The PlayStation Network (PSN) was launched in November 2006, providing free online multiplayer gaming on the PlayStation 3. For over 6 years, Sony offered the PSN service for free, absorbing all the costs of maintaining the online infrastructure. However, in 2010, Sony introduced a premium subscription service called PlayStation Plus on top of the free PSN, before eventually making the PSN a paid service in 2013 with the launch of the PS4.
A Brief History of PSN‘s Pricing
When the PSN first launched with the PS3 in 2006, it was completely free to access. Players could create accounts, play online multiplayer games, download games and content from the PlayStation Store, and communicate with friends.
Sony absorbed all the costs of running the PSN servers and infrastructure. According to Sony Computer Entertainment CEO Kaz Hirai in 2010, the PSN cost Sony hundreds of millions of dollars per year to maintain.
However, Sony saw value in providing a free service to attract more PS3 gamers and sell more PlayStations. At the time, offering free online multiplayer was a competitive advantage over Xbox Live on the Xbox 360, which required a paid subscription for online multiplayer gaming.
The Launch of PlayStation Plus
In June 2010, Sony introduced PlayStation Plus – an optional premium subscription service on top of the free PSN. For $17.99 per 3 months, PlayStation Plus offered subscribers:
- Free games each month
- Exclusive discounts on PlayStation Store
- Early access to new games
- Cloud game saves
- Automatic system updates
- Other premium features
The base PSN service remained completely free. PlayStation Plus was an added bonus on top for those willing to pay.
Over the next 3 years, Sony gradually added more value to PlayStation Plus, including more "free" games each month and bigger discounts. This helped drive subscriptions, providing Sony with extra revenue to help cover the ongoing costs of running PSN.
The PSN Hack of 2011
In April 2011, the PlayStation Network suffered a massive data breach. Personal information from 77 million PSN accounts was compromised, and the network was taken offline for nearly a month.
Sony estimated the hack cost them at least $171 million. Combine this with the hundreds of millions it already cost annually to run the PSN, and it‘s easy to see how the free PSN was becoming increasingly burdensome for Sony.
The Launch of the PS4 and Paid PSN
When Sony launched the PS4 in November 2013, it introduced a major change – PlayStation Plus was now required for online multiplayer gaming.
Sony also stopped offering free PS3 and Vita games each month to PlayStation Plus members, instead tying the monthly games to just PS4 owners.
According to Sony‘s President of Worldwide Studios Shuhei Yoshida:
"The main pillar for the PS4 will be online play. We‘re developing many new ways to play and connect which requires a large investment of resources. Considering the cost, to try to keep such a service free and consequently lower the quality would be absurd. We decided that if that‘s the case, then it would be better to receive proper payment and continue to offer a good service."
After absorbing nearly a decade‘s worth of costs to provide free online multiplayer, the PSN hack in 2011 appears to have been the final straw that forced Sony‘s hand.
Rather than continue cutting corners to offer a free service and see PSN get hacked again, Sony pivoted to a paid model to secure the funds needed to properly manage, upgrade, and secure their infrastructure.
Why Sony Can‘t Offer Free PSN Anymore
There are a few key reasons why offering a free PSN is no longer feasible for Sony:
1. Online Gaming Costs Have Skyrocketed
The costs associated with running an online gaming network have grown exponentially over the past 15 years as gaming has shifted to online:
- More demanding games require beefier servers
- Rising security threats require more IT infrastructure
- More players and data means larger server capacity needed
Game server costs can run over $5,000 per month for some titles. And with millions of players across thousands of games, Sony‘s server costs have likely ballooned into the billions.
Offering robust online gaming for free is simply not sustainable.
2. Other Large Networks Are Paid
Sony is no longer an outlier in charging for online gaming. Both Xbox Live and Nintendo Switch Online require paid subscriptions for online multiplayer.
With its competitors offering premium networks, it doesn‘t make competitive sense for Sony to be the odd one out offering a lesser free experience. Gamers expect a high quality online gaming network, and Sony needs revenue to provide that.
3. PlayStation Plus Evolved into an Essential Service
PlayStation Plus has evolved into an essential part of the PlayStation experience:
- Online multiplayer requires a PlayStation Plus subscription
- Subscribers get "free" games each month
- Store discounts are gated behind PlayStation Plus
- Cloud saves are limited without a subscription
For most PS4 and PS5 owners, PlayStation Plus provides enough value to justify the $60 yearly fee. Sony has gradually made PlayStation Plus indispensable to maximize revenue.
4. Sony Wants Recurring Revenue
As a business, Sony wants to generate recurring revenue from PlayStation owners, not just one-time hardware sales. The PlayStation Plus subscription provides this – revenue that keeps flowing month after month for as long as the user remains a subscriber.
Xbox Live Gold pioneered this model of generating recurring gaming revenue. Sony eventually followed suit once PSN costs became too burdensome to absorb.
5. Investors Want Profitability
When PlayStation was losing Sony billions annually, investors applied pressure on Sony to make the gaming business more profitable.
Transitioning PSN to a paid subscription model has improved profit margins for Sony‘s gaming division, satisfying investors who previously saw the free PSN as leaving money on the table.
The Evolution of PSN Pricing
Let‘s take a look at how the pricing structure of the PlayStation Network has evolved over time:
Phase 1: Completely Free PSN (2006-2010)
- PSN launches in 2006 as a free service for PS3
- Sony absorbs all costs, PSN loses them billions annually
- Free online multiplayer, game downloads, messaging, etc.
Phase 2: Free PSN + Paid PlayStation Plus (2010-2013)
- PlayStation Plus launches in 2010 as a premium subscription
- PSN remains free, but Plus offers extra features and monthly games
- Sony recoups some costs through optional Plus subscriptions
Phase 3: Paid PSN + PlayStation Plus (2013-Present)
- PlayStation Plus required for online multiplayer on PS4 in 2013
- PSN is now a paid service bundled with PlayStation Plus
- Monthly games and discounts tied to Plus on PS4
- Sony fully monetizes PSN to cover costs and generate revenue
Sony has gradually evolved the PSN from a free service losing billions, to a profitable network with over 50 million paying PlayStation Plus subscribers as of 2022.
What About Free-to-Play Games?
While the PSN itself is now a paid service, free-to-play (F2P) games do NOT require a PlayStation Plus subscription to play online.
Popular F2P titles like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Genshin Impact can be played online without paying for PS Plus. So if you only play F2P games, the PSN is essentially still free.
Sony doesn‘t pay server costs for F2P games – the developers do. So Sony can allow F2P online gaming without Plus to attract players to the PlayStation ecosystem in hopes they eventually buy full games or PlayStation Plus.
Could PSN Ever Go Back to Being Free?
While unlikely, there are a few scenarios where Sony could possibly shift back to a free PSN model:
- If server costs drop dramatically in the future with new technology
- If Sony releases a low-cost digital-only PS5 without a disc drive
- If regulators push back against paid online gaming subscriptions
- If Microsoft makes Xbox Live Gold free, forcing Sony‘s hand
However, given the current trajectory of the gaming industry, Sony returning to a completely free PSN seems very improbable. The costs are simply too high without a recurring revenue stream.
That said, Sony could potentially make PlayStation Plus optional again for online multiplayer if they launched a lower tier free Network Access Subscription. But Plus in some form would still likely be required for the full experience.
The Bottom Line
While the shift away from a free PSN service was disappointing for some PlayStation fans, Sony had compelling reasons for making the change:
- The costs of running robust online gaming networks have skyrocketed
- Recurring subscription revenue is needed to maintain quality of service
- Other competitors like Xbox charge for online multiplayer
- PlayStation Plus evolved into an essential service with strong value
- Investors want profitability from PlayStation
For these reasons, the era of free online multiplayer access on PlayStation is likely gone for good. But the paid PSN model enables Sony to provide a modern, high-quality online gaming network. And occasional free-to-play games give non-subscribers a taste of PlayStation‘s online offerings.
Given how engrained paid online gaming subscriptions are across the industry in 2022, PlayStation returning to a 100% free model seems unfathomable. Sony made a calculated business decision that revolutionary change in 2013, and the PSN pricing structure is unlikely to shift again anytime soon.