Publishing sources told us that Sony's previously un-reported new "PlayStation Network Bandwidth Fee" is forcing them to think twice about what content they offer to PS3 gamers for download.
Until October 1 2008, video game publishers who wanted to offer downloadable content on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 didn't have to worry about getting a bill from Microsoft and Sony.
The million-plus downloads that a popular demo or map pack might receive could delight gamers, but rack up some expensive bandwidth costs. No problem: the publishers, who already pay a licensing fee to get their games on the two big platforms, could count on the platform holders -- Microsoft and Sony -- to pay the cost of piping that digital content to gamers.
That situation changed with the PS3 on October 1 of last year, when Sony implemented a 16 cents per Gigabyte fee to publishers for paid and free downloadable content, according to publishing sources familiar with Sony's policy.
Game publishers are not happy about it.
MTV Multiplayer has verified that a letter sent to publishers last fall detailed the policy. It applies a 16-cent charge to every Gigabyte of content downloaded from the PS3's PSN online store. For free content, like demos, those charges apply only during the first 60 days of the content's release. For paid content, like map packs, the charges rack up in perpetuity, or until that content is removed from the PlayStation 3's online store.
Publishing source: "It's a new thing we have to budget. It's not cool. It sucks."
This "PlayStation Network Bandwidth" fee has been unpopular with game companies, according to at least three publishing and development sources who spoke to MTV Multiplayer about the policy on the condition of anonymity so as not to get their companies on Sony's bad side.
"It definitely makes us think about how we view the distribution of content related to our games when it is free for us to do it on the web, on Xbox Live, or any other way -- including broadcast -- than on Sony's platform," one publishing source said. "It's a new thing we have to budget. It's not cool. It sucks."
Publishers already pay costs for creating a demo, a process that can run six figures. Sony's fees add a new expense. For a demo that is sized at exactly 1GB and is downloaded one million times, that would add an extra $160,000 that Sony is now charging and that, according to publishing sources, Microsoft isn't. That's what could scare publishers from placing content on the PS3.
The cost estimate is relevant because demos can be that big and that popular. Demos typically run at close to 1GB, with Ubisoft's "Hawx" demo weighing in at 834MB, "Resident Evil 5" at 942MB and the demo for the upcoming "Legend of Wrestlemania" at 1003MB, which is just over 1GB. On the Xbox 360, the "Halo Wars" demo has exceeded two million downloads. The "Resident Evil 5" demo, across the Xbox 360 and PS3, was downloaded more than four million times by late February.
Sony: "We foresee no change in the high quality or quantity of demos and games available on PSN."
Sony declined to comment on why the new policy was put in effect, how the 16 cents figure was determined or what kind of feedback it's dealing with from publishers. But the company did address what might be the most pressing concern for gamers regarding this matter: whether the new charges will scare publishers from placing content on the PS3 online store: "Appreciate the opportunity to jump in here, but we respect the confidentiality of our business agreements with our publishing partners," Sony Computer Entertainment of America spokesman Patrick Seybold said in an e-mailed statement to MTV. "Of course we work closely with them to bring their amazing content to our growing audience, and we are focused on ensuring we, and our publishing partners, have a viable platform for digital distribution. We foresee no change in the high quality or quantity of demos and games available on PSN."
So far, the content on the PS3's PSN store supports Sony's claim that publishers aren't pulling material. MTV Multiplayer found that eight of the most recent demos from games ranging from Atari's "Wheelman" to Namco's "Afro Samurai" and Take 2's "MLB 2K9" are available on the PS3 and Xbox 360 online store. One of the only major pieces of free content not on the PS3 is the recently-released "Call of Duty: World at War" demo from Activision, which is on the Xbox 360. Activision reps did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. It is possible that it is too soon for Sony's policy to cut into the number of demos and extra content available on the PSN store -- or that publishers, despite their complaints, can and will stomach the charges.
One publishing source who has worked with Sony in the past year said the new policy is an unwanted burden. The source is concerned that the Network Fee will be a turn-off to publishers. One problem, he said, is that publishers will be caught by surprise at what the charges are going to be, as they do not have up-to-the-second data on how much of their content is being downloaded. "It's like leaving your phone off the hook for a long distance call," the source said. "The meter is still running."
While Microsoft's policy of not charging publishers for downloadable content might sit well with game-makers, it does suggest that Sony is simply tapping a different source to generate money to help pay for the downloading of popular content. Sony is asking publishers to foot the bill, but the content remains free for gamers who own PS3s. Microsoft, however, charges users an annual $50 fee for Xbox Live Gold membership and has been delaying access to some of its downloadable content to non-paying Silver members in favor of those Gold subscribers.
Without further comment from Sony, it is impossible to determine what the new policy means for the free PSN service. The new charges could be the price of keeping the service free to users. But it could have nothing to do with that and instead reflect general financial woes at Sony as a whole.
What gamers will want to be most concerned about -- and watchful of -- is the range of content available on the PS3's online store. If the variety of demos, map-packs, wallpapers, trailers and other DLC offerings for multi-platform games on the PS3 store begins to fall behind the offerings on the Xbox 360, gamers will have at least one 16-cent guess as to why.