"Heads up future #XboxOne owners," the @Xbox twitter posted today between #constant #hashtags #about #its #upcoming #launch. "Access to free games each month is coming for Xbox Live Gold members on #XboxOne. Details coming in 2014." (Yeah, they hashtagged #XboxOne twice in the same tweet.)
Sound familiar? It should--it’s basically what Sony has been doing with PlayStation Plus for the past three years. Since 2010, Sony has been steadily tinkering with PS Plus, adding new features and systems that create a robust online experience that's actually worth getting. Microsoft dabbled in improving XBL's value when it started giving out free games this year (with recent #smash #hits like #Halo 3 and #Assassin's #Creed 2!), but continuing this service with the Xbox One is a pretty big deal.
Why now? Simple: Sony has forced Microsoft to improve at the cost of making its own system worse.
Though gamers loved to try, you really couldn't compare Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus. Plus granted free games and discounts, but was more of a coupon book (a really good coupon book) than an actual online service. It wasn't needed to play demos or to game online, meaning it was less of a must have and more of a nice to have.
Gold, on the other hand, was necessary if you wanted to actually use your Xbox 360 with any level of self respect. Some features--namely, online multiplayer--were inaccessible unless you paid your monthly fee. Miss a payment and you're all alone playing singleplayer games like a sucker. While they were both monthly services that improved their consoles, they offered totally different value propositions.
But that's no longer the case. Online multiplayer is locked behind a paywall with the PS4, meaning that, after a long time of battling apples with oranges, Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus became basically the same thing. There are still some differences between what the consoles do and don't limit to paying customers (Netflix works either way on the PS4, but requires Gold on Xbox One), but they're more similar now than they were then.
By demanding a monthly fee for multiplayer, Sony has made the PlayStation 4 a slightly worse system overall, while also making Xbox Live less valuable. It put them in real competition, forcing Microsoft to do something about it like, oh, I don't know, giving away free games.
This is good for you. It means you might need to pay a monthly fee for PlayStation Plus (which is honestly worth the money), but it's for the best. Since Microsoft needs to actively try to battle Sony on the online front, it has to upgrade its service. It can't really afford to do what it did last-generation, either--don't expect to see Xbox Live plastered with ads if Sony keeps its interface clean. Microsoft made Xbox Live a worse experience as it dominated the online space unopposed for a generation, but now that this is a fight, I don't expect to see this problem #repeating; we have consoles that are actually #competing.