This week, some of our deepest fears about Sony's online service were confirmed when Insomniac's Ted Price revealed in an interview that one of the biggest launch titles for the console, Resistance: Fall of Man, is set to use its own buddy list, clan registry, in-game messaging and chat services, and so on. While the game sounds like it has a very extensive and comprehensive range of online gaming options, and it runs on Sony's international network of servers to guarantee a high standard of network performance for online play, the simple fact is that the last hurdle Sony needed to jump has been missed, at least for the launch titles. The central buddy list doesn't integrate into the game; you'll need to add all your friends again to play against them in Resistance.
The ball, in other words, has not so much been dropped; it has been hurled at the ground with alarming force. Sony has done the hard work - it has built a console operating system which can be updated over the network, which is always-on and network aware, which can handle multiple user profiles and friend lists, messaging and chat, and so on. It has built an infrastructure which can support multiplayer games running on remote servers with players all over the world taking part. Somehow, however, it has failed to take the final step - actually providing the single sign-in, single-ID, single profile service which lies at the core of a console multiplayer offering.
In other words, although Sony's PS3 is supposed to include all of the user-friendly functionality of one persistent sign-in name and buddy list, a la Xbox Live, the infrastructure wasn't designed early enough to accomodate launch titles. So, in other words, those who buy "Resistance: Fall of Man" (the only PS3 launch title creating any buzz whatsoever) and also buy, for example, "Tony Hawk's Project 8" will have to build separate buddy lists for each game and, possibly have separate screen names as there is always the chance that the one you choose for THP8 might be taken before you set up an account with Resistance. Doesn't that sound like fun?
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The reasons developers cite for this problem are simple; the libraries to do this were not available early enough. The speculation they offer for why that happened is intriguing, however; there is a strong suggestion that until relatively recently, Sony had planned on simply offering games a connection to the Internet and letting them get on with whatever buddy lists, profiles, match-making and so on they wanted, completely unaware of any other game on the system. This is how the PlayStation 2 worked online, much to the chagrin of users.
So, basically, Sony wanted to contiue with the wild-wild west approach they had for the PS2. I used to go online with my PS2 four years ago and I can readily say with complete certainty that doing so was a giant pain in the ass compared to Xbox Live. Each game had it's own network, thus requiring separate usernames, separate friends list, and sometimes even different configurations just to log in. After all of the praise Microsoft has gotten for their Xbox Live service (especially the upgrade on the X360) why Sony would want to keep things as is, is beyond me.
Oh, wait a second, it's all about the money. One of Sony's biggest bullet-point marketing slogans has been that their online service would be free, whereas Microsoft's costs roughly $50 a year. First of all, what Sony was offering wasn't a service. It was simply a means to getting online. Big difference. Secondly, at the risk of repeating the Microsoft company line, you get what you pay for. Naturally I would love it if Xbox Live was free, but at the same time I have zero problems with paying $50 for what I get in return. And my friends who are on Xbox Live -- some of whom I've helped convert from Sony worshippers -- would be quick to point out that they see that $50 as money well spent as well.
It seems like Sony is now stuck between a couple of hard places. They've built up an expectation of a free online service and now, under pressure from users and from developers who can't foot the bill for creating their own services a la carte for each game, Sony has to actually step up and spend the money to mimic Xbox Live. Only without the revenue stream that Microsoft generates.
I expect Sony to pass some of these costs on to the software companies who, will in turn, fall in line behind EA and start nickle and diming everyone for every two-bit microtransaction download available. Actually, EA has already moved well beyond nickles and dimes. Only a matter of time before the others follow... especially on the PS3.