Why Xbox Live isn't free

We take a closer look at Live and ask: what is it we're paying for?

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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