Author's Note - 3 February 2013: In light of recent comments, I think it's prudent to state that while I am certainly satisfied with the Xbox Live service, I can perfectly understand why others do not and feel that even after what's been said and done, the $5 per month price tag is unjustifiable. That is your opinion and you are welcome to it, but please do not force it down the throats of others and then deafen yourself to other standpoints. This blog was not intended to open a "debate" (when all it really boils down to is a console war and a girth measurement contest) and that remains true - it was intended to be nothing more than an opinion piece, so please do not ruffle your feathers over one's personal point of view. Thank you.
Since 2001 the Xbox console has paved the way in the generation's gaming scene leaving behind a trail of originality and innovation for its neighbours to consume and churn out their own original and innovative take on it. For instance, while the Xbox, however, wasn't the first console to introduce online multiplayer gaming — that honour goes to DEC's PDP-10 followed by the Atari ST — it has revolutionised the way we use the feature today.
Long since the current generation of gaming, there's been an underlying turf war over which console rules vice in the gaming industry. It was originally the Nintendo 64 versus the PlayStation, PlayStation 2 versus Xbox, and Xbox 360 versus PlayStation 3; and while the latter battle has simmered, another has picked up by way of each console's respective online service. It's no surprise that the respective consoles' fan bases go against each other with every piece of ammunition they can find — whether it be pricing, features, customer support, or the look and feel of the interface — it was only a matter of time before it came down to the online services; and it's just as irrelevant and disturbing as the previous wars.
However, before I get too much into it, allow me to first state for the record that while the Xbox 360 is my primary console of choice, I do own and play regularly a PlayStation 3 and a Nintendo Wii. I do not prefer one console over another, but enjoy the three of them for different reasons. I originally purchased a PlayStation 3 for Heavy Rain and other exclusives such as Uncharted and LittleBigPlanet, and I use it primarily for exclusives. I use the Nintendo Wii for exercise games, Just Dance, and WiiSports and it serves as the family console.
I'll begin my rebuttal by quoting an official Xbox advisor — Miranda, a billing and subscriptions representative — that I spoke with earlier today, regarding the charge for the Xbox Live service:
"One reason is security. Xbox Live server maintenance, security, and making the server feature packed or content heavy as Xbox Live. The money that it costs to subscribe to Xbox Live is well rewarded with these extra qualities of service.
Live’s hosting - leaderboards, matchmaking, the lot - are all run by Microsoft rather than by third parties. It means developers 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.
So technically, it's about more security, better features and being more reliable."
In my opinion, that is a more than satisfactory response and completely understandable. However, I should make it a point to state the potentially not-so-obvious and point out that while Miranda mentioned ensuring security, better features for the console, and to ensure reliability, that should not be mistaken for a jab at Sony Computer Entertainment.
Xbox Live's current membership rates go for as low as $5 per month and anywhere between $40 and $60 for a year-long subscription, depending on what form it's purchased (through Xbox Live or Microsoft Xbox cards) and at what time (if there are any sales or promotions present.) It's more than fair pricing for a top quality service and if you wish to avoid paying for a service subscription, then you are more than welcome to take your business to Sony Computer Entertainment and purchase yourself a PlayStation 3.
To quote Brian Barrett over at Gizmodo:
"All that money, just for the privilege of paying another $96 each for Netflix and Hulu Plus, $125 for MLB, $79 for Amazon Prime. And it raises the question: Why would I go to the club that has a cover charge when there are three right next door—each almost exactly identical—that'll let me in for free? Xbox 360 might offer great streaming, but it's also got a hell of a moat."
Now that statement is ignorant and unjustifiable. Firstly, the wording of his statement implies that subscriptions to the aforementioned services are mandatory; they are not. With that being said, not everyone has or wants any or all of those services and just wants to pay the $5 a month to play their games online. Secondly, there are alternatives to using those services: Netflix, Hulu Plus, Major League Baseball and Amazon Prime can be streamed from your computer, mobile device or smart-TV for free (minus the cost of your subscription) and you do not need the Xbox Live service to do it. Do you expect Microsoft to give you their individual service for free just because you're already paying for a completely different service that Xbox just happens to have as an additional feature? If you answered yes to that question, you're delusional.
In retrospect, you are paying for the same [free] service provided by Sony Computer Entertainment and Steam, which is the simple ability to play games online. However, Microsoft fairly and understandably justifies their price tag for the aforementioned reasons as well as overlooked features like automated beacons - so you know when your friends wants someone to play a specific game with them - and exclusive discounts on Xbox Live content, plus early access to games, game demos, movies and entertainment. Don't forget the ability to leave feedback on friends and players met online based on positive aspects such as sportsmanship or negative aspects such as aggression. Plus, the fact that you have a ton of more multiplayer-focused online games with gameplay and special features that arguably beat most of what Sony's catalogue can offer.
I should point out that my admiration for the Xbox Live service should not be confused with complacency. I am well aware of Sony's quality PlayStation Network service and I cannot deny the excellence of the PlayStation 3 console, but the fact of the matter is that this entire subject boils down to preference. Those who want to pay the $5 per month for the Xbox Live service are more than welcome to do so and should not be chastised or criticised for it; those who don't wish to pay for an online service have the option of the PlayStation 3 or Steam.
It's fait accompli.
• It's Time for Xbox Live Gold to be Free