Monday 9 May 2011

Playstation Network Outages: What's the Damage?

At the time of writing, Sony's Playstation Network online service has been down for over three weeks, and shows no definite signs of life. Sony are rushing around behind the scenes trying to get online content restored, and are also going to end up making tremendous amends to consumers in the way of providing content as a means of compensating for the outage. Today, E14 takes a look at the obvious (and maybe not so obvious) problems facing Sony as a result of this cyber-attack.

First, let's look on the bright side. Free stuff is great. We all love it, and nobody in their right mind turns it down unless it can potentially cause massive issues for them, and cases like that are so few and far between that generally free stuff gets pretty universally accepted. Sony has announced formally that all PSN users will receive 30 days complimentary subscription to PSN Plus, their subscription-based service. Sure, one could argue the cynicism of this move in that Sony are probably hoping that people will say "Wow, this service is awesome" and subscribe, but that may not be as easy as all that because of point number 1.

1: Users will now have less faith in using their Credit Card on PSN

Firstly, a little context. I have a Playstation 3, and have been a PSN user since my brief flirtation with the ill-fated PSP Go from December - February 2010. I've generally been pretty happy with the service, save for a few issues regarding layout of the Playstation Store. I have never put my details on the server, but have done so on Xbox Live in order to get a great renewal offer on my Xbox Live Gold.

Now, I was considering joining up to PSN Plus this month, as the deals are not only cost-effective but also appeal to my interests in terms of the games that they place on discount as part of the PSN Plus subscription. Now, I'm not so sure. Although the service looks appealing, the possibility that it requires me to register my credit card details on their servers is now not something that I'm particularly keen on exploring. The fact that it took Sony over a week to come out and say that although they were fairly sure credit card numbers were safe, this couldn't be guaranteed, is pretty lax and resulted in many people (including E14's own Brad Harmer) cancelling their card at personal inconvenience in order to play it safe.

One thing that people often neglect to bear in mind, however, is that people who leave their credit card details on a system are generally the first to benefit from deals as well. When a friend of mine phoned Xbox Live in order to get his card details removed from the system, they offered him a massive discount on his next year's Xbox Live Gold subscription in order to keep him on the system. That's power that Sony may lose owing to this fiasco, and it can certainly be argued that taking their details off the system permanently is a fair concern on the part of the user given recent events.

2: In a way, their marketing has come back to haunt them

You've seen the ads. You've heard their media briefings. Playstation 3, in the eyes of Sony, is not just simply a games console. It's a home entertainment hub. Through it, you can play games, watch Blu-Rays, stream movies online using Lovefilm/Netflix/Hulu, or you can stream music through their Qriocity service. Oh wait, now you can only play games and watch Blu-Rays on it. You can also only play games not requiring online authentication as well.

Sony's positioning of the PS3 as a media hub has come back in some form to bite them on the arse. Now, through the act of bringing down one set of online services, the attackers (whoever they may be, which I'm coming to) have managed to ultimately upset users' day-to-day entertainment lives. It's a particular shitter for those with other Sony products like Vaio laptops as well (and I speak from experience here), as the Media Go service is also dicky as a result of this intrusion.

What it ultimately creates in the mind of the end user is a feeling of perceived value, and a more heavy amount of perceived value being lost as a result of the service going down. Users with Lovefilm accounts could conceivably go to Lovefilm and ask for a reduction on their bill owing to the lack of being able to access a service that is part of their subscription. Maybe those people don't have a computer in the house, and have relied on a PS3 to allow them to watch movies on Lovefilm (hey, it happens). Do those people have a case? Potentially. Will Lovefilm react positively? Who knows? The important thing is that people think their PS3 is worth more than it is in the way of services, which until now has worked in Sony's favour. Until you take the services away for whatever reason. That creates a whole different ball game.

3: Sony are at risk of pissing off Anonymous

Anonymous, for those who don't know, are a group of hackers concerned primarily with freedom of information. As a large group of hackers, however, they can be unwieldy, and research on the 'organisation' (for lack of a better word) leads to a number of cyber attacks which are "reportedly" the work of the group. Whatever your opinion of the group (and I certainly have my opinions on anything that could conceivably have arisen from 4chan), their work ultimately seems to have some noble intentions for the most part.

What seems to have alerted Anonymous to Sony's presence is the legal pursuit of a hacker responsible for 'jailbreaking' the PS3. Now, again, everyone has their opinions on 'jailbreaking' (and again I certainly do), but the way in which Sony has pursued this hacker is relentless, and has pissed off a lot of people who either don't want to be constrained by software design or don't want to pay for shit because for some unknown reason they don't feel that they should have to.

However, Anonymous as a larger group has been vehemently denying that they were responsible for this large-scale assault on the Playstation Network. This creates dangerous ground for Sony, as in their letter to the US Congress, they specifically implicated Anonymous as the organisation they felt was responsible for the attacks. Whether that turns out to be true, ultimately, doesn't matter. The problem is this: Anonymous have proven themselves technically capable of causing trouble for large corporations, and Sony could find themselves in a whole heap of trouble in that regard if they continue the accusation to the extent that they have pursued their PS3 'jailbreaker'.

4: The 'competition' is business as usual - in a big way

We've all heard the old adage "you get what you pay for". In the case of Xbox Live Gold, I couldn't agree more with this assertion. Since I joined in January 2007, I have experienced just one unplanned outage of service, which was at Christmas 2007 due to massive oversubscription. Even then, that wasn't complete outage from my experience, just really intermittent. The user base received a free game for their troubles, a copy of Chair's excellent game Undertow. The value of the game was more than was lost in services for the user, and everyone was generally pretty happy unless they had already purchased the game before, but what can you do in that scenario? Actually, I think that Sony's rumoured efforts of making two from a selection of games free is a good idea, and those games will be cool even if they're games that most people already have, mainly because there's a list to choose from.

Anyway, while Playstation 3 users, who have traditionally asserted dominance over Xbox 360 Gold members on the grounds that their service is free, even though comparatively there's a massive difference in feature set, (plus once PSN Plus came around that stopped, but whatever works) have been unable to get on at all in order to play any games whatsoever, Xbox 360 Gold members have enjoyed the same quality of service they always have. It's been these past couple of weeks, however, that have really shown the benefits of Xbox Live Gold.

In the last fortnight alone, users have had new maps for Call of Duty: Black Ops, two-three arcade games available to download per week, demos for Red Faction: Armageddon and LEGO: Pirates of the Caribbean and plenty of trailers on games like LA Noire. Am I forgetting something? Hmmmmm...

Oh yeah, there's that whole Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta which seems to be pretty popular. Having spent a fair bit of time in the beta myself, I can tell you that plenty of people are enjoying it, and have been since around the time the PSN went down. It's things like this which set apart Xbox Live from Playstation Network, and the fanboys who cite price as the main plus point for PSN would do well to bear the above adage in mind while staring frustratedly at their error screen when attempting to login. Plus Xbox Live Silver is free; you just don't get as many perks.

Ultimately, Sony will restore their services in time, and the users will generally just be happy for the service to come back on, and will be happy enough about that that the compensation issue will never rear its ugly head. For those entitled minority, however, what's really sobering is the negative effect it will have on developers to lose out on up to a month of arcade game sales, downloadable content sales and the like. Will Sony recover? It's pretty reasonable to assume so. However, having read this, hopefully it's clear that there's more work to do than first meets the eye. Still, it could be worse. You could have Nintendo's online portfolio.


Words: Rob Wade


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