Tarnishing Silver

Written by Imran Khan

When the Fall 2007 firmware update went up on Xbox Live, I rushed to download it for the included DivX support. As I started playing around with the new features, I checked message board threads on the update and discovered that theme packs for Xbox legacy titles are free, namely the theme for Psychonauts. I’m not an obsessive fan of game by any means, but free is free, so why not? When I tried to download the pack, however, a strange message appeared. A blade popped up on the right side of my TV, informing me that I did not have the necessary membership to download this. “Did something happen to my account?” I asked the TV, expecting an answer. The answer, however, did not come. At least, not from the TV.

Major Nelson, Microsoft’s internet mouthpiece, announced on his popular blog later during the day that Silver members now had a week-long wait for free content (theme packs, demos, free downloadable content), while Gold users get it immediately. It is a small inconvenience and one that would ultimately never bother most people, but it is utterly nonsensical at the same time. Since the launch of the two-tier system, Microsoft has allowed Silver users to download free content day and date of their Gold brethren, prompting Gold users to question why exactly they were paying $50 a year. Their issues were not without merit: Gold users were paying an annual fee for what PC gamers have been getting for free for years and PS3 users were more or less getting for free now. If you ignore the illogical nature of Nintendo’s online systems, they also offer the same thing Gold is offering at its core, except also for free.

If you had a Live Gold account, you’d wonder what exactly Microsoft is doing with your money, since they did not appear to be offering you much. Apparently Microsoft had the same thought and realized that they needed to make Gold more enticing to not only retain Gold users, but also to entice those Silvers that never made the leap. The solution was inelegant: annoy Silver users in to upgrading, despite what Major Nelson insists is not the motivation. Why add more when you can shift priorities and make people pay for the standard?

Perhaps most confusingly, this rearrangement of permissions was enacted the same day as Bioshock’s “Plasmids and Gene Tonics” DLC, which allowed new items and fixes for the single-player game – which is to say, there is no multiplayer aspect to it at all. For whatever reason, Microsoft would only allow you to download free downloadable content for a single-player game that day if you were already paying them money to play multiplayer games online. I cannot imagine publishers who work to give out free DLC or use demos as means of advertising are pleased that the majority of the user base does not have access to them. Ultimately, Microsoft was stuck between a rock and a hard place. They could no longer pretend that the multiplayer experience alone justified the money spent on a subscription, yet they wanted features that would encourage Silver users, both current and upcoming, to upgrade. Perhaps going about it in the laziest and most annoying way possible was not the best idea.

So how could Microsoft have done it? The obvious solution was to add new features for Gold users without taking away anything from Silver, but doing so may have proven difficult. There’s not a whole lot you can offer people that would adduce reasons for people to pick up Gold over Silver beyond online multiplayer. If someone does not want to play online, myself included, they have no reason to upgrade. The logical idea, then, is to offer things that they are not already doing. Gold users should have been given direct line customer service – basically a Speedy Checkout lane for any technical issues. Microsoft should have separated servers for Gold and Silver users, preventing issues like the Bioshock demo, which took some people almost ten hours to download due to the massive number of users, both Gold and Silver, attempting to obtain it. While it could be argued that the current method also prevents this by keeping Silver users from downloading at the same time as Gold, it is far from ideal, and ultimately becomes a moot point if Microsoft gets their wish and every on-the-fence Silver upgrades to Gold, causing the same problems.

In the end, it almost becomes an issue of principle. One week does not matter all that much. A worst case scenario for Microsoft here is that people forget about the content and simply don’t download it, hurting the publishers’ bottom lines. I doubt it keeps them up at night. Silver users, however, still pay the same amount for their games. Gold users are still not getting anything more to justify their money. The only one who wins here is Microsoft, who has concocted a plan of annoyance to produce more money. If this sticks, one wonders where it will go next. Will Gold users be treated to Friends Lists while Silver users lose theirs? Or customizable dashboards? At what point does someone say enough and Microsoft begins to look at things from a customer-centric point of view?

Imran Khan is an associate editorialist with Advanced Media Network.