Story updated below following Microsoft’s reversal on this change.
Microsoft has increased the price of Xbox Live Gold, their online service. It now costs an additional dollar a month if you subscribe monthly, $30 for three months, and $60 for six months. Coincidentally, when I turned on my Xbox Series X for the first time yesterday, I got a special offer to get three months of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for a dollar.
A lot of people just play one game. Whether they're a sports game person, play Fortnite or Call of Duty, or just want to look at the cool cars in Forza, these people know what they like about video games and are satisfied with their game of choice. What many of these games have in common is that they require online services in order to get the absolute bang out of your buck from them. In particular, Fortnite, one of the most popular games in the world, is unplayable without access to multiplayer.
Watching Microsoft raise the price on Xbox Live Gold while knowing that it makes it feel particularly scummy. Last year, the company nixed it's yearly plan for the service. Although you'll be able to use the remaining days in your subscription if you already have one, if you want to re-up you'll have to pay $120 a year in order to play Fortnite. If you go to the Xbox Live Gold website, it's easy to see why: it's plastered in ads for XBox Game Pass Ultimate.
By the numbers, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is a great deal. You get access to over a hundred games for free, as well as getting everything included in XBox Live Gold. With three months free, it comes to just over $135 a year. Sounds great, right? Well, subscription services often obfuscate how much you're actually spending per year by offering these free deals. It's a little bit like looking at an apartment listing and seeing the net effective rent rather than the actual yearly cost of the apartment—they want you to sign up without knowing how much you're really spending. Without those free months, XBox Game Pass Ultimate is $180 dollars a year to subscribe to the service, which is a little bit too rich for my blood. While we're in the middle of a pandemic where thousands of people have lost their jobs, it feels a little weird to make a more cost effective option less visible and more expensive.
Microsoft is clearly very proud of Game Pass, which touts over 15 million subscribers, but it increasingly feels like a way to backdoor a higher annual subscription fee to their users while pretending that they're getting a great deal. As long as Xbox Live Gold exists, free to play multiplayer games on Xbox aren't really free. They cost, at least, $120 in order to have the ability to play them. By essentially bundling XBox Live Gold into the Game Pass Ultimate package, games like Fortnite have become even less free to play on the system. These price changes seem designed to get people to move away from Xbox Live Gold to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, but the maximalist approach doesn't work for players that really just want to play that one game they play with their buddies. Especially if your only other option keeps getting more expensive.
Update, January 25: Microsoft has reversed course on this price increase and has promised that free-to-play games will no longer require Xbox Live Gold. Their full statement is below:
We messed up today and you were right to let us know. Connecting and playing with friends is a vital part of gaming and we failed to meet the expectations of players who count on it every day. As a result, we have decided not to change Xbox Live Gold pricing.
We’re turning this moment into an opportunity to bring Xbox Live more in line with how we see the player at the center of their experience. For free-to-play games, you will no longer need an Xbox Live Gold membership to play those games on Xbox. We are working hard to deliver this change as soon as possible in the coming months.
If you are an Xbox Live Gold member already, you stay at your current price for renewal. New and existing members can continue to enjoy Xbox Live Gold for the same prices they pay today. In the US, $9.99 for 1-month, $24.99 for 3-months, $39.99 for 6-months and $59.99 for retail 12-months.