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Why Xbox Live isn't free

Until recently, Microsoft could brag about how Live was by far the most feature-complete online service on any platform, with a unified Friends list, the best online shop, voice and video chat as standard and a consistent and stable online experience. But in recent months there’s been a shift in the market, and even bigger changes are coming. Microsoft is the only player to charge for online play, and their policy has landed some of the best online games on the 360... but as PC and PlayStation developers offer comparable features at no extra cost, the Gold subscription starts to lose its shine. The launch of the PC’s Steam Community late last year and promises made by Sony at January’s Consumer Electronics Show have placed Microsoft on the back foot, and has all of us asking: what does your annual subscription pay for?

The Punters

It’s very simple math - you take the features offered by Xbox Live, subtract the features offered by Live Silver, and then subtract the features Microsoft’s nearest competitor - the Playstation Network - offers for free, and whatever’s left is what Gold users get for their annual fee.

In Microsoft’s own words, the perks of being a Gold subscriber are as follows:

1) Play your Xbox 360 multiplayer games online with the premiere online gaming service.
2) Use the brand new TrueSkill Matchmaking system to play against opponents with similar skills, personalities, and gaming tastes.
3) Give player feedback to rate your teammates and opponents on their sportsmanship, abilities, and conduct to influence matchmaking.
4) Play select original Xbox games online (the Xbox 360 Hard Drive is required).
5) Get access to exclusive Gold Member content.
6) Engage in video chat.
7) Enjoy all the Xbox Live Silver features.

Freed from PR-speak, points one, two and three are essentially standard functions of modern online play: multiplayer gaming, online ranking and feedback systems, so we’ll consider them one point. Point four is available to Silver members and even to people without a broadband connection by downloading the CD from xbox.com. Five presumably refers to the demos which are available earlier for Gold subscribers, but that’s really more a way of gimping Silver types than rewarding Gold subscribers. Point six, we can’t argue with - video chat is limited to Gold - but as point seven demonstrates, Live Marketplace, Arcade games, DLC and auto-updates are available at no cost to Silver members.

We’ll kindly add to Microsoft’s list an eighth and ninth point - mass messaging is only available to Gold users, and Microsoft should be a little more proud of their unified Friends list and messenger which makes online gaming with friends such a complete pleasure.

So, with our non-scientific method, we’ve stripped Microsoft’s nine points down to just four:

1) Online play with standard features offered elsewhere.
2) Video chat.
3) Mass messaging.
4) Unified Friends list and messenger.

And of those four, Sony’s PSN offers one, two and three for no charge to players. In effect, your subscription pays for... er, nothing more than a list of 100 names you can pull up in any game.

Still, what you don’t see is that, unlike PSN, Live’s hosting - leaderboards, Matchmaking, the lot - are all run by Microsoft rather than by third parties. It means devs are more keen to go online on Xbox where the online play is paid for by you, rather than them, so - in that sense, at least - Live’s hosting model makes for a more cohesive and better supported service, but a model where the cost will always be picked up on the gamer’s end.

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4 comments

  • FoxdenRacing - December 1, 2010 10:06 p.m.

    Old article is old. That's what I get for following 'recommended' links without checking timestamps.
  • FoxdenRacing - December 1, 2010 10:06 p.m.

    The single biggest advantage to Live over PSN is that those low-rent titles are able to keep their matchmaking servers up effectively indefinitely, long after a publisher would be willing to keep the servers running. This was seen with PS2 and Dreamcast games primarily, as they had no infrastructure whatsoever, as well as PC games that had no decentralized form of matchmaking [such as Tribes]. Those PC games typically have the 'direct connect' option available, but that requires finding a host some other way and then getting its IP address or domain name. PC mitigates this somewhat; in the past games allowed players to set up their own servers, and services such as Gamespy only have to keep track of what members are hosting what games. But in an age where PC games are more and more often ported versions of console games, this advantage may not be as common moving forward. Some publishers [I'm looking at you, EA] use non-standard layouts even with Live...making the program they put on the Live server connect to their non-Live server first, so that they have a kill switch for $LAST_YEARS_SPORTS_GAME to force people to buy their latest $60 roster update if they wish to keep playing online. I'm also assuming that Live has co-locations all over the world so that ping times are able to be kept low...that may or may not be the case with third-party or publisher-based client-server hosting (on a peer-to-peer hosting setup, this isn't a concern...typically today's matchmaking servers are centralized, and the games enter P2P mode for the actual game). Maintaining a world-wide network of Colos isn't cheap. What you're paying for with Live is the guarantee that barring any shenanigans from publishers [looking at you again, EA], those servers will be there for as long as Live supports a given platform, and the expectation of reasonable ping times (barring cheaters that figured out a Motorola Surfboard can be put into 'standby' momentarily to simulate a lagspike).
  • RebornKusabi - February 9, 2009 12:31 a.m.

    Having JUST bought a PS3, there is a lot of shit that people that pay for Xbox Live take for granted that the PS3 just doesn't have for some god-awful reason. Unified Friends List is one of them (Being able to invite people to another game while they are in a different game), user-friendly messaging system, multi private chat and many others.
  • NextBigsalami - December 26, 2008 8:50 p.m.

    I think that microsoft have conned us all into good gaming but at a price but playstation have got everyones attetion

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