Microsoft’s Xbox division doesn’t follow anyone’s lead. Xbox Live has been the “gold” standard for console online gaming for more than a decade now, and, as long as you’re willing to pay the yearly fee, you’re typically getting the most robust online gaming and apps available.
Sony has been slow to roll out comparable online functionality, more or less giving up on some features until PS4 rolls around (like cross-game chat). But what they lack in features they make up for with the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection. By giving subscribers free games on a regular basis, Sony has flipped the script, giving subscribers value they can see. After all, “Free games!” is a much better sales pitch than nebulous “great features.” This has forced Microsoft to change their tune and follow suit, at least temporarily. Now that Microsoft’s Games with Gold service is in full swing, how does it stack up to PlayStation Plus?
The core difference between PlayStation Plus and Games with Gold is in the definition of “free” games. PlayStation Plus offers games for free as long as you download them when they’re being offered and you then maintain a membership. Stop paying and you lose access to the games, but you can always starting paying again later to get your games back. With Games with Gold, as long as you have a Gold account when the game is available and you download it in that timeframe, you keep the game forever, whether your account lapses or not.
That’s a distinct difference in approach, as Sony is offering more of a subscription service while Microsoft is just giving subscribers free games they get to keep forever. If a subscriber decides to stop paying for Xbox Live Gold, they won’t lose their games as a result. For those who like to maintain their games over the long-term, years after the console is still relevant, Games with Gold seems like the more reliable offering.
The problem is that the quality of the games and frequency with which they are released can’t even be compared. PlayStation Plus, from a pure game quality standpoint, is an infinitely better value, offering subscribers games that were released within the last couple of years. Games with Gold’s offerings — Fable 3, Defense Grid, Assassin’s Creed II, and Halo 3 — are ancient by comparison.
The value of PlayStation Plus is taken to an even greater extreme when you consider that free games are currently being offered across both PS3 and Vita. Owners of both, especially early adopters of PS Plus, most likely have a huge backlog of free games to play. The Xbox offerings, by comparison, have a lot of catching up to do.
It’s possible that Microsoft has no intention of catching up considering the games are being given away for free, to keep forever. In fact, Games with Gold may not even continue past the end of the year or carry over to Xbox One. Games with Gold is more like a gift for subscribers, rather than an incentive to keep subscribing.
With Games with Gold potentially being a temporary experiment, I wonder if the quality of the games or the freshness of them will improve. Assassin’s Creed II and Halo 3 are no doubt phenomenal games, but who doesn’t already have them if they ever wanted them?
In some sense, the battle between the two services isn’t a battle at all. PlayStation Plus has already run longer than Games with Gold may ever run, easily offering more games at a given time than Games with Gold may ever offer in the span of its promotion.
But let’s suppose Microsoft decides to continue Games with Gold. Then, the battle won’t truly begin until PS4 and Xbox One are released. After all, neither console can offer incentives in the form of back catalogs since they aren’t backwards compatible. If PlayStation Plus and Games with Gold continue with their regular release schedules in the face of a newly launched console and light launch libraries, it seems they’d quickly be offering their entire launch line-up of games for free.
That could be the reason Microsoft has no plans to continue into next-gen, as they don’t want to give away all of their new, shiny games. Sony has already started to address this, indicating that a special PlayStation Plus version of Driveclub will be available at launch. It won’t have all of the content of the retail version, and players who want to see it all may have to pay a little to unlock everything. If this is the direction for PS Plus in the opening months of PS4, one has to wonder if people won’t feel a bit cheated. After all, PS3 and Vita owners have gotten quite used to the steady flood of free games, and they might not be so happy when the offers start coming with some extra catches. Then again, it seems like Sony will once again be the only one offering anything like this, so beggars can’t be choosers when it comes to freebies.
The bottom line is that Games with Gold is a half-cocked response to PlayStation Plus. It has a unique quirk in that it lets you truly keep the games forever, but the quality of the games just isn’t there. With Games with Gold operating as more of a half-year promo than a true service, it’s almost unfair to compare the two. Though, one also has to wonder why Microsoft invited the comparison at all if they weren’t willing to step up to Sony’s level. As it stands, if you have both consoles, it might be worth keeping Xbox Live Gold through the duration of the promotion, but PlayStation Plus is the service you’ll want to be subscribing to for the long haul.
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