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PlayStation spent 2023 setting up dominoes. But will they fall in 2024?

2023 has already become a strong contender for the best year in gaming ever (at least when it comes to newly released games), but we’ve yet to see how it’ll be remembered for PlayStation long-term. It currently stands as an experimental year filled with massive gambles that we won’t see the results of until 2024 at the earliest.

From an outside perspective, 2023 might’ve seemed like PlayStation was resting on its laurels. With more hit third-party releases than most people could reasonably handle hitting on a near monthly cadence, the average PlayStation fan was likely content with “just” the utterly fantastic Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 from the first-party side. In reality, this year Sony has set up a series of dominoes that, depending on how they fall, could very well determine its future — for better or worse. Even though a few of its efforts are trending in the wrong direction, or at least have the community concerned, there’s no turning the ship now.

Heavy on hardware

Sony put out more hardware this year than perhaps any other year in its history. We started off with the PlayStation VR2, got the surprise slim models of the PS5, the PlayStation Portal most recently, and will close out the year with its impressive Adaptive Controller. Of those, PSVR2 is the largest dice roll the company is currently watching play out. VR, in general, still only caters to a niche audience, and for as powerful and cutting-edge as the tech inside Sony’s headset really is, that small audience is automatically cut by being tied to the PS5 install base willing to pay another massive entry fee. Despite all the cards stacked against it, Sony could pull an ace from its sleeve to justify the entire experiment: first-party games.

A side view of the PlayStation VR2, which sits on a wood table.
Digital Trends

In a very Nintendo-like way, Sony’s success is largely powered by its first-party studios’ ability to craft blockbuster experiences that have enough appeal to drive audiences to its platform over the competition. Unlike Nintendo, however, Sony’s games almost always take full advantage of the most cutting-edge technologies. If that level of quality, creativity, and can’t-miss-style exclusive games began rolling out on the PSVR2, the entire conversation around that device (or lack thereof as it currently stands) could completely flip.

For its launch year, PSVR2 only had one first-party title to speak of: Horizon: Call of the Mountain at the system’s launch. It’s expected that any hardware launch will have a limited library, but the concerning part with PSVR2 is that Sony hasn’t shown any signs that it will provide more experiences on that scale. First-party announcements were noticeably absent even in VR-focused segments of their showcases through 2023. That apparent lack of investment from the platform holder not only shows a lack of confidence in the audience but also in other developers. The result could be a nasty spiral that clips the system’s wings before getting a chance to spread them.

Unlike the PS5, the PSVR2 can’t succeed under its own momentum. Sony itself needs to be the one to push the snowball down the hill, ideally through a combination of first and third-party support. It will no doubt be a sunk cost for at least the following year but is arguably a necessary cost if only to show its most loyal customers who bought in early that their purchase wasn’t a waste and risk burning them.

A PlayStation Portal plays Marvel's Spider-Man 2.
Giovanni Colantonio / Digital Trends

On the other hand, the PlayStation Portal and revised PS5 models being what they are (and costing what they do) feels like Sony is making a statement about its position. The Portal is a barebones device being sold at a premium price with a limited use case, but it at least won’t have the same problem as PSVR2 in a lack of software as it simply streams anything from the PS5.

The “slim” models of PS5 not only are not cheaper than the base models, which is typically the appeal of console revisions, but the digital version is actually $50 more expensive than the one launched in 2020. All signs point to Sony planting a flag in the ground, claiming its products are not only just as valuable as they were at launch but perhaps even more so.

At your service

The value of hardware ultimately comes down to software, which is where the most attention will be focused in 2024. On that front, Sony delivered more experiments that have yet to pay off.

The company’s PS Plus rebrand continued to hit roadblocks following some initial skepticism when it relaunched. The Game Pass-like streaming service gives players access to hundreds of games available to download and cloud stream in some cases. It hasn’t fully justified its cost for the hardcore user it is aimed at, though. Streaming will always depend on the individual’s internet, but at least it has expanded to include PS5 game streaming. Classics have been a slow trickle of odd choices, and we have only seen one PS2 game added to the service since it launched. Without any announcement of future plans or additions to the service, Sony made a drastic price increase to each service tier, with the most expensive tier getting the largest price bump despite many considering it to be the weakest value.

It has been made clear numerous times that adding first-party games to the service on day one is not in Sony’s business plans. Forgoing that option, subscribers may not be willing to pay upwards of 30% more for a service that already felt lacking. The base Essential tier jumped up from $60 per year to $80 and only offers cloud saves, online multiplayer, and a monthly selection of “free” titles. Those who subscribe to the top Premium tier suffer the largest price increase from $120 per year to $160. The only exception that could swing the narrative ties directly to perhaps the most controversial gamble in Sony’s playbook.

A damaged moon with a planet in the background in the Marathon trailer.
Bungie / Bungie

In terms of the actual games Sony is working on, the company has made it clear that live service is its future. Sony called its shot with 12 titles in development and spent the majority of its own 2024 showcases focusing on what we expect to be the first out of the gate in this initiative: Marathon, Fairgame$, Concord, and a Last of Us multiplayer project. As concerning as this massive shift in direction may strike the PlayStation fan who bought in for the single-player, narrative experiences, it’s far too early to claim anything about the quality of these projects — especially considering half of them have been reportedly pushed beyond 2026.

On the other hand, the apparent struggles with the development of these titles are a reasonable concern. The Last of Us multiplayer game, which is reportedly in limbo after layoffs at Naughty Dog, is emblematic of the growing pains Sony’s studios are feeling trying to transition to this new model. While it is certainly preferable that it delays projects as opposed to rushing them out the door in an effort to catch a trend, there’s still a gap in first-party output these games were meant to fill. If Sony is willing to bend its “no day-one first-party” rule for these live service games coming to PS+, that could be a big step in softening the blow the price increase dealt but can’t alleviate the content drought while these games come together.

A live service future will be tricky to nail. Sony has painted itself in a corner by setting such a high bar for its first-party output. Anything short of an amazing experience may be viewed as a failure by unforgiving fans. That’s a difficult enough tightrope to walk in normal game development, but live services are a wholly unique beast and reports suggest Sony is struggling to get a grip on it as plans shift internally. With only one “traditional” first-party game announced currently in the form of Insomniac’s Wolverine, a lot of weight is being put on these live service games to convince the core audience that they are a worthy supplement — not replacement — for those single-player experiences Sony built its current identity and success off of. While the effects won’t be felt for a while, Jim Ryan’s departure also can’t be ignored. Ryan was the architect for many of these major course changes in the company. With his departure, new leadership may have different ideas on what direction Sony should be going and either double down or even pull back on some of these initiatives. It just further muddies the water regarding what the future holds for the entire brand.

Every move made in 2023 gives the impression of a very confident Sony. Tons of new hardware, price increases, and shifting focus to a new style of game indicate a level of certainty that 2024 will justify these moves. The last time we saw a Sony in this form was at the dawn of the PS3 era, and it had to spend that entire generation playing catchup. For us in the dark, the best we can do is hope Sony is making the correct gambles. Once these dominoes start to fall in 2024, it will be too late to change course.

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Jesse Lennox
Jesse Lennox loves writing, games, and complaining about not having time to write and play games. He knows the names of more…
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