In the many nooks and crannies of the web – elbow bends of the tubes? – where I spend my time, many people rage on endlessly in the debate about Xbox Live and the Playstation Network. Most of the arguments are exceedingly partisan, unfortunately, with little more than the usual Xbox vs. PS fanboyism running rampant. They were stirred up again by the recent 2.41 firmware patch for the PSN, featuring the introduction of the trophy system, the announcement that the Windows equivalent of XBL is becoming a free service, and the announced changes coming to the 360 Dashboard. They’ve caused me to think a fair bit about this question again recently. I’ve been an XBL user for about 9 months now, and a PSN user since the PS3 launch.

The first part of the debate is free vs. paid. XBL charges $50/year for the Gold membership, whose basic attraction is the ability to play online. The Silver membership gives you full access to most of XBL’s features, including gamerscore, messaging, store downloads… well, pretty much everything except online gaming (Gold also gives you video chat and slightly earlier access to demos and some videos). What sticks in a lot of people’s craw here is that the one part that most people want access to – online gaming – is the part you have to pay for. This makes perfect sense. Despite what most of us in the more hardcore gaming community would like to believe, the vast majority of people who own these consoles couldn’t give a fiddler’s fart for online gaming. Consider that there’s 10+ million 360s sold, but less than 3 million XBL gamertags (at least according to MyGamerCard.net’s statistics). Most people – the majority – can’t even be bothered getting the Xbox online. Of those that do go online, only a percentage care about gaming online. Even a lot of hardcore gamers, myself included, have not caught the online bug in a big way – while I do play online, I’m primarily a single-player gamer.

Now, PSN is completely free, and everyone can play online for free. Everyone once had equal access to demos, game videos, and so on, though the recently lauched $25/year Qore video magazine probably indicates an eventuality like XBL, where those who buy Qore get demos, videos and so on a week or so before the people who don’t have it. In addition, some first-party PS3 games like Warhawk and Resistance:FOM feature dedicated servers, providing a smoother online experience than the p2p connections most PS3 and all XBL games use.

Here’s where we come to the debate; those against paying for XBL point out that Gold gives you very little over Silver; mostly, to almost everyone, it’s the online multiplayer that they’re nabbing you for $50/year, while everything else is free. They point out that PSN’s online play is free, and sometimes even better than XBL’s. What they’re missing is that Gold members aren’t just paying for online multiplayer – they’re subsidizing the Silver customers, and most importantly, the achievement system. The $50/year that Gold members pay is not “paying” for online multiplayer, it has provided the infrastructure and service that all members, Gold and Silver, enjoy.

See, while the numbers indicate that the vast majority of 360 owners don’t care about playing online, everyone gets achievements. Those who haven’t used the achievement system underestimate its power. It’s not just “gamerscore whores” and the like who are all about the achievement system. Not many people I know – myself included, despite my 10k+ points in 8 months – chase gamerscore. But achievements themselves – not the point score associated with them – were an absolutely genius stroke for one reason; it enhances the re-playability of games enormously, especially to those of us who prefer story-driven single-player games.

Sure, if you want to really beat the hell out of yourself trying to beat the hostage/airplane scenario that forms the epilogue of sorts for CoD4 on the hardest difficulty on PS3… you can. You may have great fun doing it. But do it on XBL… you get a little reward for it. A little badge that goes into your XBL profile (and a nice chunk of points added to your score), shows your buddies you pulled it off. Or maybe with a game like Guitar Hero it gets you to do a couple amusing things you wouldn’t have tried without the achievement there to shoot for, like rocking out “Talk Dirty to Me” on Expert with the sound turned off, or trying to top 200k on “Cult of Personality” without using star power.  Who would be crazy enough to try beating Bioshock on Hard with the Vita-Chambers turned off if it didn’t get you that sweet “Brass Balls” achievement and a cool 100 points? It adds depth to many games. Sure, it’s not always perfect – the ludicrous achievements in Guitar Hero 3, most of which pretty much require you to be able to 5-star the whole game on Expert without breaking a sweat, or the plain broken games that let you get all 1000 points in 10 minutes, or the ones that reward all 1000 points just for completing an 8-hour campaign on any difficulty – but most, especially those released in the past year or two, balance it pretty well, enhancing the continued enjoyment of these games after you’ve finished them for the first time.

Now, the PS3 is finally playing catch-up to this idea, with the introduction of the trophy system. Maybe the trophy system will eventually be something like the achievement system, but it’s a long way off. They’ve made two major mistakes with it – one, that it wasn’t in place with the PS3’s launch, and two, that they don’t require games released on their platform to support it. The most avid gamers, who have been playing the PS3 a year and a half now, have hundreds of hours spent on the PS3 with nothing to show for it in their profiles. One guy may game twice as next as the other, but if he prefers games that haven’t chosen to support the trophy system, his “level” (however this will eventually work) doesn’t necessarily indicate anything but that he’s not much of a fan of the games which support trophies.

Meanwhile, the attitude seems to be that XBL should be charging for anything but playing online multiplayer – charge for videos, charge for video chat, whatever, but that it should be the one aspect of XBL that should be free. This is based partially on an idea that since most online multiplayer (outside MMORPGs) on the PC platform has always been free, online multiplayer should always be free. Here we come to the very reason why it’s not free – as already outlined above, most people don’t care about multiplayer. But most people who regularly participate in gaming discussion on the internet in no way represent the “average” gamer, but the dedicated and avid gamer – the “hardcore”. Furthermore, the “hardcore” also care about achievements (usually much more than the casual player) and the like, but does not necessarily have any more interest in high-def game trailers and XBL video chat, or similar services. So which makes more sense – to have the small percentage of people who care about these services pay for them, while everyone gets free multiplayer, even those who don’t want it – or to have that portion of 360 owners, somewhere around 1/3 of them, pay to subsidize all the other features that XBL boasts? Who’s more likely to pay $50/year, the guy who doesn’t play online but wants to video chat to his college buddy once in awhile, or the hardcore gamer who simply can not live without their online CoD4 or Halo 3?  Quite clearly, MS has reached the same conclusion I have – that the only part of XBL that really makes sense to charge money for is the multiplayer, as the people who want it are a minority population yet most likely engaged enough to fork over their $50/year, grumbling about it notwithstanding.

I’d go on at length discussing the differences between the services, but honestly, there’s no point. I know because I was a PS3 owner reading about XBL for months, always saying, “It can’t be that big a deal.” Well, it is. It’s hard to describe why, but spend some time with both services, and the PS3 one just starts to feel decidedly ghetto – slick and pretty, for the most part, but so bare in features. The complete lack of intergration and web presence is one of the worst problems, although they’ve finally provided a (completely pointless and featureless, so far) gamercard of sorts. It’s fun killing some time on Xbox.com, comparing your achievements to your friends, or putting your gamecard in your signature on your favourite gaming website. It’s little things like this – but so many of them, piled on top of one another – that just make the two services incomparable for the near future. It doesn’t take much time playing with them to discover this. As a long-time Apple user and general Microsoft hater, I was quite prepared (even expecting) to hate XBL, but it took me only a couple hours to fall in love with the service.

So, we’ve established why the debates should just stop – that beyond the simple truth that PSN’s online multiplayer is free and mostly as good as XBL’s, online multiplayer has a limited market that is nonetheless dedicated and willing to pay, which has subsidized XBL and allowed it to distinguish itself from PSN in every other respect. Until this disparity in features is addressed, there isn’t really anything to debate about – you don’t argue with success, and while you may hate to pay $50/year, it has undeniably created a superiour service. In Part 2, I’ll discuss how Playstation Home is not the panacea that we all hoped for, more than a year and many delays after its announcement.

Addendum: Part 2 is on hold until I get some personal experience with Home, as I expect to be in the open beta later this month.

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