For nearly two decades, Xbox Live Gold has been a mandatory add-on for Xbox online gaming. But time eventually comes for us all, and with the rise of Xbox Game Pass, Xbox Live Gold has become seemingly redundant.
It’s not because online multiplayer isn’t a necessity. Online multiplayer isn’t going anywhere, obviously, and Microsoft certainly isn’t making any moves publicly or privately that might suggest otherwise.
But what is increasingly redundant is the value of Xbox Live Gold as is. Consider the situation for someone upgrading to a next-gen console in a few months. Should the current crop of services remain the same — and I’ll argue why that’s likely to change soon — this is the outstanding offer.
Even just heading to the Xbox Live Gold page includes an upsell for Xbox Game Pass and/or Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, the latter of which incorporates Xbox Live Gold anyway.
On a pure surface level, that’s all well and good. It’s been common knowledge within the gaming industry, and among plenty of consumers, that console makers lose money on every console sold. Where Xbox and Sony make their money back is through services, sales on their ecosystem and, increasingly over the last few years, microtransactions. So as grating as it was for the Xbox One and PS4 era for both companies to be charging for online multiplayer, most gamers begrudgingly accepted it: Online multiplayer was still essential, and for a while the free games that came with Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus were so good that the value worked out on the other end.
But Microsoft’s services story is remarkably different in 2020.
The changed element in all of this isn’t necessarily the utility 0f Xbox Game Pass, as good a service that has become. What’s changed is Microsoft’s approach to the PC, and their idea of exclusivity.
In years past, Halo Infinite, Sea of Thieves and games like Everwild would launch on Xbox as pure exclusives, or timed exclusives the way Rise of the Tomb Raider did. That’s how you sell consoles, the traditional orthodoxy goes. Here’s games you can only get on this platform, titles that make it the best platform to play games.
That’s how the sell has usually been.
Microsoft’s messaging now is that they don’t really give a shit. Buy an Xbox, don’t buy an Xbox. It doesn’t matter to them. It’s all part of the Microsoft services ecosystem anyway. Even gamers that don’t buy an Xbox are generally using Windows in some way, shape or form. And when you add xCloud into the mix — for gamers outside of Australia anyway — it shows how Microsoft just wants to ensure that your services can reach you, regardless of device.
And that’s kind of the kicker now, because the devices are no longer even.
Paying for online multiplayer made sense when you lived purely within the walled garden of a console. It makes no sense when customers in one part of your ecosystem have to pay for access when others don’t. PC users, for instance, don’t need Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. If they’re not playing on Xbox, the upsell makes no sense. Online multiplayer is free as a part of Windows, and obviously online access isn’t an add-on for those playing on mobile devices.
So with Xbox Game Pass becoming a stronger services story for Microsoft, it’s looking more and more logical that Xbox Live Gold should be killed off. It’s hard to justify charging Xbox users for online multiplayer when those playing on PC, who still count as Xbox users, don’t have to pay.
But there’s also the free games. What’s being added to Xbox Game Pass is increasingly more interesting, more relevant and more worthwhile than the monthly additions to Xbox Live Gold. Removing Xbox Live Gold makes the management on Microsoft’s end a little simpler — there’s no need to curate two sets of games for users. And Xbox users won’t be upsold for two services at once, which is a stronger marketing pitch.
Of course, the only thing that makes all of this work is if online multiplayer becomes a free option on the Xbox Series X, and the entire Xbox ecosystem, going forward.
The company is already moving in this direction. A change to Microsoft’s services agreement has removed references to “Xbox Live” in lieu of “Xbox online service”, which is generally because the term Xbox Live won’t be used going forward. But it’s also logical sense.
Microsoft wouldn’t want to be in the position to charge Xbox users both for multiplayer and Xbox Game Pass. Xbox Game Pass is a much better story, and a huge economic success for the company, so why not make that the primary service going forward? It means Microsoft can tell the mainstream market, families, and those disconnected with the gaming world, that the Xbox Series X won’t charge for online multiplayer — while PlayStation will.
It’s an interesting position for Microsoft to be in. If you can wrap your head around the idea of a company being solely focused on the money you spend within an ecosystem, it makes the lack of exclusives a little more logical. The psychology is that people will spend more money over the longer term than what they would have if there was an upfront investment. We see this not just in free-to-play games, but within the whole Windows ecosystem, and to a degree, the Windows operating system itself.
So the simplest way to ensure all of this works is to open the gates and make online multiplayer free again. Just think about it. If Microsoft can entertain the free-to-play logic for Halo: Infinite, then surely they’d be thinking along the same lines for every other Xbox game too.