Sony’s reveal of PlayStation Now raised as many questions as it did nostalgic memories. The new service allows PlayStation users to stream PlayStation 1, 2 and 3 games directly to multiple devices, most notably PS4 and PS Vita, thereby lessening the sting left by the PS4’s lack of backwards compatibility, as well as expanding the number of playable titles on the fledgling system. Other than the obvious software edge and aforementioned library expansion, what is Sony planning to do with their new Gaikai-powered toy?
Well, according to Sony itself and our own Matt Liebl, we can cross fixing backwards compatibility off the list, as PlayStation Now is little more than patchwork in that regard. Until the game’s library is upped to include every popular past title, that’s all it will be. However, there’s a second question that needs asking—one powered by lightning, and paired with oversized goggles and maniacal cackling.
Could PlayStation Now effectively obviate and replace PlayStation 5, 6 and so on and become a console in and of itself?
It's time for science. Science!
The more sensible question here is can a service very much akin to PlayStation Now maintain and provide a veritable virtual library on par with what a new console offers? Practically (and hypothetically) speaking, the proposal is this: In approximately eight years, when you go to buy a new system (the eponymous PlayStation 5 or Xbox … Two), could you instead buy access to a virtual console, which, in this scenario, would stream its games to your current system, treating it as a client with processing performed externally?
It’s a very pretty dream, to be sure—the idea of never having to upgrade your hardware again, all while gaining access to improved and more powerful software. There are, of course, several problems with this Frankenstein’s Monster.
The first caveat is also inherent in the PlayStation Now we already know of: latency and internet connectivity. Even if such a virtual console were created, the no-doubt immensely powerful server is ultimately worthless if its users cannot access it consistently and effectively due to internet constraints. Save for an e-revolution providing powerful connectivity to the majority of the world (or at least gamers, in this case), there are two potential “solutions” to this.
First and foremost, Sony could only extend the service to users who will be able to make use of it, and therefore have the connection necessary to do so. However, this would eliminate a sizeable portion of their target market, which would likely cripple the project immensely—but more on that later. Option two is for Sony to somehow standardize the connections of their users, which is even less plausible given how reluctant gamers would be to adjust or outright change their internet provider solely to play new games. With that said, if Sony were able to implement a less invasive means of standardizing connections, perhaps through an add-on to common ISPs, the alleged virtual console would become less outlandish, its subscription fee substituted for a connection cost.
Just a… few… cables.
Option three is a fickle mistress who I’ve yet to lure to this article, and therefore sorely absent.
The second and arguably most obvious flaw in a virtual console is the sheer hardware necessary to operate the thing. Individual connections aside, the bandwidth, processing power, memory, storage and more that would be required for a server to run a virtual console powerful enough to warrant an “upgrade” over your PS4/XOne (or whatever console is current at the time … presumably one with a double-digit label) would be staggering, and with a price tag to match. Assuming games aren’t somehow externally enhanced after development on current platforms, there would be a need to provide game developers with a common template to develop for—a dev kit of the powerful new virtual console—which would be difficult to provide if the system in question isn’t tangible.
The final wet blanket (or at least the last one discussed here) is consumer and manufacturer reluctance to give up hard copies, as well as actual consoles. The history of digital copies is indication enough that consumers are still fond of the safety and guarantee provided by physically owning a game (and in this extreme case, a system), which places quite a hurdle before an ostensibly digital system, as a it would likely meet with a slow adoption rate.
I would feel bad for all the naked media centers, though.
Fortunately, adoption rate is also one of this crack-pot system’s more redeeming hypothetical qualities. If upgrading to a new system and all its dazzling games and new-fangled apps amounted to little more than forking over the—and this is, by any stretch of the imagination, extremely conservative—$100-200 to update your tech and purchase a subscription (because with such a mammoth server powering it, this isn’t going to be free—not even with PlayStation Plus), a virtual console would sell like wildfire upon release, especially when compared to today’s next-gen entry price.
Not unlike how Sony handled the PlayStation 3’s early days—that is, enduring losses per unit sold in order to carry software sales with a saturated market—this would generate an immense user base on day one and therefore make large-scale software endeavors more doable. Coupled with the fact that consoles themselves scarcely, if ever, turn a profit, removing hardware sales from the equation is less of an issue for virtual consoles.
So, to recap: We’re looking for a virtual console that somehow bypasses the limitation of internet connectivity, is powerful enough to make Valve cry, can offset the dread surrounding the risks of non-physical products, and has more throughput than the Nile River. And it needs to be bigger, badder and better than whatever else is on the market.
I expect it by Christmas 2017, Sony.