third-party developers could expand the library significantly as well, as proved with another listed game Far Cry 3. Even better, since Sony is allowing basic streaming of all of the Playstation console line, there is potential for rentals of PS1 or PS2 games as well. It’s odd hearing about such old games being available for rental, but with the right price, they could set an example for expanding backwards compatibility for the system, while also giving gamers the monetary perks of renting over buying. It’s a shockingly progressive method that could offer more content than Sony could ever muster before, while also giving rentals new life on a digital platform.
However, the streaming side is probably the biggest potential troublemaker for Sony. Since the games will be streaming and not downloaded, connection issues could disrupt the gameplay, possibly even preventing play if the internet connection was not sufficient. It’s a problem with streaming in general, but time-sensitive rental services that you pay for up front could really entangle themselves if the internet infrastructure was not up to par. Unless your internet connection is flawless, there is the risk of not being able to play your rental, due to connectivity issues. Unlike brick-and-mortar, where you’re free to play the game as much as you want until the due date, no internet connectivity speculation involved, streaming is not a tactile, 100% sure-fire idea. With the emphasis on online and the still-sketchy networking from internet providers all over the world, Playstation Now as a rental service could be too far ahead of its time. Unlike downloadable timed demos, timed rentals are a bit trickier to work with since it’s to be a part of Sony’s streaming service, which will depend significantly on Sony’s servers and consumers’ internet situations.
Sony’s leaked images have yet to display an official time-to-payment model, but they do display a $5 price for Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception and $6 for Far Cry 3. As someone who still visits his local rental store for games, I gotta say that if the $5 price is per week at least, that’s a very reasonable price. I don’t expect a $5 price for a whole month to be implemented (that’s just too generous) and a day is just place terrible, but if the pricing follows that proposed idea, there’s potential. It may not offer the security of physical media, but when it comes to the game value and the asking price, Sony’s digital streaming is a worthwhile move for rentals. And that’s a big part of pushing gamers toward digital downloads as a whole: convenient pricing. Being able to pay less for digital than retail or something similar to Wind Waker HD on the Wii U’s Nintendo Network where the game is out earlier on digital than retail; these ideas of giving real incentive to trying digital over retail is something that’s well worth experimenting with for Sony’s services. Sony’s idea to cut out the intermediary retail store allows them to save money on selling copies and licenses to brick-and-mortar stores, allowing for cheaper asking prices digitally.
Rentals remain a rather dated phrase nowadays, but Sony seems to be giving this tried-and-true concept a jolt of energy for the upcoming Playstation Now service. With a strong catalog of games (both new and old), a potentially consumer-friendly business model, and a way to make DRM less intrusive, all the planets are aligned to make this move to rent a big success for Sony. This, however, depends on the connectivity of internet, so the snapping of this single thread could mean rampant issues down the line. Still, all of these are speculative, and there’s still so much for us to learn about whatever Sony’s cooking up with Gaikai and Playstation Now. Could streaming rentals for games really be the way to go? It’s too early to decide, but all eyes are on Sony for Playstation Now as a rental service, and their success or failure could determine how the rest of the industry progresses with their own approaches to renting games.