It’s Time to Rethink Premium Online Gaming Services

While Xbox Live wasn’t the first online game service for a console (that honor goes to a short-lived modem device for the Famicom) or the most revolutionary console online service (that goes to the Dreamcast and SegaNet) it was the one that convinced most people that online console gaming was going to be a big deal.

The funny thing is that most people thought that Xbox Live was doomed to fail. Every console online service up until that point had failed to find a large enough audience and many felt that console newcomer Microsoft was in over their heads by pushing the service as a selling point. Critics also laughed at the service’s broadband internet requirements as so few households were broadband equipped at that time.

However, Xbox Live had two aces up its sleeve that no other console online service in the past had ever played; It was easy to use and it was free.

You didn’t need to buy an add-on or pay a monthly service fee to use Xbox Live. You just hooked your console up to the internet and started playing. PC gamers had known this joy for years, but this was a literal game changer for the console scene. Even the much more popular PS2 required the use of a cumbersome add-on device that didn’t’ benefit from the service feature of Xbox Live.

Over time, however, things changed. As the services offered by Sony and Microsoft’s online programs grew, the companies began informing gamers that it was no longer viable for them to offer these online services for free. Instead, gamers would need to pay a monthly fee once again.

People were outraged. Who wants to pay for something they had been legally using for free? Eventually, a compromise was reached. Yes, you would have to pay to play games online, but you wouldn’t have to pay to use services like Netflix. Furthermore, Sony and Microsoft would give out free games every month to premium subscribers.

At the time, people accepted the arrangement. In retrospect, we all got royally screwed.

At present, Sony is raising the price of their PlayStation Plus service in Europe and possibly elsewhere. Nintendo is lazily introducing their own premium online service that is lowlighted by some truly awful voice communication features. Meanwhile, Microsoft – and others – have begun offering additional game streaming services for an extra fee.

Why are they doing this? Because they can. Consoles are closed hardware meaning that there’s nothing stopping their manufacturers from charging for whatever they please.

Even if you accepted this long ago, it’s starting to make a whole lot less sense now. Sony originally justified their use of the service by stating that it would allow them to innovate online services. Those innovations have come slow if they’ve come at all. Meanwhile, prices continue to rise.

It’s clear that something has to give. Either Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft need to find a way to offer console gamers services that PC gamers and free online users couldn’t possibly enjoy or consumers need to start thinking twice before they automatically renew their services once again.

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Matthew Byrd

Matthew Byrd

Matthew Byrd covers the gaming industry including indies, consoles, PCs, iOS and Android apps, as well as topics related to entertainment and technology. He also writes for IndieGameSource and DenOfGeek, and has his own blog at PixelCritique.com.

4 Replies to “It’s Time to Rethink Premium Online Gaming Services”

  1. Matt says:

    The first service may have been PlayCable for the Intellivision in 1981:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PlayCable

    Personally I wish there were two tiers of PS+, like a basic model and then (cheesily, but in keeping with Sony name schemes), a “Pro” model, where the Pro version could feature free games, online tournaments, E3 access, PS Now rentals, free movie rentals, etc., and the Basic model would just feature online and price discounts.

    1. Matt says:

      I should add that the name doesn’t really fit anymore. “PS+” sounds catchy out loud, sure, but the word “plus” means something “a little extra.” It means non-essential, but a little more… whereas the PS+ service is practically essential to enjoy the PS4 since so many of the games feature online. That’s why I feel there should be two models: a real PS+ (“Pro”) that gives the extras like free games, but a basic cheaper model that mostly just offers online (and perhaps price discounts).

      It creates complication though. One way they do prices on the store is to show the yellow PS+ discounted version right next to the regular sale price, to show what you’d be getting if you subscribed. This would create confusion if my idea was adopted, with two tiers. So I don’t know what the solution is.

      It often feels wrong that you’re paying extra for online when you’re already paying online for your ISP. For instance, if you buy a movie through Sony’s digital store on PS4 you can stream it whenever you want without being subscribed. But if you buy a digital game full price you cannot play online even once without subscribing.

      1. Kevin says:

        That’s a terrible analogy and doesn’t fit the case here at all. You are paying your ISP for access to the internet, you are paying sony/MS for access to their servers (along with other benefits to this membership price). Look at this way, your ISP is the Bar you go to and the VIP lounges are the services. Just because you’re in the bar it doesn’t mean you get to go everywhere you want. To that end, no I can’t explain why PC gamers can mostly play online for free over console gamers. There *is* no explanation other than sony/MS want to charge for it and they can.

  2. DarthDiggler says:

    @Matthew Byrd

    “At the time, people accepted the arrangement. In retrospect, we all got royally screwed.”

    What data are you drawing upon to suggest this is a valid conclusion? The current form of PSN and Xbox Live in the X360 and XB1 days offer way more features for gamers than free services we have used before. PSN now has a full infrastructure like Xbox gamers enjoyed last generation (and this generation). A big part of that infrastructure is Matchmaking servers. Many games in the PS3 and PS2 era would rely on 3rd party infrastructures and the online service was pretty bare bones. Sony and MS were smart to make a premium network available for their audiences in order to enhance the quality of online games and better control the experience (which opens both companies up to liabilities).

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