Darren G. ponders a life without Gold for Xbox Live.
At the time of writing this, Microsoft no longer consider the phrase “Silver” acceptable for non-paying members of Xbox Live. “Free” is the term and after seven years I have decided to go “Free”, and I am hopeful that this will be without regret.
The decision to bolt a fee on to play multiplayer games seemed acceptable almost eight years ago. Consoles were evolving into something approaching their more sophisticated PC brethren with ethernet ports and wireless adaptors, while games were adding online play and we, the gaming collective, couldn’t be more excited about playing our favourite console games online no matter what the cost.
The Dreamcast kind of started it all for me, despite my lack of love for the machine I distinctly remember loading up my DreamKey to play games of Chu Chu Rocket online, which was free and possibly SEGA’s best move to date. Games like Phantasy Star Online and Quake III: Arena were going online via our affordable consoles in the front room even though our phone bills were going through the roof. We were more than happy with the cost it generated as it allowed us to play co-operatively and take down fantasy beasts of mammoth proportions.
Where it all really kicked off was with the Xbox and its introduction to the Xbox Live service. Games like Climax’s MotoGP: Ultimate Racing Technology were getting retroactively patched to implement an excellent, if slightly wonky online mode and Return to Castle Wolfenstein saw some of the best team-based multiplayer since Counter-Strike on the PC. The ability to freely talk to another player through a rather flimsy headset was incredible, and even though you could mask your voice behind a choice of filters this sure didn’t stop the insults from evolving from text to vocal.
Xbox games were beginning to don a gold banner at the top of the casing to signify games which can take advantage of online capabilities and this, for the first six to twelve months, saw a huge increase in sales as people were bouncing from Live game to Live game and seemingly shepherding friends with them. Simple things as friends lists which displayed what your mates were playing were a stroke of genius and acted as a kind of word of mouth advertising. What’s a better endorsement for a particular game than seeing someone you trust playing it for hours on end?
Every console since then has had some kind of online implementation, albeit not quite as good as Microsoft’s. The knowledge learned from their PC operating system must have helped them create an online service which outclassed their competitors. At least until recently.
PlayStation Plus, while at first was scoffed at by many, is looking more like how online services need to be. It boggles my mind that Microsoft actively lock out the multiplayer side of a game, which you’ve paid for, in this day and age, with a Gold subscription acting like the mother of all online passes with mini ones being included with most games you buy nowadays.
Offering people the ability to play the game online for no extra charge is what needs to happen for Xbox Live, and if people wish to use the extra features or “apps” as they’re known then let them pay for that with a decent offering of games to play while suscribed for no additional charge.
The existence of the PlayStation Network (PSN) – technically now the Sony Entertainment Network (SEN) – has altered my opinion as regards to what I was actually paying Microsoft for. You could argue that the video applications justify some of the cost but then I can use all those on my PC which is hooked up to my TV anyway.
I can’t even remember the last time I actually played an online game on my Xbox 360 console and if I ever do want to check out a multiplayer section of a game it’s never for more than two days at a time. Gears of War 3 is great online but i’ve seen it all before and the same is to be said for 90% of games which come out on every platform so why should I pay for something which others get for free? The longer Microsoft charge £39.99 a year for this service the more it confuses me as they’re really not offering a service which warrants such a price tag.
As I write it is the 20th of March 2012 and I currently have two days to get all my Xbox multiplayer gaming in before my Gold subscription lapses. I’d be very surprised if suddenly become desperate to play the terrible RAGE multiplayer mode which promised so much but resembled a digital turd; great job removing yourself from what you are, id Software. I honestly believe that 1% of your player base is enjoying the car combat multiplayer you so wisely chose to implement in your game.
Next I shall diary my experiences on a daily basis from the 22nd of March onwards just how Microsoft treats me as a “Free” user after seven years as a Gold member. Will the lovely number ‘7’ disappear from next to my Gamertag? Will I get access to leaderboards and what will I be playing my games on in the future if a multiplayer need should arise? Hopefully I can provide a concise picture of what happens to me when my online gaming experience becomes free across all platforms.
This is not an article about how terrible Xbox Live is, because it’s not. Think of it more as a document about how a gamer such as I has decided to remove something that has been a staple part of his diet for seven years. How will it affect me? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure at this point myself, but I am eager to find out.
Two days on and judgement day is upon me . For once, the automatic renewal process has popped up with a warning before taking the money instantly from my bank account. Prior to this I remember Microsoft trying to take money from a credit card which no longer existed and the bank charging me for the failed transaction. I click ‘No’ after a curiously lengthy sign-in process and the console proceeds to sign me out and sign me back into another, longer sign-in process.
Immediately I am greeted with golden logos and symbols all over the first page on the dashboard acting like I’ve never been part of their Gold service. I imagine it feels like your parents refusing to pay your private school fees any longer because you didn’t really play with anyone at play time and on your way out, the children inside immediately forgetting who you are. It felt a little odd to be honest. I frantically mashed my right bumper to tab over to the apps page to see which ones are locked out from me. I feared the worst.
Channel 4, YouTube and some other apps which I didn’t really care for were, as expected, locked out, but the shocking revelation that Nextflix, a service I pay for monthly, threw a disgusting message at me that I needed to be a Gold member in order to watch films! This is obviously Microsoft slapping the value add onto their Gold service but I can, and intend to, boot up another gaming device such as my Wii or PC to watch Netflix. Do Microsoft really think that anyone has signed up for Xbox Live Gold to watch Netflix only? Probably not.
Another aspect which has pushed me away from the service are the rather unapologetic adverts it throws at the paying member. Particularly since the recent dashboard update the console delights in shoving things down my throat which I have no interest in, such as Glee or I don’t know, deodorant. Wait, maybe that last one is kind of essential, but is it really relevant to my gaming experience? (Yes! Have you ever smelled a gamer? Ed.) You could argue that Xbox Live isn’t the only place you’ll see adverts after paying to access something; cinema and subscription TV have been doing it for as long as I can remember and that also winds me up.
Where things will become interesting is what happens when I boot my game of choice. Xbox 360 games not only have online passes in many titles, but the brick wall of the Xbox Live Gold online pass has never really occured to me until today. I booted up Perfect Dark to see if I was still reigning champion on my friends list and approximately placed two thousandth in the world amongst half a million people. Much to my relief I am still there, unaffected by my grubby Silver status. Does this hold true for the recent SSX game which thrives on leadboards or “RiderNet” as they call it?
So far, being a free member isn’t as offensive an experience as I thought it would be. I fully expect phone calls from desperate Xbox Live team members asking me why I have left, just like Future Publishing did when I stopped subscribing to one of their magazines to who I explained, “Well, because demos are downloadable now.” I swear I heard a tumble-weed pass down the phone line. What is quite surprising is the incentive you’re given to come back via the new rewards system. Logging into Xbox.com I am greeted with a little box letting me know if I was to come back, they’d give me 200 Microsoft Points. That’s brilliant! Why don’t I just become a free member again and get points back? Well, that’s probably the entire point right there. They want me back to quit to come back again.
Xbox.com has become a great site to easily navigate the marketplace for both Xbox 360 and PC, to check out new games and deals. Those deals which are Gold exclusive. I am slowly starting to seeing the benefit behind being a Gold member again and it’s only been one day. Minerva’s Den is only 400 Microsoft Points for Gold members. Incredible value but I can’t help feel that Sony’s online offering is slightly better with full “free” games for as long as you’re a subscriber, as well as early access to games such as Journey and other little touches here and there which prove worthwhile.
After about a weeks worth of a Goldlessness I am beginning to see the benefits of remaining a paid-up member but only really to those who buy and play videogames on Xbox 360. With a capable PC and the upcoming release of Blizzard’s Diablo III I don’t really feel the need to.
There are however some cracking XBLA titles on the way and if the multi-player turns out to be a riot for Trials Evolution then maybe I’ll resurface for the months I want to pay. It makes me realise that it’s still a fantastic service for those with only an Xbox 360 in their household and is recommended for anyone but those like myself who use their PC in conjunction with their TV and don’t play multiplayer games on the console all that much. However if that is you then it’s too easy to let it roll over to the next year – I know, I have been there – but make sure you’re paying for the service for the right reasons, and not simply because you can’t be bothered to change it.