Online gaming first hit the scene on the personal computer, opening up a whole new world of video game enjoyment. Instead of getting together with local friends in your mom's basement, you could be alone in that room, but playing the same game with people all around the world.
The next monumental revolution came when online gaming rose in popularity and viability with video game consoles. Again, it opened up the opportunity to challenge and cooperate with other players from every corner of the globe. This is great for everything from Call of Duty to Street Fighter, Guitar Hero to FIFA World Cup Soccer.
Free and Paid Online Service
With today's major home consoles, the big three all offer online functionality right out of the box. However, they go about it in quite different ways. Online gaming is "free" on both the Nintendo Wii and the Sony PlayStation 3, but such is not the case with the Microsoft Xbox 360.
You can get Xbox Live Silver for free, giving you the chance to buy downloadable content and Xbox Live Arcade titles, but you can't play online with others unless you opt for the Gold membership. And that costs you extra money, above and beyond the cost of the system, games, and accessories.
So, the question naturally arises: Is Xbox Live Gold really worth this extra money? What exactly are you getting with Gold on the Xbox 360 that you don't get for free on the Wii or PS3?
You Get What You Pay For?
At the beginning of this current generation, the selling point was that Xbox Live Gold offered a vastly superior experience over the Wii and PS3 online experiences. While some may disagree, that is still partly true today, but it's still difficult justifying the cost when online play is free elsewhere.
Even so, take a look at some of the differences. With the Wii, you have to deal with those messy Friend Codes, which are game-specific and a pain to enter. Even if you encounter a new "friend" in a random matchup, you can't add them without this unique code. You also can't communicate openly with other users, unless you already know them and do so through other channels like Twitter and Skype.
With the Xbox 360, you can add friends simply by finding their usernames (GamerTags). After adding a friend, you can play online with this person in any game without any additional code-entering. You can even add friends that you meet in random matchups and you can communicate -- through text or voice -- via the built-in messaging system. This is above and beyond the in-game chat that you can have with a compatible headset.
Even More Good Stuff with Gold
Want to play a new game with an existing friend? You can do that too, sending a "game invite" through the Xbox 360. The Party Mode improved on this even further, allowing for multiple friends to gather in a virtual room.
What's more, you can manage most of your Xbox Live dealings through a regular Internet connection on any computer too. Log into your account, add and remove friends, check out what they're playing, and more. You can do this with a Silver membership too, though, so it's not really a part of the Gold premium service.
The PS3 is closer in scope to the Xbox 360 than the Wii is, but it still comes up short in a few areas. These cross-game invitations don't work as well and the messaging system is not as up to par. That's opinion, to be sure, but I think it's a valid point.
The Midas Touch
So, is Xbox Live Gold worth the five bucks or so each month? If you play more than a couple hours on your Xbox and want to play online, the answer is yes. It's a regrettable yes, since none of us want to spend cash unnecessarily, but the Xbox 360 is being severely underutilized if you don't opt for Gold.
It would be a completely different argument if the cost of an Xbox Live Gold membership was much higher than it is. As it stands, you're paying about 15 cents a day to access the premium service. Depending on if you can find sales and deals, that price can be even lower. The cost of an annual membership is about the same as one new release title. That's not much.
Is it an extra cash grab on the part of Microsoft? Perhaps, but there are definitely costs involved in managing those game servers and other infrastructure needed to maintain a good online gaming experience. They need to recoup those costs somewhere, somehow.
And don't think that Microsoft is alone on this. There are rumors that Sony will unveil a "premium" version of the PSN service at E3 2010 in Los Angeles. That sounds a lot like Xbox Live Gold, wouldn't you say?
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