Game Theory: Live! (For a Price)

Nathan Edwards

It doesn’t take much to get gamers speculating. Heck, we’re gamers, and speculation is just another kind of mind game. For example, it takes just a brief two-second splash screen at the end of a game trailer to get people talking about the future of online gaming.

Those two seconds come at the end of the new trailer for Shadowrun, an impressive-looking multiplayer shooter coming from Microsoft and FASA. At the bottom of the screen, as a voice-over announces cross-platform gameplay between Windows Vista and Xbox 360, this line appears: “Cross platform play requires Xbox Live Gold account and hard drive (on Xbox 360) or Games for Windows Live Gold account (on Windows).” And that can change the entire equation of online multiplayer gaming.

We’ve been hearing some rumblings about “Live Anywhere” for a while now. It ships with Vista, but full functionality is being implemented gradually. Games for Windows Live will be a part of that implementation. We can look at the Xbox Live model and reasonably speculate that Games for Windows Live Gold will be a subscription service providing a marketplace, lobbies, casual games, and connectivity for multiplayer gaming.

Did you catch the key word in that previous sentence?

Sure you did. It’s “subscription.” Xbox Live Gold costs $50 a year and is the only way Xbox owners can compete online against other players. The free version of Xbox Live offers a limited number of features, such as trailer and demo downloads, and no matchmaking for multiplayer.

Console gamers have been conditioned from the beginning to view multiplayer connectivity as a premium service. PC gamers have not. We play free on any server with low lag, and we not only like it, we expect it. If the MMO boom has taught us anything, however, it’s that there’s gold in them thar hills, and hefty profits to be made hooking gamers up to each other.
The question remains: Will the consolidation of PC gaming under “Games for Windows” branding (even for non-MS titles) eventually lead to a new set of standards in which all PC multiplayer gaming is passed through a subscription service? Is the free ride finally coming to an end?

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