Sony begins chasing PlayStation subscription revenue

The new PlayStation Plus service launched on Tuesday with an update to the PS3 firmware

Sony released an update to its PlayStation 3 on Tuesday that brings several new features and launches the PlayStation's first subscription gaming service.

Firmware update 3.40 is available to all PlayStation 3 owners and will be offered as a download the next time the console connects to the Internet. New features include a video editing application that can also upload the finished file to Facebook or YouTube and a network sharing function in the console's picture gallery that can send digital images to a Facebook or Picasa album.

For Sony perhaps the most important addition is PlayStation Plus.

Games and video can already be purchased through the console's PlayStation Store, but the new service attempts to secure a regular revenue stream from the 50 million users of its PlayStation Network online service. Microsoft has been successful with subscription packages for its Xbox 360, but Sony hasn't offered such a service until now.

Subscriptions are available for varying periods in different regions but Sony is hoping most will go for an annual membership, which costs US$50 in North America, €50 in Europe, and ¥5,000 in Japan.

Membership brings trial access to full versions of some PlayStation 3 titles, so they can be tried before they are purchased. The games will expire after a designated period but game play can continue with an online purchase. Unlimited access will also be offered to some games for as long as membership is effective.

Sony is also offering discounts on some titles. On Tuesday the game "WipEout HD" was being offered to users in Japan for ¥900, which is half the normal price, and "Star Strike HD" was also on sale at half price. Members are also promised early access to trials and beta versions of new games before wider public distribution.

"We'll continually add new features and services to PlayStation Plus," said Jack Tretton, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, when he announced the service earlier this month at the E3 gaming expo. "In all, subscribers will get an unprecedented amount of value, access and convenience for just over $3 a month."

Launch of PlayStation Plus comes as Sony finally begins to make money on the PS3. During the first three months of this year, the latest period for which data is available, Sony started making money on each console sold -- a turnaround from the years of losses suffered due to high development costs and lower-than-expected sales. In the fourth quarter of 2009, sales of the console hit 6.5 million, up 2 million units from a year earlier, and in the first quarter of this year sales reached 2.2 million, up 600,000 from a year earlier.

Sony is due to report business results for the April to June quarter in late July.

Martyn Williams covers Japan and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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