Sunday, 19 July 2009

Playing online: a right or a privilege?

Most of us now take for granted that games we buy will have an online feature letting us connect to the wonderful internet and hear the screams of ten year olds beating each other to death with pixels. It almost seems to be a pre-requisite these days, and with online cooperative modes now seeming to be the flavour of the year, whether you want to compete or work alongside other people, we are all being targeted to make the leap to playing online.

Being a PC gamer longer than anything else, the concept is not entirely new to me. I remember waiting until off peak hours so the 56k connection would not cost so much as I played Counterstrike 1.5 over the World Opponent Network (WON). This was pre-broadband popularisation and pre-Steam.

When broadband and Steam were at my finger tips though, there was so much fun to be had. With no monetary restrictions on gaming time, and a still developing but relatively good online gaming service, I was set, and the rest, as old people say, is history. Roll on seven years and here we are, with popular games such as Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead and Counterstrike: Source all free to play (once bought of course) over Steam, and many more games using similar systems, I find myself asking one question. Why should Xbox 360 owners have to pay for such services?

It just puzzles me how Xbox Live Gold is so popular considering that players have to pay for something that all other systems can do for free. If everyone on earth was me, there would be riots about such a thing, Xbox effigies would be burned and cars tipped over. In fact, it really is a good thing that there is just one of me.

I can see an attraction to Xbox Live itself, with persistent stat tracking, achievements, friends lists, a reputation system and gamerscores, which help to show what some people value most in life. In fact, as far as I can tell, it offers a very similar service to Steam. I’m not saying that the system isn’t good, I’m just not entirely sure why it should be paid for. At the end of the day, it is the only service around on the 360 that lets you play online, and so there is no alternative but to pay it for the privilege. In fact, I might try and bring a new saying in to use; “Life’s not fair, just look at Xbox Live”.

The service, as you may or mayn’t, be aware costs £10 for three months or about £35 for a year, which is a saving of about £5 if you do buy it annually. Maybe the price is not that unreasonable, considering what you get, but £35 is enough for a new game, and Steam is free. I suppose it is just the principle that irks at me the most.

At the end of the day though, are most of us happy to pay that amount just because we have to, or is the difference in quality so noticeable that £35 a year is justified? Maybe it is just the way companies run. Valve has a history of amazing bargains, with offers such as the Orange Box that offered Team Fortress 2, Portal and the three games from the Halflife 2 saga for £25. So Steam being free comes as no surprise, where as Microsoft has more than enough critics that would insist they are money grabbing, but unfortunately that battle has tainted numbers due to the ever long fan boy console war.

For £35 a year, you could argue that you are increasing the replay value of every online enabled game you play by at least 50%, which isn’t bad really. Will this trend catch on though? Have us PS3, Wii and PC gamers been spoiled for too long? I certainly hope not, and such a move could drive a limit on the number of consoles people own. I can’t imagine many multi system owners would be happy to subscribe for online play on four different machines.

This post can also be found on GhostStorm.

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