Today’s consoles are not just gaming machines. They’re portals to online platforms filled with people to play with (or against), games to purchase, and movies to watch. Both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 want to be your all-in-one connected living room; but to enable this, you need to sign up for their respective online services.
The cost of an Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus subscription will, over the life of the console, add up to more than its original purchase price, so the value each service adds is important. Let’s see which provides the best bang for your buck.
The Xbox 360 and Xbox One are of little use online if you don’t have an Xbox Live Gold subscription. If you want to play multiplayer, store saves in the cloud, or even watch Netflix, you need Gold. This obviously gives incentive to sign up for Live, but not everyone is happy to pay for what’s normally free.
PlayStation Plus is a bit different. On the PlayStation 3 it’s not required for any online feature. Multi-player, voice chat and full access to online apps and services are included with the PS3. With the PlayStation 4 you need Plus for multiplayer games (with the exception of free-to-play titles), but you don’t need it to access apps and services.
With that said, PlayStation Plus subscribers gain a few extra features, including automatic software downloads, early access to some betas, extended game trials of certain titles, and cloud game storage.
This makes for a difficult verdict. Technically, Live includes more, but that’s only because Sony offers many of the same features for free. That’s an advantage, as it means you can still enjoy most of the PS3 or PS4’s functionality even if you let your subscription lapse.
PlayStation Plus offered free titles from the beginning and has continued that practice, adding new games every month. Plus subscribers have access to all games that are made available for free while they’re subscribed, and some titles are recent and critically acclaimed; at time of this writing, Bioshock Infinite, Borderlands 2 and Uncharted 3 are available. The only downside is that you lose access to free games when you unsubscribe (though if you re-subscribe, your access is restored).
Microsoft responded by launching Games with Gold. This program offers a new, free game every half-month. Unlike Plus, Games with Gold downloads remain available even if you let your Live subscription lapse. The selection of games can be hit-or-miss, but has included some great titles such as Halo 3 and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas.
Both programs are great (it’s hard to be disappointed by free games!), but I think the edge goes to Sony, even if you lose access to free games when you unsubscribe. The selection of Games with Gold is just too slim; Sony offers more games every month than Microsoft has offered since its program went live in June of 2010.
In addition to free games, each service offers a variety of discounts on their respective digital store, but there are again differences in the frequency and volume of what’s available.
Xbox Live Gold offers a “Deal of the Week” program which rotates and can include, well, just about anything. At the time of this writing it has major discounts on some Call Of Duty games and DLC; other weeks it might focus on Minecraft, or role-playing games, or anything else you can imagine. There’s also a variety of other discounts, but these are not restricted to Gold subscribers.
The PlayStation Plus discount program provides a much wider selection which includes both new games and older titles, as well as DLC. Discounts can be up to 75% off, but usually hover between 10% and 30% for new, popular titles. Still, in some cases that’s a decent deal. Injustice: Gods Among Us Ultimate Edition is currently $46 on Amazon, for example, but $24.49 for PlayStation Plus subscribers. Not bad!
The MSRP of Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus is the same; $9.99 per month. Microsoft, however, doesn’t really encourage gamers to join on a monthly basis. Instead, they encourage yearly subscriptions at a deep discount that are now down to $39.99 per year from some retailers, which is about $3.30 per month. Technically the MSRP for Xbox Live is $59.99 per year, but you’ll rarely have to pay that unless, perhaps, you buy from a brick-and-mortar store, or if you sign up directly from the console itself.
Sony also encourages yearly subscriptions, but the rate is $49.99, and I can’t recall ever seeing it discounted. This works out to about $4.16 per month. That’s less than a dollar more, but it’s still more, so Microsoft wins this round, as long as you can find a discount.
Sony takes the win here, and the broad selection of free games made available by Plus is the reason. While it’s too bad they expire if your subscription lapses, it’s still an amazing deal considering how popular some of the free titles are. Anyone who plays more than one or two games per month can save a lot of money by choosing a Plus subscription.
Microsoft needs to expand its Games with Gold selection and offer better discounts if it wants to compete. Currently, Xbox Live Gold only makes sense because it’s required for online play of all games on both the Xbox 360 and Xbox One. This helps it retain its popularity, but it’s a raw deal compared to what you receive with PlayStation Plus.