[In this opinion piece, digital console game website GamerBytes' editor Ryan Langley examines Sony's PlayStation Network for PS3 and PSP, suggesting notable feature and usability improvements that might help the digital network boost its success.]
With the release of the PSP Go, the industry is intently watching how Sony will use the PlayStation Store to support the first digital-only console. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, there are still a lot of problems with the PlayStation Store - both on PS3 and PSP.
There are issues that hinder the buying experience which by now, three years after the PlayStation Store's launch, should have been fixed. Many of them are relatively small, but when grouped together, showcase a somewhat significant problem with the Store.
Here, we take a look at what I think are the 10 main problems with the PlayStation Store, and what Sony and game publishers can do to make the experience better for consumers and help boost digital console gaming:
The Problem: The Separation Of Games And Territories
One thing Microsoft has been good at is worldwide releases. Besids a few exceptions, all games come out in most Xbox Live regions, and all on the same day. This is because Microsoft has a single submission process for XBLA games – you only have to submit the game to the Microsoft office, and they will test it for all the regions in which the publisher wants to release it.
Sony, on the other hand has gone for 3 major submissions – North America, Europe and Japan. A game might get through the submission process in America, but will get stuck (or be submitted later) in Europe. Therefore the European process has to start all over again, which can mean a month or more of waiting for the game to come out.
With a single worldwide Xbox Live Arcade release, publishers can concentrate on a single campaign. They can build hype, have competitions and release trailers or screenshots in a timely manner. If a game has a staggered release, the hype dissipates, and causes potentially disgruntled would-be customers to care less and less about a game.
Take Trine for example. The game came out in Europe two weeks ago, after two months of being out on the PC. The game will finally hit the U.S at the end of October. But by the time is comes out, people will be already be over the peak of interest, publisher Nobilis may have exhausted all of their press budget, and any sort of post-release buzz from other territories will be gone. That’s a terrible way to run a business.
The Solution: It sounds like it would be impossible to make a single system now, since Sony is quite adamant that they want to keep SCEE, SCEJ and SCEA separate. What needs to happen is for the three territories to start talking to each other and organize dates, so that we can get consistent releases.
The Problem: No Background PlayStation Store Downloading On PSP
With the launch of the PSP Go, we’ve seen a ton of games pop up onto the PlayStation Store – some of them with very large file sizes. For example, Daxter is over a gigabyte in size, and the recently released Gran Turismo PSP is quite large too.
Unfortunately for you, if you’re not using your PlayStation 3 or the Media Go download manager on your PC, you have to wait that whole download period before you can start doing anything else. If you accidentally lose your connection at some point, you have to start your download all over again.
The Solution: I don't know whether the PSP has enough memory for background downloading. But I would at least like the luxury of bring able to pause a download or start from where it left off -- or even allow the PSP to be used in a more limited mode with browser and MP3 playback still available.
The Problem: There Are No Screenshots Or Videos Of The Games Available
The PlayStation Network has a feature called “preview”. This allows players to have a look at screenshots or trailers of the game they're looking at. The problem is that -- for whatever reason -- hardly any of the games on PSN use it.
Right now, titles that have screenshots on the PlayStation Store are few and far between. People don’t even know it’s there most of the time – it’s tucked away at the payment screen, just after the “buy” button. Few people would venture into the payment screen, since the description is already in the shop menu.
Some games do use it, and it appears that some PSP Minis developers have started to take advantage of it. Bt even then, there are inconsistencies. Some games have screenshots on the American store, while the same game does not have any on the European front. PSP Mini Fieldrunners goes one step further – a video in the U.S, screenshots only in Europe.
But then we’re only talking about the PlayStation 3 store. If you’ve got a PSP, you’ve got no preview options whatsoever. If you have a PSP Go you'll have a hard time figuring out what you want. Japan, on the other hand, does have screenshots for nearly everything. They do it by circumventing the “preview button” entirely, throwing the screenshots in the same space as the description. On the PS3 the screenshots are quite small and difficult to see, but are fine on the PSP store.
The Solution: In the digital age, screenshots need to be mandatory across the store landscape to keep the consumer informed, and give them a much better chance of buying the product.
The Problem: Game Icons Are Unsuited To The PSP Store
When looking through the PlayStation Store on the PS3, you can see each games' icon quite clearly. As there are no screenshots, you have to use them to get an idea of what the game might look like. On the PSP, however, you can’t see a thing -- as if someone used the "pixel resize" option in Photoshop instead of any smoother options.
One thing iPhone developers will remind you is that your icon is very important. The icon is the first thing they will see on the store front, and should be enticing enough for the consumer to continue reading about your game. If the PSP icons look so relatively unattractive, how are developers supposed to get gamers interested?
The Solution: There are two ways about this - either find a way for the current icons to be re-sized in a smoother fashion, or have developers create PSP-specific icons alongside the PS3 counterparts, so that they're made for the right resolution in the first place.
The Problem: If You’re Not A Mini, And You’re Not A Retail Game, What Are You?
When the PSP Minis were announced we, felt this was the branding that PSP finally needed for download only PlayStation Store games like Super Stardust Portable and Echocrome Micro. But now that the system is out, we now realize they don't fit the criteria, because they offer too much.
The new game Thexder Neo just came out, which has all of the qualities of a Mini. It's small in file size (33MB), it retails for a relatively inexpensive $9.99, and it seems like a perfect example. But the game includes online multiplayer, which the Minis program does not allow right now, and therefore gets thrown in with the other hundred or so PSP retail titles. The same thing will happen with Loco Roco Midnight Carnival - a $14.99, download-only Loco Roco game.
In North America these games do get a little bit of recognition – they’re considered “PlayStation Network exclusives”. But there is no such place in the European store, so they have nowhere to call home. It also seems quite inaccurate - Thexder does not appear as a 'PlayStation Network exclusive', while Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters does, when that game did get released in stores.
The Solution: The Minis initiative is meant to give developers a shorter time in the certification process, which is why online play is not permitted at this time. I believe that the Minis certification process should be an option, and if a developer or publisher wishes to go that extra mile for their Minis title they should be allowed to go through the more expensive process, while still being able to use the Minis name.
The Problem: Price Inconsistencies
Some people may say that the Microsoft Points scheme is a little confusing, but it is consistent. If a game is 800MSP in the U.S, it’s 800MSP everywhere else. What a MSP is worth is up to the store, but for the most part they're close.
The PlayStation Store on the other hand can be all over the place. While most games in North America keep to the same price point – such as $9.99 or $14.99, converting that over to Europe is another thing entirely.
For example, Flower came out earlier this year for $9.99USD. In Australia a $10USD game gets converted to $12.95AUD. Or does it? Bomberman Ultra just came out, and it's $15.95AUD. Heavy Weapon gets released for $12.95AUD while Capcom’s previous efforts, like Commando 3, convert to $15.95. The same thing also happens for more expensive titles. Both Battlefield 1943 and Fat Princess were released for $14.99 in the U.S, but in Australia they’re priced at $19.95AUD and $23.95 respectively.
The Solution: As a consumer, this variation in pricing is very frustrating. It's unknown who's making the conversion prices - Sony or the publisher -- but it needs clearing up. Keep things consistent - almost every other digital store does.
The Problem: European PSP Mini Icons Hurt The Eyes
The PlayStation Store has kept itself pretty consistent across Europe and North America – a clear cut, simple icon with a graphical border surrounding it. In North America they’ve continued the tradition with the PSP minis, but in Europe and Asia, they’ve decided to use a bright purple border which doesn’t mesh with anything else in the store. It sticks out like a sore thumb, almost to say “stay away from me”.
The Solution: The icons in North America work far better. Just use those.
The Problem: There Is No Demo Section On The European Store
So you’ve just bought your PlayStation 3 or PSP and want to start out by checking out a few demos. If you’re in Europe, good luck with that. While the United States have a section at the top of the store for demos, Europe does not. Unless it is in the latest downloads, or you specifically know which game you’re after, you’ll have no idea where to go.
The Solution: What's taking the place of the Demos section is the splitting of "PS3 Games" and "PSP Games" into separate sections, while the U.S store simply has "Games" with separate PS3 and PSP sections within it. While it's an extra step away, it's still better than no demo section at all.
The Problem: PlayStation.com Is A Mess
While Xbox.com is basically the same across all regions, with some additional pages for specific territories, each region of PlayStation.com has a wildly different idea on how to deal with a website - U.S, EU, JP and Asia have completely different designs and features.
Looking for more about a game? Japan and Asia's websites have a pretty comprehensive database of PSP, PS2 and PS3 games. The North American website attempts to do the same, but appears quite difficult to navigate, and is missing a large portion of new releases, even if they're on the PSN store. There's nothing on the U.S. store which hints at Bomberman Ultra being available on PSN, but they'll gladly tell you that Bomberman Fantasy Race came out on the PSOne.
On the other hand, the European PlayStation.com does not claim whether a game is on the PlayStation Network or not. There are very limited search options - you can't check by alphabet, and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how "browse games" is sorted at all. New releases like Motorstorm Arctic Edge and SoulCalibur Broken Destiny are hidden away in the third page of the "browse" section.
The Solution: The stores might be seperate, but there's no reason why Sony can't use the same technology across multiple websites, or at least get the game database in some sort of shape.
The Problem: When is that game coming out?
It seems like everyone is a little clueless about when their game is coming out on the PlayStation Network. Switchball came out a few weeks ago in North America, and it was released with no fanfare whatsoever. It was a quality game on the Xbox Live Arcade. But to suddenly spring the game on an unknowing populace is just poor, and publishers should know better.
While this is more the publisher’s fault than the PlayStation Store (in this case, it was Sony Online Entertainment that forgot it was releasing a game), Microsoft at least has a system set up for some advance knowledge. It announces games on Monday, and releases them on Wednesday, and for the most part it gets it right.
This allows the press to alert everyone that the game is coming out ahead of time, and allows consumers to decide whether or not they will buy something that week. This almost never happens with the PlayStation Blog -- but they are getting a little better with allowing the developers to guest blog on the week of release.
The Solution: It appears that Sony will continue with the Thursday updates, despite the release of the PSP Go, where the UMD versions will come out at all times of the week. The PlayStation Blog should-- at the very least list -- off the PSP and PSN games that will be available that week ahead of time. This allows for reviews to be written, and for websites to spread the message. Videos and DLC might be up in the air, but surely they have an idea of what will be released in four days time?