Experienced Points

What’s Wrong with Xbox Live?


As I said in my comic, I’m not really upset about the Xbox Live price hike. As others have pointed out, this price hike very closely matches the inflation we’ve experienced since the service launched in 2002. I pay my Microsoft Xbox tax the same as everyone else [that has a gold membership] and I don’t dislike the price enough to cancel it. My problem isn’t the expense, it’s what the service can’t (or refuses) to do.

For example, did you buy the Orange Box? Rumor is the thing was pretty good. If you own it, then Valve has free stuff to give you. Updates. New content. Gameplay tweaks. New ending for Portal. Also a nice bunch of maps, weapons, and crazy hats for Team Fortress 2. Valve has made all this content, and they’re just giving it away to everyone who already owns the game. Except, not to Xbox users. They’re not allowed to simply give away free updates on Xbox Live. Think about that. We pay Microsoft $60 a year. Valve has to give Microsoft a cut of the games they sell on the platform. Microsoft is taking money from both sides of this equation, and yet they won’t allow Valve to simply give us something for free. That’s like charging kids and parents admission to Christmas morning and then not allowing anyone to give presents.

Yes, I know. Bandwidth costs money and so on. But the funny thing about bandwidth is that on the PC side, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. Valve shoulders the cost of all the bandwidth without going broke.

PC players also don’t pay for the privilege of multiplayer. We pay for servers. Someone forks over some money every month to run a server, and other players connect to the server. Since they’re paying the bill, the person running the server has the power to run the thing the way they like. They can moderate in-game chat to weed out idiots. They can only allow their friends in. They choose the maps and the game type and generally act as host, moderator, and referee. If you don’t like the way they run things on a given server you leave and find another one.

Finding a server that suits your taste is like finding a favorite bar, club, or pool-hall. You get to know the regulars and you know what you’re in for when you sign on. Some servers are friendly, low-key places and other servers are cutthroat madhouses of profanity and screaming. The beauty is that nobody is forced to play in an environment they don’t like. Relaxed players can enjoy a friendly game and hardcore players can do their thing without some nanny telling them to watch their language. Everyone plays. Everyone gets what they want. And it’s all free for the players.


But on the Xbox side, there aren’t dedicated moderators for each and every server, and Microsoft wisely is staying out of the business of encouraging good manners. Which means every game will always sink to the lowest common denominator. People (myself included) often make fun of the stereotypical bratty Xbox hellion. But the truth is that I doubt there’s all that much difference between Xbox and PC players. It’s just that PC servers have moderators.

We’ve all seen internet forums gone bad. It’s accepted wisdom that you can’t run a forum without moderators, and the same is true of gaming servers. Imagine that we had two forums: An un-moderated one for vegetarians and a carefully moderated one for steak lovers. When the vegetarian forum becomes a boiling cauldron of hate, racism, pornography, and shock pictures, I don’t think it’s fair to blame vegetarians. I’m sure there are nice people that own Xboxes. (I do.) But they aren’t going to say much if everyone else is filling chat with homophobic bile.

Microsoft is charging us money to run servers for us when the community would gladly bear that expense themselves. And do a better job of it. All we need is for Microsoft to let us.

Obviously Xbox Live works differently than the PC world. Microsoft has to pay for bandwidth and run the servers, so we do expect them to charge something for that. But their system could be better (an more profitable) if they gave players the tools to run the show themselves.

Imagine if Microsoft allowed players to “sponsor” a server. You pay some extra monthly fee. (In the PC world the fee is based on the game and how large the server is. If you just want a six-person server with your friends, it might run you something like $8 a month. If you want a full-on public server for 16 people, you might pay $20 or so.) Then you get an instance of a game where you have all the admin powers. You can set the maps and the game mode and boot or mute at will. If you want to run a popular server, then you put the time into keeping people happy so they’ll come back. If you’re a jerk, nobody will visit and you’ll be paying to hang out on an empty server alone. Microsoft would make more money, the server admins would get to run their own game, players would have a better experience, and Xbox Live would eventually shake off the reputation as the sewer of online gaming. Everyone would win.

A nice bonus would be that this would be a great way to defray the cost of running old games. Remember back when the Halo 2 servers shut down? Well, there wouldn’t be a need to shut them off if they were still paying for themselves because dedicated fans were willing to shell out $20 a month to keep a game running. And if nobody is willing to pay, then nobody cares anyway. A game could fade away without Microsoft looking like a bad guy.

Sadly, none of this is possible within the current console architecture. The platform doesn’t have the ability to do this, and (worse) the games don’t have any concept of a “server browser.” But since the big publishers seem hell-bent on making everything, everything multiplayer, all the time, everywhere, then it would be nice if the multiplayer functionality was at least as good as it was on PC’s in the 1990’s. If Microsoft (or Sony) could build this kind of system into the next generation of consoles, I might actually consider using them for online gaming.

I don’t begrudge Microsoft charging money for their service. I just want them to allow us to have the stuff that is already free elsewhere.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, Stolen Pixels, Shamus Plays, and Spoiler Warning. Beat that, fanboy.

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