Make what you will of Sony's embryonic PlayStation Home, the PS3's online matchmaking service ultimately costs nothing, while Microsoft's Xbox Live equivalent reaches into your wallet and extracts $50 annually. It's all a bit strange, really, considering the Xbox's Windows-based sibling, Games For Windows Live, made the transition to "on the house" this summer.
Now Amazon's thrown a $20 curveball at the issue by discounting their Xbox 360 Live 12 Month Gold Card plus 1 Month Bonus card, making the new price just $29.97 -- a 40% markdown.
Temporary one-off vendor sale? Or harbinger of an official Microsoft price drop?
I've asked Microsoft why they won't zero out Xbox Live and personally argued for fee (or at least matchmaking fee) abandonment. The company's response is predictably elusive and generalist. "We're going to continue to deliver even more value to Xbox Live gold subscribers," said Microsoft Senior Global Director of Games For Windows Kevin Ungangst when I spoke with him this summer. "Frankly, Xbox Live members are going to get more people to play with as a result of the GFW Live announcement, and I think that community will get exponentially larger as a result of what we're doing on Windows. They're different services designed for difference audiences that happens to be connected and share a Gamertag."
Cut through the PR flak and the only notable difference is online matchmaking and multiplayer (sorry Netflix, you're a for-money service regardless of Live's cost). The rest, as they say, is noise.
$50 a year is a pittance to some, an unjustified expense to others. The arguments for or against line up accordingly.
Of course PCs offer the same online services and thousands more besides, just not tied up with a neat bow in a simplified format.
That said, is Amazon's $30 a deal? Sure. It's 40 points less than you had to pay 48 hours ago, and for online multiplayer aficionados, Xbox Live isn't optional.
But should online multiplayer cost so much as a dollar? I don't think so. And if Sony drops the price of the PS3 by $100 in April, as some are suggesting they might, don't be surprised if Microsoft's rejoinder involves finally goose-egging Xbox Live...or at least migrating the "online multiplayer" component into its freebie Xbox Live Silver membership column.