At the core of this issue is why does Microsoft charge its consumer base for something that no other platform charges for? In fact, why is it that the same feature that is built into the game itself, and players are allowed to use on every other platform are able to access without paying, is being segregated and sold separately in a sense only on the xbox console?
First off let me start with a easier argument to support my claims before you think this is just a console fanboy argument. On the Xbox 360 console, you have to have an xbox live account to download updates, and access the online features of the console, smiler to having a PSN acct on PS3, and a web handle for an online forum on pc or for services such as steam. Ok so you have your account, and once you create it you are considered a Silver subscription holder. This basicly means that you have the basic account and can access the online features of the console, such as downloading updates and demoe's, or purchasing things from the online store.
Once you have your xbox live account set up your games will stay up to date as long as you get online with your console. Now you go out and buy a game, for the sake of argument that game is either Call of Duty or Battlefield. What game it is does not matter, but for this example it must be available on Xbox, ps3, and Pc. Ok so you put your game in, update it and then you play the single player campaign and enjoy it. Yes I know most people that buy either one of the example games never do this, but for the sake of argument.
Now as a PC or PS3 gamer, you can select multiplayer and go right into the online multiplayer of the game with little to no effort. But on xbox, and only xbox, you have to pay Microsoft $30-$60 [U.S.] to get your silver membership upgraded to a Gold membership before your alowed to access the multiplayer.
Now again, to keep this from being considered a console fanboy statement and before I get into the deeper arguments here is an example that proves that Microsoft is just exploiting the powerless by charging for this. The game I will use to prove this will be Dead Rising 2. I use this game because it is on Xbox, PS3, and PC. Now PS3 gets access to the online co-op for free out of the box. Pc requires a Games for Windows Live Account (The PC equivalent to Xbox live) in order to play the game, but again the 360 version requires that you shelled out for Gold.
There is no way you can make that into a console/PC fanboy argument. Both requre a microsoft online membership of some sort, but only one requires that you pay them for access to what is already included in the game. Why does Microsoft charge on Xbox and not PC? That is a simple answer, they cant Exploit the PC gamers. If they where to say well you can't play online unless you have a games for windows live gold membership for X$ a month do you know what the PC gamers would do? A 20-35% chunk of them would accept the cyber bullying and pay out to Microsoft. But the majority of PC gamers would just go download a crack and either find info on user hosted servers, or use some type of program to host the games themselves for just their friends.
The main difference is that Microsoft would actually have to work very hard and file out a lot of different lawsuits and work their legal team overtime to find a way to control the market and force it to do their bidding on an open platform. While it is possible to jailbreak your xbox and play games online without big brother microsoft stopping you or charging you, for the majority of the Xbox owners this is either not worth risking the destruction of the system or they do not have the knowledge to do it.
Now that we have some of the more basic arguments out of the way lets go over some of the reasons I commonly see either Microsoft employee's and or Xbox fan boys defend the price tag.
The most common reason given by Microsoft and its most loyal fan base is that its to maintain the cost of the servers. This is complete and utter bullshit. Microsoft has the Xbox so locked down and dominated with regulations and red tape to practically launch their profit margins into fucking space. They regulate what content is sold on their store and system, and make sure that the maximum amount of profit imaginable is always achieved and surpassed.
Further more the developers of the games that utilize multiplayer for the majority of their content have to either set up the servers themselves, or reimburse Microsoft for the cost of hosting it themselves, unless its a Microsoft game. Secondly there are more efficient and easier to manage ways to manage and offset the cost of multiplayer servers as well as more profitable ways. For one they could use advertisements to pay for the cost's of servers entirely and still cut a huge profit margin. This might be looked down upon by customers, but I dont think I need to tell you that Profit is more important than fans to Microsoft and indeed all company’s.
Another valid way to offset server costs that is thankfully making headway into console territory is something that has been mainstream for PC games for over a decade. Player hosted servers. A good example of this would be Section 8 prejudice. Games that take this aproach normally have their own official servers, but partner with a server hosting service which will then rent out and manage game servers payed for by AD's and players. In this scenario it would be just as profitable if not more than gold because the third party would do all the work and Microsoft would just get a slice of the Fee's straight into their pocket.
Another legitimate way to offset the cost of servers is Xbox Live Gold subscription fee's. Yes you heard me right, Xbox gold would be a legitimate way to offset the cost and raise profit margins, but it needs one key change. It needs to keep all the features it already entails, but not be required for access to multiplayer content. In other words all silver accounts should be able to access the multiplayer without being forced to pay the subscription fee. Now if microsoft wanted to require gold for Xbox exclusive games that are developed by them, such as Halo, then they can do that and have no real room for complaints, but all non Microsoft developed games that have multiplayer should not require a gold subscription.
On top of all the features currently included with gold except for multiplayer access, they should also take a note out of Sonys book and do things smiler to Playstation Plus. As a matter of fact Playstation plus is what Gold should be all together. Early access to certain types of content, free games, discounts on most of the store merch, premium features such as party chat, etc. Sony has done really well with Playstation Plus and if XBL Gold was the same as it, I would not even be against it in the slightest because it would not be blunt exploitation of the end user.
Now on to the most common argument that I see from Fanboys. For some reason most people try to defend paying for what is already included in the game for free by claiming that since they pay for the service they get higher quality service. This is entirely not true. Pc has the best over all for the majority of time, but even just in the console market, all the online services, such as multiplayer and online content are exactly the same with some differences between platforms. Your multiplayer experience on Call of Duty is pretty much going to be exactly the same on Playstation 3. As a matter of fact the only claim of superior online service I would give either PS3 or Xbox would be over the Nintendo Wii simply because of how the social features work.
A majority of online issues and lag on games are 98% of the time caused either by the users internet connection, or the net code and performance of the actual game, and have nothing to do with weather or not you shell out money for the ability to play online. If you do not believe me, buy any Call of Duty game, or any multiplayer game thats available on Xbox, PS3, and PC and play ten games back to back on each platform using the same connection. The game will perform almost exactly the same with some minor fluctuations, since sometimes there is a small difference in code, plus the players ability and comfort level with each type of controls. Another fluctuation to consider as well is that you will not have Aim assist on PC so that must be taken into account as well.
A highly over looked example that proves that there is no reason for Microsoft to charge for server costs is Final Fantasy XI for Xbox. The servers are hosted by Square, and they charge $15 a month to support the servers, mostly because they are only hosting those servers for that specific game so only the people who bought that game will be accessing it so it only makes since to charge a little per month to manage the over head especially since unlike standard multiplayer, MMORPG content is a constant online community. Fortunately you can play Final Fantasy XI online with a Xbox live Silver membership, which goes to show that Microsoft does have some limet's that keep them in check.
In closing I find no acceptable reason for Microsoft to charge for multiplayer access to all games on the Xbox other than the fact that they can exploit their player base for extra profit. I dont see this changing any time soon especially since most people who spend the money then defend their shelling out of money in any way they can. The truth is you can not tell a hard core Microsoft fan that there is no reason for them to be paying because they consider it a personal attack on them unstead of an attack on Microsofts business practices. And the people that pay it but agree that it is an unmerited charge just brush it to the side saying things like “well I can't play online without it so I have no choice”. At the end of the day its just another shady exploitation of consumers who either do not know better, or who feel trapped, all in the name of profit margin.
I am not against a company for making profit, but when your a fortune 500 globally recognised company pulling in over 300% in profit margins per year, you might consider giving some of that back to the people that shell out their hard earned money to you, especially in an econemy like we find ourselves in these days. Microsoft is not the first company to do this, nor will they be the last, but we as gamers and consumers can use our money to shift this. While it is possible for the consumer base to influence the way a large company such as Microsoft to change their ways, it is highly improbable that it will ever happen. People will gleefully keep being exploited while defending their corporate masters to the death.