If it wasn’t for rentals I probably wouldn’t still be playing videogames today. After a few years of multiplayer GoldenEye, Wave Race 64, and endless attempts at grabbing the last few stars in Super Mario 64, the younger, late 1990s version of me was losing interest in games. The Nintendo 64 hooked up below my family’s television got a good amount of use, sure, but it wasn’t until I rented a PlayStation One, Final Fantasy VII, and Resident Evil 2 that I started to get properly fascinated by games. Although I fell in and out of love with the medium any number of times in the roughly decade and a half following that experience, renting was always the easiest (and most affordable) way to dip in and out of games throughout that time. Until about two or three years ago, anyone potentially interested in videogames could have done the same. Then, with the rise of digital distribution (and, of course, internet piracy), rental chains and independent video stores began closing up shop—and game rentals disappeared along with them.
PlayStation Now is far from perfect, but it is filling this very specific void in the games industry. Sony’s game streaming service—which is currently in open beta for PlayStation 4 owners—offers a number of interesting possibilities, with the return of videogame rentals chief among them. PlayStation Now only has a limited selection of PlayStation 3 titles available at present, and some of its pricing is pretty silly (the four hour rentals start at $3), but it also makes it possible to try games without buying them. In a time when demos are becoming less common and retail prices are rising in Canada, PlayStation Now seems like a valuable service.
I tried it out with a one-week rental of Ignition Tokyo’s El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, a game that seemed like a solid test case for Sony’s offering. El Shaddai is an action game, meaning that it requires precise, lag-free communication between the user’s console and Now’s servers. It also has a crisp, cel-shaded art style that would clearly demonstrate drops in visual quality. While I didn’t encounter any problems with the input response, the game always looked a little bit less clear than it should have—like a Netflix movie in the blurry first minute before the stream fully buffers in and the picture sharpens up. It’s also hard to tell exactly how much bandwidth was chewed up by other digital services, but about four hours of playing El Shaddai used up about 20 gigabytes of my monthly usage cap, which is a fairly grim proposition for those of us on crummy Canadian internet plans. Just the same, using Now for the first time was pretty impressive. It’s easy to forget, after only a small time playing, that PlayStation Now is streaming games from some faraway server. Sony has pulled off the magic trick that it was trying to convince everyone was a good idea from the start—making it possible for players to rent videogames directly from their console without much hassle or sacrifices in quality.
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There’s still a lot of work to be done before Now turns into exactly what it needs to be. But, if the service is refined it could prove a viable model for the future of videogame rentals. Sony probably ought to look into expanding its catalogue beyond PS3 games if it wants to offer a truly useful solution to the PlayStation 4’s lack of backwards compatibility support, but it seems likely they’re interested in doing so. Iterating on Now and fixing the problems it currently suffers from could be enough to modernize both rental programs and game preservation initiatives alike.
Here in Canada, where we have only a handful of Redbox rental kiosks and no Blockbuster stores to turn to, it’s important that something like PlayStation Now is properly developed. Sony’s service deserves to be built upon, imitated by the other two console makers, and made into a staple of the PlayStation Network’s platform.