With Nintendo launching the Switch's paid online service in September, for the first time all three of the major consoles are charging players for the ability to play online. But are gamers getting their money's worth?
A necessary evil with freebies to sweeten the deal
I have to admit, I’ve never been keen on having to pay an extra charge to play online. It’s partly the fact that you’re essentially paying a second time to play a game you’ve already bought on a console you’ve paid a few hundred quid for. It’s also partly because as a Yorkshireman I’m genetically inclined to be a tightwad, but let’s not get into that.
Having finally got my hands on a PS4 near the end of last year and subsequently signing up for PS Plus, though, I’ve found my opinions on the matter changing. If it were simply a charge to access online features and nothing else, then the £50 a year price tag would seem fairly ridiculous. But with the added extras that come with the subscription, I’ve started to see it as a much more worthwhile investment.
With PS Plus, you get two or three games for free each month, usually consisting of a few smaller or indie titles and a bigger blockbuster title. This is a great way of expanding your library with both bigger games you might not have gotten around to buying yet and more niche titles you might not have given a chance otherwise. More to the point, the overall value of these games is probably more than what you’re paying in subscription fees, so you’re definitely getting bang for your buck.
Your subscription also opens up a host of extra discounts on the online store, again letting you get hold of big titles at sometimes ridiculously good prices (over Christmas I picked up both Wolfenstein: The New Order and The Old Blood for £7 altogether, and before that Bloodborne and its DLC for something like £12 - bargain!). PC gamers are probably used to this sort of pricing thanks to Steam sales, but console games have always been more expensive to get hold of, so this amount of price-slashing is a welcome addition.
Running and maintaining such an extensive network can't come cheaply, so it only makes sense that the company finances these costs with a steady income from the people actually using the service
Xbox Live Gold similarly offers free games and discounts at a cost of £40 for a 12 month subscription. The page advertising the service on Xbox’s website also shines a light on a reason that online fees are probably becoming something of a necessary evil in the modern gaming age - the “hundreds of thousands of servers” powering Xbox Live (and likewise with Playstation’s online services).
Running and maintaining such an extensive network can’t come cheaply, so it only makes sense that the company finances these costs with a steady income from the people actually using the service rather than relying on sales profits which change from month to month. Bundling in freebies and discounts sweetens the deal for players and helps to justify the cost to them, making it a win-win for both consumer and provider. So in the grand scheme of things, paid online services are a lot more worthwhile than they might first look.
A confusing paywall in an already expensive hobby
Following the month-long PlayStation Network outage in 2011, some Sony fans attempted to spread a message excusing the blunder. They did so by claiming that, because PSN was free, something as reliable as Xbox Live shouldn’t and couldn’t be expected on PlayStation.
Regardless, seven busy Christmas seasons later and the services seem as ropey as ever. Both are now blocked off behind a paywall (not just Xbox Live) and the platforms go into meltdown for the days following an influx of new users. If this is the case, are customers getting any tangible improvements to the online service for the hefty price they pay?
After months of enjoying free multiplayer, many will be questioning the need for a paywall once it's put up
Perhaps surprisingly to many, there are still certain free aspects of online play on both PSN and Xbox live. The only problem is that most players are unaware of this, which introduces confusion in what people actually get for their money.
Take the recent release of Fortnite as an example; for many, it has become the only game they are playing online. However, the majority of these players will be unaware that a PS Plus subscription is entirely unnecessary for Fortnite (along with all other free-to-play games). Instead of choosing to renew the subscription at a later date, many are therefore paying for something that they are not using for months at a time. The soon-to-be-introduced fee for the Switch online service also adds further confusion for more casual users. After months of enjoying free multiplayer, many will be questioning the need for a paywall once it’s put up.
Look instead at the structure of PC multiplayer and it’s clear to see the thriving online ecosystem. Not only are new games available to play online at no additional cost, but communities can keep their favourite retro multiplayer alive with fan-run servers long after official services have been shut down.
With a pastime that is already so expensive, the extra fees for playing online leave a bad impression. When many people are already paying so much money for new games, DLC and loot boxes, it seems disingenuous to lock a multiplayer portion of a game behind yet another paywall. That said, microtransactions are not going away anytime soon, so it also seems likely that paid online is the new norm of the industry.