Online play became a thing in the console world all the way back in the 6th generation. Both the original Xbox and PlayStation 2 had online capabilities, and it quickly became a very popular and appreciated feature. In fact, the real pioneer of online-capable consoles is actually SEGA’s Dreamcast, which featured a built-in Ethernet port. So yes, we’ve been playing online on consoles for a very long time now. Before, it was great, but now, it’s kind of a bother—if you want it, you’re going to have to pay for it. You can thank Microsoft for that. But, why? Why is it a paid service?
Microsoft’s Xbox Live was the first truly big online console ecosystem. Having first launched in 2002, it blew up in popularity and Microsoft was praised for it. Sony’s PS2 didn’t originally ship with network capabilities, but after the success of Xbox Live, it was implemented in later models. Xbox Live was further improved with the Xbox 360. The community continued to grow, as well as the service itself. Microsoft tried making it even more attractive with its Games for Gold program; offering free games each month to Xbox Live members who paid for the premium ‘Gold’ membership. No doubt, this was done to make the service look more attractive and has continued to act as a way to justify the need of having a paid option in the first place.
Sony launched the PlayStation Network with the arrival of the PS3. The service was behind Xbox Live in its infancy, but gradually become more akin to its competitor as time passed. One advantage that Sony’s service had over Microsoft was that players were not charged if they wanted to play online with their friends. A premium membership was eventually released in the form of PlayStation Plus, which also offered a monthly dose of free games. With the arrival of the PS4, the PS Plus membership became mandatory if one wanted to play online, bringing it even more in-line with Microsoft’s service. But, why?
The servers that are necessary to support an entire network are rather expensive. With that in mind, it’s arguably understandable why these companies charge for their services, but here’s the thing—the precedent has already been set.
Charging for online services boils down to nothing but greed.
Sony went an entire generation not charging for online play, and things were just fine. Seeing that Microsoft was getting away with it, the executives must have figured “Hey, why aren’t we doing that?” And so they did. And the community accepted it. The issue has recently found itself back in the headlines after the company announced that it would be raising the price of the PS Plus membership from $50 USD to $60 USD, once again bringing it more in-line with Microsoft’s service. The fee may be on an annual basis, but that adds up over time, thus the reason why it’s an issue in the first place. Console generations tend to run for 5-6 years. So, let’s say someone got their PS4 or Xbox One on launch day. If they pay more the premium membership each year at full price, that equates to $360 USD over a six-year period, not including taxes. This also doesn’t include the price of the system (varies) and the money spent on games. Gaming is expensive, like most other hobbies. The fact that people have to pay for online services on console is just another bill tacked on to the various other ones that make gaming so expensive.
Both Sony and Microsoft have tried to justify the paid-service with the monthly dose of free games, as already mentioned. But the thing is, most of the games are obscure and/or mediocre, as many have lamented. On top of that, the services themselves really aren’t the best. The PlayStation Network has seen many outages over the years, the worst of which being the massive hack which brought the servers to their knees back in 2014, which also affected the Xbox Live servers as well. XBL has been more reliable than PSN, but even with the premium membership users are getting blasted with ads just about everywhere. On both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One’s Dashboard, ads for all kinds of things, including content unrelated to gaming, is displayed in every possible corner. Usually, with a premium service, a clean, hassle-free experience is offered. An ad-filled Dashboard is the opposite of that. So, again, what are you paying for?
Both Sony and Microsoft offer ‘premium’ memberships for their services, but the value really isn’t worth the price.
There are two other entities who are offering similar online services, yet aren’t charging a dime. Valve and Nintendo. Valve’s Steam service for PC has been considered by many to be the saving grace of PC gaming. Players don’t have to pay a dime to use the service, yet they get all the social features that are found on PSN and XBL, in addition to regular sales which send prices plummeting. As for Nintendo, there’s the Nintendo Network. While not as robust as PSN, XBL or Steam, it is still completely free to all 3DS and Wii U owners with reliable service. Both of these networks have been doing just fine, without nickel-and-diming their customers like PSN or XBL. So, again I ask—what are you paying for?
All it boils down to is pure, unadulterated greed. As expensive as gaming is, Sony and Microsoft see it as nothing more as a minor inconvenience for customers to have yet another bill added on to the laundry list, especially when it’s “only annual”. Microsoft even tried to push it further when it first revealed the Xbox One, as online was going to be required to actually play the games period, not just online. The gaming community snapped back hard, but what if Sony didn’t decide to use that as an informal marketing tactic? What if it had followed in Microsoft’s footsteps? It would have been a lot harder for the community to have fought if Sony was also endorsing the idea. If only this community would fight back against having to pay for online play.
PSN and XBL are great services, but there’s no reason why there should be a fee attached—or at the very least, not one so high. What’s being offered is not worth the price, period. If Valve or Nintendo were charging too, then maybe there would be some justification, but they aren’t—there’s no real reason to. Customers are already paying for their Internet connection, so why should their be another fee on top of that? It doesn’t make any sense. But, all it ultimately boils down is the consumers themselves. You have the power to speak with your wallets. As long as there are a sizable number of people who are paying, then these companies will continue to charge.