On the surface, PlayStation Plus sounds like a great deal for gamers who don't mind digital content. Sure, you don't have any physical discs, but you have instant access to most of your game collection (hard drive space being the only limiting factor), cloud-based storage, an extra discount on sales and what amounts to an unlimited free rental on pre-selected titles so long as you keep your subscription current. While not everyone is going to enjoy every piece of content provided by PlayStation Plus, it's difficult to deny the sheer breadth of it. Unfortunately, there is a problem inherent in the system that isn't immediately obvious when you subscribe.
No, we're not talking about publisher payouts, game selection or the question of whether or not subscribing to PlayStation Plus discourages retail purchases. The hidden problem with PlayStation Plus is that it can make certain digital purchases impossible. The longer you have been a member of PlayStation Plus, the more likely it is to happen. In a perverse way, Sony is inadvertently discouraging some of its most loyal customers from spending money on the PlayStation Store.
The problem arises because of the way the PlayStation Network handles licensing. Instead of recognizing that there are multiple versions of a license for some titles and ranking them appropriately when applying a license to an account, PSN works on a "first come, first served" basis. In short, if a game has multiple license types, as soon as one is attached to your account, that's it. You cannot upgrade to a better license, unless the existing one is removed first. This usually requires a call to customer support.
Why does this matter?
For single games, it means that if you download a "free" PlayStation Plus game, you can never purchase a full version of the game. The PlayStation Store will not allow the purchase. "Wait!" you're saying, "Why would I want to buy a game that I already have in my collection?" The answer to that not everyone is going to keep a PlayStation Plus subscription forever. Purchasing a full version means you have a perpetual license that will never expire. Given that PlayStation Plus sales can offer very attractive pricing, it seems odd to prevent the sale.
Still, aside from being mildly frustrating (no one likes to miss out on a good sale), preventing a single purchase at the PlayStation Store isn't an issue. Where it becomes a problem is when bundles are introduced into the mix. This is where the system appears to fall apart.
Sony supplied us with a download code for some recently released Indie games. This was given to everyone who attended the PlayStation Indie event at GDC. The bundle contained a selection of games, two of which were previously available on PlayStation Plus.
Before redeeming the bundle code, we made the assumption that the two PlayStation Plus titles would simply be upgraded to the full versions. So, just like any other redemption code, we dutifully entered it into the PlayStation Store. The store accepted the code without a problem, but the two PlayStation Plus titles stayed as they were. The expiration dates were not removed. Trying the code a second time indicated it had already been redeemed, and the transaction history had no trace of the two games. It was as if the full version licenses for those two had simply vanished into the ether.
Speaking with PlayStation customer service, we learned that this is actually the expected behavior for the PlayStation Store. According to the agent who handled the request, Sony needs to manually process a refund request for the "free" games before the system can apply the full version licenses. Unfortunately, this is not something that the customer service team is empowered to do. It must be escalated, which means a long wait. By way of example, we called customer service on April 2nd. Today is April 15th, and the case is still pending.
From a practical standpoint, our particular case isn't a big deal. After all, the games were provided for work reasons, and nothing is preventing access. From a consumer rights standpoint, however, the issue is troubling.
It is easy to see how someone purchasing a bundle that contains content that they already have via PlayStation Plus could silently fail. Unless you are checking the expiration dates in your purchase history, there is no indication that the full version license did not apply to the account. Realistically, it is plausible that someone wouldn't notice the discrepancy until they let their PlayStation Plus subscription lapse. At that point, sorting out the issue with customer service would likely be challenging.
This brings us full circle to the original point. Once you know the PlayStation Network can't handle updated licenses, it becomes a strong disincentive to purchase anything. A perfect example is this week's Borderlands bundle sale. PlayStation Plus subscribers can purchase full versions of Borderlands and Borderlands 2 for a grand total of $20.99. That's a great price for two great games, but Borderlands was previously available as a "free" PlayStation Plus title, so anyone who's had the service for the past year already has it on their account. Knowing the hassle that is involved in sorting out a license issue means that sale price probably isn't worth it, and that means 2K has just lost a sale.
As publishers make their grand push toward the digital frontier, it is going to be more and more important that licensing be a seamless process. If purchasing a digital version of a game becomes a hassle, consumers are not going to want to bother with digital storefronts. More importantly, consumers are not going to trust digital storefronts. Here's hoping that Sony manages to resolve the PlayStation Store licensing issues before the PlayStation 4 hits retail shelves later this year.