Although all three consoles of this generation offer online play, originally Microsoft stood alone in it’s decision to charge Xbox gamers for the ability to join their friends in online multi-player matches. Recently this trend has continued with the announcement of Wii Pay & Playthat will similarly charge gamers an as-of-yet-undisclosed fee to take particular Wii titles online. The PlayStation 3 stands alone as the only console that gamers are not asked to pony up any dough whatsoever for online multi-player support.
At present, Microsoft feels confident that the market can sustain the $50 they ask of their Gold members annually. After all, Xbox LIVE offers 360 owners a few things console gamers can’t get elsewhere, like player screening, TrueSkill matchmaking, and a reputation system that encourages everybody to play nice. Regardless of whether or not you feel the subscription fee is justified, Microsoft’s success with their LIVE service established an important precedent: It’s OK to charge people to play games with one another. Sony has been promoting the fact that they don’t charge people to use the PlayStation Network, but currently the PS3’s online gaming experience is lacking many of LIVE’s popular features, prompting many Xbox fans to declare, “You get what you pay for.”
However, Sony might just have an ace up their sleeve that could change this pay-to-play paradigm. Home, their free social network which has been in the public eye since its unveiling last March, is poised to launch with a whole slew of features that should give LIVE and Wii Pay & Play a run for their money. Features like the ability to access your friends list from within a game, free social spaces, a trophy system, and live blogging tools that let you upload your Home content to a Sony-hosted website (and vice versa) should offer PS3 owners an experience that matches (or even surpasses) the experience available to LIVE’s Gold subscribers but without any added cost to consumers. Although Home users can spend real-world dollars to pimp out their virtual space with digital furniture and clothes for their avatar, such expenditures are entirely optional.
Xbox 360 loyalists on video game community forums often dismiss PlayStation Home as little more than a Second Life knock-off with little chance of supplanting LIVE’s status as the most full-featured online service available to console gamers. This dismissal from Xbox enthusiasts is curious considering that all three hardware manufacturers are adaptive entities that constantly change their features and services to remain competitive in today’s dynamic console market. When I recently talked to Major Nelson about the possibility of LIVE becoming free should Home prove to be a success, he simply stated, “Microsoft will respond to the market.” Make no mistake, if Home is a huge hit for Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft may be forced to adopt a similar free model in order to keep up with increased expectations, benefiting all budget-conscious gamers regardless of their platform of choice.
Ultimately, it’s all about the accepted market standards. Whereas Microsoft raised the bar regarding online features, Sony is attempting to match (and improve upon) that standard by providing much of what LIVE offers but at a lower price. Meanwhile, Nintendo seems to be trying the “one foot in, one foot out”approach by only charging people on a game-by-game basis. This strategy affords Nintendo the luxury of abandoning Wii Pay & Play all together in the event that their new online solution doesn’t prove lucrative. If you’re an Xbox 360 or Wii owner who doesn’t want to pay for online play, (and what person in their right mind does?) you’d better pray that Home is a smash success. If Home does as well as Sony hopes, we may even see Microsoft and Nintendo create virtual (and hopefully free) social spaces of their own.