A panic among gamers was set off last year by rumors that the new consoles from Sony (SNE) and Microsoft (MSFT) would keep anyone but the original buyer of a game from playing it. At risk was the time-honored tradition of swapping discs among friends, not mention the sprawling market for used games. The feared second-hand game restrictions didn’t come to pass, and in the months since, Sony has been developing an increasing number of ways to play games without forking over $60 for a disc of your own.
A newly announced update to the PlayStation 4 software will allow players to join in a friend’s game online, even if the person joining doesn’t have a copy of the game. The idea, called Share Play, is basically a virtual version of inviting someone over to sit next to you on the couch.
Share Play will be available in the fall. Sony also recently launched Playstation Now, a streaming service that allows people to rent games for far less than the retail price. Electronic Arts (EA), meanwhile, has its own streaming service for XBox One that gives gamers access to a range of titles for a monthly fee.
After hearing a lot about the anticipated death of console gaming in recent years, the industry is clearly trying to be flexible about how games can be purchased and played. That demise hasn’t seemed quite as imminent lately. Sony said Tuesday it has sold 10 million PS4 consoles, easily beating the pace for its last generation of consoles. Microsoft also had a press event Tuesday but didn’t mention anything about sales, so it’s safe to assume that Sony remains comfortably ahead.
The business models for new forms of console gaming, however, could get tricky. No matter the type of media, streaming services make content creators nervous, because such services dull the incentive to keep buying media through traditional methods. In theory, such features as PS4′s Share Play could further discourage people to buy as many games.
Sony’s not worried. It says that virtually any game that works on PS4 will be available for Share Play, with the exception of games that require the use of peripheral devices, such as a camera. At the moment, the company sees the feature purely as a way to help get gamers excited about games they don’t own, says John Koller, Playstation’s head of marketing. Sony is just leaving its options open for different business models in the future.
Game developers will also have the option to write code that keeps the feature from working, but Koller says he doesn’t know of any who plan to do so. He predicts developers won’t see Share Play as any more threatening than old-fashioned disc sharing. ”There is a sensitivity to sharing discs, because you can complete the game that way,” he says. “This way, you get a taste. To get the full meal you have to buy the game.”
David Edery, the chief executive of Spry Fox, whose game Road Not Taken was recently released for PS4, said he’s excited for Share Play, mostly because it mimics the way he played games as a kid. ”Sony has a vested interest in making sure games keep selling,” he says. “Bear in mind that the Playstation division generates nearly all its profit from games, not hardware.”