The PlayStation Network is one big step ahead of Xbox Live

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As an exclusive PlayStation 3 owner in a sea of Xbox 360 enthusiasts, my high school gaming career was a bit lonely. Microsoft was quicker to the draw than Sony when the Windows company wowed the world with its next-generation offerings in 2005, which included a more competitive price point and a previously established online service called “Xbox Live.” Tech junkies couldn’t bear to wait for Sony to cobble together the successor to the wildly popular PlayStation 2, so most crowds grabbed a Gamertag and began to dig into this whole new world.

The connected and competitive playground was by no means a masterpiece from its inception, but hey, it had moxie. So much so that it made millions of users, both dedicated players and more casual observers, fork over $50 each year to experience the premium, end-all, be-all service that was Xbox Live Gold.

That price has now peaked at $60, but it’s hard to argue with a $10 bump when we’ve seen the integration of services like Netflix, Hulu and ESPN. It’s a true entertainment package, and in many ways, my hormonal peers back at ol’ Maplewood High were right to choose the more user-friendly experience early on. Today, it towers over the PlayStation Network in a handful of key areas, and holds the most populated, dedicated communities for third-party titles.

However, it’s Sony’s ever-improving Network that will succeed as we move forward to the next generation.

The competing companies both offer a paid model that present a variety of unique services. Getting Gold on your Xbox 360 unlocks online play for the hottest games on the market, access to Netflix and the ability to connect to your favorite social networks. Major companies continue to sign on with Microsoft, and these partnerships should only sweeten what’s already a cavity-inducing deal.

Yet, the best features are hidden behind a paywall. Just to access these top-tier applications, 360 owners have to pay a yearly membership. And that doesn’t cover the cost of the actual services. You’re essentially paying to pay for more features, and that’s not exactly the most appealing model.

Sony, on the other hand, has taken a more forward-thinking approach that has yet to fulfill its true potential. Since the PlayStation Network already allows players to play any online game without forking over a single penny, PlayStation Plus unlocks a massive game library for a yearly payment of $50. Some games can be downloaded for free, while other fresh, distinctive titles receive hefty discounts on day one. Early betas and demos also make an appearance from time to time, as well as unlimited save game storage through the all-encompassing “cloud.”

Plus isn’t as essential to each player’s life at this time as Live, but look at the direction we’re headed in. Full-retail games like Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed III and Dishonored are appearing on Sony’s online service at launch, and for members of Plus, these massive worlds can be explored at a discount. Some independent games may even be available a week or so early for subscribers, and in some rare cases, are absolutely free.

These are welcomed perks in the current console cycle. But what happens as we move closer and closer to an all downloadable future?

That’s where Sony already has a significant head start. Like Valve’s Steam, PlayStation Plus offers buyers easy-to-access, affordable games from the comfort of their own home. The deals have only improved as the service ages, and the visibility of Plus will also expand as users grow more comfortable with replacing discs with downloads.

Brick-and-mortar stores won’t disappear overnight. I still love adding a new, clean box to my personal shelf of games. But like CDs and DVDs, physical copies of games will go out of style. Luckily for Sony, it already has a rock-solid service that caters to the needs of a download-dependant world.

Microsoft can catch up. This isn’t a race where Sony’s begun to lap the competition, as some full games and deals can be found on an Xbox 360. But the PlayStation producer does have a significant head start. The “Durango” and “Orbis” will contain massive hard drives compared to what we’re used to today, and we can expect dozens of games to fill all that storage. Thanks to the unassuming money-saver that is PlayStation Plus, momentum will could easily shift back to Sony in a big way.

When not writing about all the latest and greatest happenings in the video game industry, you can find Josiah on PSN, XBLA or Steam (Lionheart377). He has a soft spot for classic, turn-based RPGs, but also spends a great deal of time jumping from platform to platform and shooting dudes in the head.