Xbox Live: No Longer the Gold Standard
Why Xbox Live Gold should not return in the coming generation.
My resolve weakens whenever a new Halo is released. The lure of slaying irascible hunters with three like-minded Spartans by my side trumps the lone supersoldier experience, so I willfully ignore the greedy means that make such a feat possible. But I can no longer run from the harsh truth of reality like so many foolhardy grunts. Xbox Live Gold is an antiquated dinosaur that no longer fits within this industry. It's an exploitive service that takes advantage of people's innate desire to connect with others, charging significant money ($59.99/year, or $9.99/month) for features given away for free on competing platforms. As the next generation approaches, it's time for Microsoft to shelve this nickel-and-diming venture once and for all.
It's a concept that people who are immersed in gaming take for granted, but sounds downright crazy when viewed from a different angle. Shelling out your hard-earned cash for Halo 4 doesn't get you everything; you also need to pony up for a Gold subscription if you want access to the lion's share of content you paid for. The much-heralded multiplayer mode is completely closed off, as is playing through the campaign online with friends. Even Spartan Ops, which can be enjoyed alone if you pay Microsoft's subscription fee, is inexplicably kept away from people who don't part with some extra money. This is a ridiculous barrier that doesn't exist on any other system or in any other medium. Microsoft's ardent desire to force people to pay more money means that you might not get to experience the entire game that you just purchased.
Years ago, Xbox Live Gold offered a novelty well worth its asking price. Although online gaming was widely available (and completely free) on PCs, the ability to play with faraway friends and strangers had yet to enter living rooms. Slowly but surely, consoles began to tap into the online ecosystem. The Dreamcast created a mild ripple with its built-in 56K modem and the peep-smashing joy of Phantasy Star Online. The GameCube and PlayStation 2 had a few online games as well, but because you had to buy a broadband adapter, connectivity became another peripheral failure. It wasn't until the Xbox that online gaming on your television became a viable entertainment option. I didn't think twice about shelling out a few extra dollars each month to engage in the fiery dogfights of Crimson Skies or the kinetic card battles of Phantom Dust.
Gold is an exploitive business practice that should disappear into the ether when the next generation arrives.
Microsoft's strong commitment to online gaming continued with the Xbox 360. The console's operating system was designed with connectivity in mind, so with only a few button taps you could view what your friends were playing, invite them to chat, or check out their achievements. Slowly but surely, the Xbox 360 became the go-to system for online-focused games and the streamlined accessibility of the online infrastructure went a long way toward establishing that trend. Microsoft's competition out of the gate lagged far behind. It took years for Sony to upgrade the PlayStation 3's firmware to a level competitive with the Xbox 360, and the tedious friend code system (and outdated visuals) of the Wii made it a weak opponent to the juggernaut in Redmond. When the Xbox 360 became the first device to stream Netflix movies to your television, the extra cost of Gold was a no brainer.
But Microsoft's huge advantages are now distant memories.
Aside from cross-game chatting and invites, the PlayStation 3's online features go toe-to-toe with the Xbox 360's, and just about every other aspect of the premium experience is made redundant by free equivalents on other systems. Non-game applications such as Hulu and Amazon Instant Video offer the same experience on a variety of devices, and Microsoft's apps for such services don't always compare favorably to its competitors. Netflix is not only available on Sony's console, but the PlayStation 3 is now the number one source of television streaming. That's a vital piece of information. Even though there are more Xbox 360s out there, more people use the PlayStation 3 as their primary source of Netflix streaming. Could it be because Microsoft banished this service behind a pay wall?
When you dig deeper, you see that Sony has a sizable advantage in some areas. For instance, if you love sports, ESPN has an app on the Xbox 360. But league passes for the NHL, NFL, NBA, and MLB are available on the PlayStation 3, which is a major coup. Of course, all of these streaming apps require you to pay extra--it's not as if you can watch Netflix movies on your PlayStation 3 without subscribing to the service--but that's unavoidable. Microsoft is limiting the potential user base of these products by forcing people to dole out money for Gold while paying the cost for these services as well. And to what end? There's no benefit to using the Xbox 360 to watch Netflix over the PlayStation 3, so you're merely paying for the right to give Microsoft more money. It's a ridiculous premise that's ultimately urging people to turn off their Xbox in favor of Microsoft's biggest competitors.
Contrast Microsoft's approach with Gold to Sony's premium plan. PlayStation Plus requires a yearly fee of $50 ($10 less than MS' plan), but offers a much different package. Sony doesn't erect a nonsensical barrier for those who would rather avoid a costly subscription fee. Rather than charge extra for features that should be standard, such as online gaming and useful apps, Plus makes the PlayStation 3 and Vita's wide assortment of games more readily accessible. Downloadable games sometimes become available earlier or cheaper for those who pay for the extra service, and certain games are completely free. Now you're rewarded with a copy of Uncharted: Golden Abyss or Final Fantasy Tactics for no charge, or get to play Journey a week before everyone else. It's a system built on giving rather than withholding. Plus nurtures the gaming audience while Gold segregates it.
The reason why Microsoft insists on using this draconian pricing method is clear: They make money from it. But it's time that customers take precedence over coins. Cordoning off entire sections of a game from people who paid good money for that product is indefensible, and Microsoft is only hurting itself by forcing people to go through pay hoops to access non-gaming apps. Although my resolve weakens whenever a new Halo is released, I recognize that Gold is an exploitive business practice that should disappear into the ether when the next generation arrives.