Today has been an interesting day for PlayStation Plus. Following a big month in February where subscribers finally got Knack after years of clamoring, Sony announced that March will bring both Bloodborne and Ratchet & Clank to PS4 owners. That’s three major first-party releases in the space of two months. Having such a rousing month of games might have been to soften the blow on another announcement. Starting in March of next year, the PS Plus Instant Game Collection will no longer include PS3 or Vita titles in its offerings. Talk of an awesome month of games was mixed with outrage over Sony dropping four games from the monthly offerings, but what are people really mad about? What does dropping PS3 and Vita games actually mean for the Instant Game Collection?
To look forward, we have to look back a bit. Since September, Sony has been offering a bonus seventh game–a PSVR title–each month, in addition to the usual two PS4, two PS3, and two Vita titles that we get. The PSVR game offering was odd, staying in the collection for two months instead of one, before being cycled out and replaced with a new one. With today’s PS Plus announcement for March, no new PSVR game was added to replace Starblood Arena, which will be exiting its free period when the new games go live on March 6.
I don’t know exactly how contracts for Plus games work, but on the simple side a predetermined amount is agreed upon and paid by Sony to the rights holder of the game in exchange for its availability on the Plus service. It’s likely there are a myriad of financial considerations that go into this deal, including if the game is still selling and how much future revenue is projected for it. You have to remember that it’s not just a free game for a single month. Once it is redeemed by any subscriber, that effectively counts as a purchase of that game which negates that individual purchasing it in the future. For example, this month, Sony has to consider that offering Bloodborne will prevent all future sales of it by any current PS Plus subscribers. Even with first-party games where Sony owns the license, they have to weigh the value of adding that particular game. Will it get additional subscribers? Will it get people to renew? How much is it currently making each month or projected to make in the future?
You also have to take into account what offering a game might do for sequels, DLC and add-ons, or other games in the franchise. Not offering Knack before the release of Knack 2 as a kind of marketing promotion was surprising, but I also wonder how many Knack 2 sales happened because Knack was a part of February’s collection. Could the addition of Bloodborne be to start getting players hyped for an impending sequel announcement? How many of the those players will now buy the DLC? Is Insomniac doing something else with Ratchet & Clank soon? Whether the answer is yes or no, you can be sure that all of these conversations happened long before deciding to add these games. Handing out free stuff without some kind of value proposition to the company just isn’t going to happen, which is why you won’t see major new releases that are still selling well added to the IGC.
Offering a Plethora of Games
What does all this have to do with removing PS3 and Vita games? I’m getting there. Sony has been offering six games per month for a while now, traditionally two for each platform. Sometimes cross-buy will give extra games to some of the platforms, but the basis of the service has always been two on each. I imagine that Sony has a specific budget set each month for gathering together a list of new games for the Plus announcement, and that bigger more popular titles are simply more expensive to acquire. Landing a major PS4 release often means having to cut costs for the PS3 and Vita games, which has shown in what Sony has brought to the table for those older consoles.
Take a look at this month. The flagship games leading the charge on PS4 are two major, well-known releases, and more importantly, they reviewed highly. The Vita titles, on the other hand, are poorly reviewed indie games that are the exact opposite of household names. Indie games aren’t always a bad thing, and sure, these ones might be PS4 cross-buy, but try getting someone excited for Claire or Bomber Busters when they’ve got Bloodborne and Ratchet & Clank in the same batch. Even the relatively well known Mighty No. 9 is on there as a PS3 title with cross-buy to PS4. It’s anyone’s guess as to what landing that game entailed, but I think it’s safe to say that the negative reviews on launch led to weak sales which have recently slowed way down, which gave Sony an opportunity to swoop in and grab it for a big PS Plus month like this one.
Remember that PlayStation Plus is only $60 yearly ($5 per month. A lot of people spend more than that on coffee each day). A lot of subscribers actually get deals on Plus subscriptions for even less than that. When you consider that we are currently getting enough free games to equal only slightly over a dollar per game (not taking into account online access, Plus discounts, and other freebies that a PlayStation Plus subscription provides), it makes sense that the titles added to the IGC aren’t always of the highest caliber.
Cultivating a list of six games month after month can’t be easy, and when they are expected to fill every slot, sometimes it seems that Sony needs to scrape the bottom of the barrel and just accept whatever deals they can make to complete the roster. Without knowing how PS Plus contracts work and how Sony budgets for their monthly titles, I can only speculate, but I’m not sure I understand the uproar over not getting games on old platforms that seem to be afterthoughts for Plus. As Sony focuses more and more on bigger slices of the pie for PS4, the Vita and PS3 offerings are going to be more akin to what we are seeing in March 2018.
The PS4 Pie
So what if Sony gave the entire pie to the PS4? It’s much easier to manage a budget and work out a deal for two games than it is for six or seven. They can more confidently offer two major releases rather than six middle-of-the-road titles. Just because you’ve been getting more games doesn’t mean you’ve been getting good games. I would happily take a single PS Plus free game each month if it meant 12 high-quality games each year, rather than 54 middling games that I’m unlikely to even download, let alone play. I’m a quality-over-quantity type of person. With as much as I’ve seen people complain about the PS Plus free games, I’d assume many users value quality too.
Dropping PS3 and Vita from getting any new games in the IGC allows for the possibility of more special bonuses like the occasional PSVR game, free themes and add-ons, and deeper discounts. Announcing the change a year ahead of time is a great way to let people get ready for it (and make the decision if they want to renew or not) instead of dropping it on them last minute. It also allows Sony to expand the Plus services for PS4 owners and add additional benefits to the subscription, which I imagine we’ll see some changes to leading up to the March 2019 cutoff.
If Sony was offering more well-known and highly reviewed PS3 releases, I might change my tune. I’ve actually questioned over the last year why such poor quality releases continued to be added as the PS3 and Vita portion of the IGC. I can’t see the next year of PS3 and Vita PS Plus titles offering anything that will make me lament their removal. If anything, it means positive change for the company and program moving forward, rather than continuing something in perpetuity something that, in my opinion, should have already ended. I’m happy to see Sony scrubbing the program and not offering low quality, barely known, and poorly reviewed games as consolation prizes just because they feel the need to fill out that monthly roster. Even a high quality month like March 2018 shows the weakness on the PS3 and Vita side of the collection.
I want to show recognition to PlayStation fans still playing their PS3 and/or Vita, and again say that if the games on offer were of a higher quality (for example, offering Ni no Kuni on PS3 in preparation of Ni no Kuni II launching in March, etc.), my thoughts on all of this would be different. The problem is not that Sony is still offering PS3 and Vita games. The problem is that the PS3 and Vita games are an afterthought scraped from the bottom of the barrel because the efforts and budgets go into the PS4 end of the deal. There’s an almost unfair cruelty in continuing to trickle along PS3 and Vita with subpar releases that don’t justify the subscription at all.
Of course, a lot of this is putting my good faith in Sony that this change will be for the positive and we’ll see tangible results. 2018 has already shown a notable improvement in PS4 releases in the PS Plus free games. If that trend continues, I’ll be inclined to believe that Sony is making this change in order to offer a tighter and more quality list of free games. If it doesn’t, well then this whole rant will just be some kind of hopeful delusion. Even so, I don’t actually download or play many (if any) of the PS3/Vita PS Plus free games anymore (and I imagine many PS4 owners fall into that same category). Ultimately the change will either make no marked impact other than cleaning up the clutter, or it will be an improvement that will benefit the Plus subscription.