Opinion: PlayStation Now prices placate publishers

After much speculation and somewhat vague announcements, PlayStation Now rolled out a prototype pricing model in recent weeks. Gamers did a collective spit-take at the high prices. Though they are certainly absurdly high compared to market value, both as a beta test and a placating move for publishers, the dollar signs make perfect sense.

First, the obvious acknowledgement: the prices are high, and they may or may not stay that way. Kotaku reports that as of the launch, a four-hour rental period for a retail game like Final Fantasy XII-2 cost $4.99, with prices stacking up to $29.99 for a 90-day rental. Smaller games like Guacamelee ranged from $2.99 to $14.99. Not only is that a higher mark than the figures we were given that capped at $19.99, it also seems insane when you consider factors like market value and digital sales. Why would you pay fifteen bucks to rent Guacamelee for a few months when you can own it?

You wouldn't. And that's the point.

PlayStation Now is a bold experiment in game streaming, and it has a lot of potential to create a new avenue to play games quickly and easily. It's also untested and not ready for full implementation. That's not just a statement on the technology, but on it as a market force. Sony is essentially curating its own walled garden of a rental system. Unlike older rental systems like Blockbuster or even modern ones like Gamefly, though, Sony has a vested personal interest in assuring new game sales. Happy publishers make for better platform relationships.

The rental business has always presented a problem for publishers and their all-important bottom lines. In the days of retail, a physical purchase would always be more significant than a rental copy that would be reused several dozen or even hundred times in its lifespan. Each rental was one less potential customer to buy your game. Though it arguably helps spread word-of-mouth, most publishers would much rather you pick up a new copy at full price.

It's significant that Sony stated developers and publishers would be determining their own price points on PlayStation Now. It's hard to tell if that applies to the beta period, or if the policy will go into effect when the service launches in full.

Regardless, the high price points seem aimed more at pleasing publishers than players. Either Sony controls the service and doesn't want to scare publishers off, or it isn't flexing its negotiating muscle for more reasonable price points. We know Sony can make a value proposition when it counts, as it's shown impressive inroads with its PlayStation Plus offerings. That was a slow start, and PS Now is another new model that might need to gain momentum to prove its value to game-makers as well.

We may be still be surprised by Sony's promised subscription model for PlayStation Now, which could be very generous. The testing phase could end and prices could change and stabilize closer to what we expect for market value. At the moment, though, they are so much less appealing than purchase prices, it simply has to be intentional.