There was once a time when I would argue until I was blue in the face over the merits of an Xbox LIVE Gold Subscription. It was a service that offered community type services and multiplayer protocols that were, for the most part, rock solid and gave the subscriber a real feeling of worth. What with voice chat, drop in-drop out gaming with friends, achievements, a thriving marketplace for demos and small downloadable games and a real sense of community, Xbox LIVE (XBL) seemed like a matter of pride. Plunking down your yearly fee seemed trifle in comparison to all that it had offered; but that was only because no one else was doing it quite as well.
Enter today’s market and we see that Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN), while having an incredibly rough start, has blossomed into a full-fledged offering. While I personally don’t feel it has yet matched the community aspect of XBL, PSN still is a strong contender in the console multiplayer market. The addition to PlayStation Plus offers users the opportunity for free stuff and exclusive access to demos and such before the general public, but still has a fairly stout free offering. Then we look at what enthusiasts lovingly refer to as The Master Race, the PC market. Steam has taken over the PC gaming market in a big way, and for good reason. Steam offers everything XBL once offered and does it equally as well, if not better. It can be said that these two alternate services copied XBL in their achievements and multiplayer communities, but is that such a bad thing, really? It’s always nice to have a choice in solutions, especially ones as expensive as gaming.
Now, one can argue that what XBL started as and what it has developed into are two completely different animals. The addition of services such as Netflix, Hulu and the like have given the console a newer media center fascia that once again makes it seem worth it. That is, until you break down exactly what is going on. You’re paying for a service that offers other services that you have to pay for. So the money being paid for a Gold subscription enables you the ability to pay for additional services? It’s almost as if it’s a privilege tax being forced down on the fiefdom by a greedy king. And on top of that, you pay for the distinct pleasure of viewing advertisements from Microsoft partners on every screen of the dashboard. Once again, you’re paying for a service to view adverts from a company that’s paying Microsoft to have its advertisements viewed. I could completely understand this mentality if the Silver account had the ads while the Gold account eliminated them, but this is not the case. I might be able to be ok with this if it weren’t for the fact that I can get both Netflix and Hulu on just about any other device that I own, be it my PC, iPad or even my phone, and I don’t have to pay for the privilege to pay for it. PSN isn’t exactly devoid of this ridiculousness either as they once required a PlayStation Plus account in order to access Hulu Plus, but have since redacted their folly because somewhere along the line, they felt that their customers shouldn’t have to pay twice for a service.
This makes one look into the very near future where our next console offerings will be coming to market. It’s widely speculated and all but confirmed that the giants of the industry will announce their next big thing next year and usher gamers into a realm of Xbox 720s and PS4s. With that, it makes me wonder if Microsoft will change their business model, which unfortunately for gamers such as you and I, still remains very successful. It is difficult to think that they will, because that would mean that they’re taking their customer’s interest to heart over a profit margin. It is hard to imagine any kind of change when the company boasts some 40 million members worldwide and fiscal earnings just in Q2 of 2011 to the tune of $4.25 Billion dollars. When you view it like that, the answer becomes pretty clear. The next XBL subscription package will soldier on exactly as it has for years, with yearly fees being asked for services that can easily be had by other services for free.
The only foreseeable way for this to change is if gamers stop paying for it. This feat, however, is like asking the remaining 7 million World of Warcraft subscribers to suddenly put down their armor and try a few free-to-play games. There is comfort in the services they’re used to and people don’t want to change or take the effort to figure out another way. One common mantra I’ve heard when asking around about the opinions of XBL and its fees is, “All of my friends are on XBL and I enjoy playing with them.” I get that, I really do, but with little effort, all of your friends could be on a multitude of other services just as easily. I personally let my Gold subscription lapse in April of this year. At the beginning of it, I thought that I wouldn’t know how to function without it. Slowly, however, I started seeing the real merit in Steam and PSN (mostly Steam) and found that a majority of my friends were on those systems as well, and made a few new ones through multiplayer servers. I began to realize that streaming Netflix to my HTPC connected to my television is just as easy as it was on my Xbox, but I didn’t have to pay for the privilege to pay for Netflix.
I would like to see Microsoft do away with the paid subscription services all together, but that is clearly not going to happen when looking at their fiscal earnings. It wouldn’t be too much to ask, however, if they still offered multiplayer and media center services to free accounts and filled the dashboard with those advertisements, then offered a premium, paid for service to people who wanted to do away with advertisements and have a few benefits for subscribing. Don’t gimp the community and take away multiplayer in games we’ve already paid for, rethink the model and where your profits need to come from. Gabe Newell of Valve takes in massive profits from a free service with no non-game related advertisements and has a thriving community that loves him for it.
Is this simply me getting miserly in my old age and cheap beyond my years? Maybe, but I don’t think that my reasoning is not without merit. When you break down what you’re truly paying for versus what your hard earned yearly subscription is really worth to you, coupled with what you’re able to get for completely free, things begin to come into perspective. Will Microsoft go to a free subscription service similar to Steam? Doubtful, but I think they’d gain even more fans if they at least restructured their service.
As with much of what we discuss behind the scenes, Dave’s piece inspired responses from some other members of the JPS team – these additional opinions can be read below:
J Carpio (@CarpingAbout):
I want to go a little further with what was said in the above text. Xbox LIVE Gold needs to evolve into something with more substance for its subscribers. What Microsoft is currently doing is walling off services to create a perception of value for the users when buying the higher tier. Consumers should know this and decide if that’s what they really want. Especially when they see PSN and their similar offerings that are available for everyone at no extra charge. I’m not saying Microsoft should do away with premium services. I just want them to actually give them real value. And this is where Sony and PSN are a step ahead of them.
One last thing and it is in defense of Xbox LIVE. Yes, the dashboard has advertising, but for the most part it is promoting content that is on the service. Some of that content is non-gaming, but it’s been a long time since the Xbox has been just about games.
L Fox (Xeserox):
I have been a huge fan of Xbox Live since buying my first 360 and playing Uno on it till the wee hours of the morning. Though as time has progressed, and we have had fall updates, I’m starting to love the service less and less. For the most part, charging users a premium yearly fee to have access to stuff that they already pay for is one of the many reasons I’m turning my head away from XBL and to a different service.
I mean, PSN+ offers a monthly free game to it’s subscribers, why isn’t microsoft doing something like that? Steam has big sales in the summer and winter as well as a smaller sale every weekend. With Xbox, you might get a title here and there with a price slash for a week, but that’s it. Most of the time, it’s usually a specific game with all of it’s DLC.