Before this new console generation has even started many are declaring a winner already; anyone but Microsoft. EA, recently crowned the worst company in America, could throw its hat into the ring tomorrow and announce a console for release and most gamers would say they prefer it over the Xbox One. Such is the level of bile and hatred being leveled towards the makers of the Xbox. It’s true that Microsoft has made some missteps over the course of the past few months in its unveiling of the Xbox One (and the vicious self destructive arguments that have consumed the gaming community is an entirely separate post to this one). I’m not here to tear Microsoft a new one and pledge my allegiance to Sony forever more, all I will say on that matter is that I am a gamer. All I care about is games, not the boxes that we play them on. There’s only one thing that really pisses me off about Microsoft’s next generation offering and it’s something that has pissed me off about it’s current gen console; Xbox Live.
The monetising of gaming has perhaps seen the biggest leap forward since the first of the current crop of consoles was released in 2005. Games prices went up (in real terms, they actually went down when adjusted for inflation). The past eight years have seen the rise of subscription based gaming through unstoppable juggernauts such as World of Warcraft, and they’ve also seen the rise of micro transaction based games to replace the subscription model. We’ve also witnessed games attempt both simultaneously, such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online. DLC has become standard practice for the industry. Who remembers Oblivion’s Horse Armour DLC? Nowadays the practice is insidious; we have paid for, day one DLC, DLC that has been stripped out of games and resold to us and DLC that is actually already on the discs that we’ve bought. The 7th generation of games consoles also brought with it an Xbox Live service that required a subscription to be of any value.
It might seem hard to believe but there was a time when Xbox Live was free, back on the original Xbox it cost nothing to game online, much like it does with the Playstation 3. All you needed to play Halo 2 online, and that was pretty much the Xbox Live game, was an Xbox, a broadband subscription and an ethernet cable. Having friends was a bonus.
Today to play Halo 4 online an Xbox Live Gold Membership is required. For £40 a year you can play games online with your Xbox 360 and the same holds true for the Xbox One. When I was an Xbox 360 owner I never really begrudged paying the fee for membership. I’ve payed a lot more to be allowed to access a companies servers to play online games (I pretty much missed Gen 6 playing WoW). The Playstation 3’s PSN Network was an alternative as it was free to game online, though Xbox Live was a superior service. Plus the games I and my friends wanted to play together were on Xbox 360. Plus it never got hacked and very rarely went down except for scheduled maintenance. Even the advent of PS Plus wouldn’t have really swayed me over to PSN. Paying monthly to receive access to free games is a fantastic idea, don’t get me wrong, but I have a tendency to buy the majority of games I want at or just after launch. So being allowed access to download them free later on would be a of limited benefit to me (if you don’t believe me here check my Steam account). I’m not knocking PS Plus, I honestly believe it’s a fantastic idea.
What Xbox Live does, and what it will continue to do into the 8th Generation, is hide everything else that it can do behind a paywall. As the console generation has gone on and more people buy game boxes the focus on these machines has shifted away from them being pure games machines. They serve a much larger purpose now. People use them to watch Netflix or Hulu Plus, I have a friend who uses his PC as a gaming machine more than his 360 but regularly streams Last.fm on his Xbox. A lot of people complained about the focus given to the NFL during the reveal of the Xbox One. Yet the thing I used my Xbox for more than anything towards the end of its stay in my entertainment centre was NHL Gamecenter. It’s the direction that consoles are moving in, given that more people use their Xbox 360 for video and music apps than for gaming, they’d be brain dead not to give focus to these extra services they provide.
However all of these fantastic services are hidden behind the Gold Membership paywall. Want to access Netflix and stream a movie to your TV via your Xbox? Gold Membership required. Want to listen to some music on Pandora? Gold Membership (and American citizenship) required. Want to update Twitter? Gold membership required. I mean seriously? You need to pay a fucking membership for the privilege of making a tweet in the most cumbersome and haphazard way possible WITH A FUCKING XBOX CONTROLLER. Hulu, Last.fm, You Tube, on demand TV…GOLD. MEMBERSHIP. REQUIRED.
Scroll up and take a close look at those services. There are two types and being forced to pay an Xbox Live subscription to access either is pretty ridiculous and more than a little offensive. I have an NHL Gamecenter subscription, it costs me quite a bit of money to maintain it but it gives me the ability to watch my Canucks at times that suit me when the playoffs aren’t on, and in HD to boot. If Google Chrome, the service I use to access Gamecenter, suddenly decided it wanted to charge me for the right to use the NHL Gamecenter app that I was already paying for…well, how absurd does that sound? But that’s what Xbox Live wants from you. If that doesn’t sound absurd enough imagine if you were out and about and thought of an amusing anecdote or you saw something funny advertised on the side of a bus. Naturally your first instinct is to quickly grab your smartphone (lets assume you have a Galaxy S4) and tweet your world shattering witticism. Now imagine loading up your Twitter app and receiving a message from your phone; “YOUR SAMSUNG LIVE GOLD MEMBERSHIP HAS EXPIRED TO CONTINUE USING THIS APP PLEASE RENEW YOUR SUBSCRIPTION”
Pretty dumb, right? In either instance, after your irritation has subsided, what would be your first reaction? I can tell you what mine would be. Find another Internet browser or phone that allows me to do the things that I want on it. It’s the same thing with Xbox. While I can’t say I used my old 360 for Twitter, I did use it quite a lot for NHL Gamecenter. It was a nice convenience. However I sold my Xbox 360 months ago, just before the playoffs. It didn’t inconvenience me in the slightest, I was able to watch my beloved Canucks get slaughtered just fine on my PC. In fact it was probably safer to not be holding a controller in my hands while I did so.
Both PS4 and Xbox One are going to require subscription to play games online. As I’ve said before I am completely fine with this. But when one company allows its users to access their subscription based content like Hulu or Netflix, and access services they could easily access completely free on their PC or Smart TV like You Tube and Twitter, and the other company doesn’t? It’s a no brainer which company offers a superior product. I mean if you have a smart TV, which are not exactly expensive or hard to get hold of, you can access a bunch of this content through your TV! You don’t even need to leave the room and go to your PC to watch You Tube. Just push a couple buttons on your remote and remove the Xbox Live membership from the equation. Or buy a £39 Roku box which has almost all the same apps as Xbox 360.
At the end of the day it’s highly unlikely to change, regardless of what people want, how vocal they are or how they think they can change Microsoft’s opinion since the infamous Xbox One-Eighty (which was not the total victory it was claimed to be). At some point within a year of their release I will own a PS4 or an Xbox One, dictated by the games exclusive to either console. I’ll pay for PS Plus or Xbox Live because I’ll want to play Halo 5 or the PS4 equivalent online with other people. I guess if I have an Xbox One I’ll get all of the services it hides access to behind its paywall as a consequence of being an online gamer. But for people who aren’t so bothered about playing games online surely the ability to access services they’re already paying for, or services they can access from the smartphone in their pocket, or from any of the other 10 devices that are capable of this in their home…it’s just dumb business sense to force those people to pay for the Gold service.
I can watch my Canucks bomb in 2014 on my PC