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Has MS handed the online gaming crown to Sony?

Opinion: Will PSN capitalise on Live's price rise, asks Tamoor Hussain...

Even if they're swathed in the black and white cloak of PlayStation, gamers have a lot to thank Microsoft for.

The relatively new-kid-on-the-block, MS revolutionised online play with the original Xbox - and saw its Live service go supernova with the release of the Xbox 360.

It was for good reason, too. Live was clean, user-friendly, reliable and reasonably priced. Bobby Kotick might moan about it being a 'walled garden' to the money men, but to gamers, it's always seemed open for business.

However, recent changes to Microsoft's Xbox Live service may have finally shown us a moment of weakness - and provided the perfect opportunity for its closest rival to pounce.

The issue of paying to play online has been a point of contention since the launch of the PlayStation 3's freebie PSN.

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Microsoft's decision to charge for Live was hard to argue against during the infancy of Sony's online gaming service. Though most devout Sony fans would never admit it, the PS3 experience was undeniably awkward and bare in comparison.

Microsoft could charge for its service and point to a robust and user-friendly experience to justify the price tag.

Paying for an Xbox Live Gold subscription has become second nature to most gamers; it's as engrained into the culture as rifling through the second-hand sections (sorry, THQ).

But this week's announcement of an increase in price for Xbox Live Gold could be a bucket of cold water over the head for this audience - startling them into reassessing whether they feel they're getting value for money from Live.

The price hike in the UK is limited to a £1 increase on the one month subscriptions, which will change from £4.99 to £5.99. In the US, however, it's more severe, up $2 for a one-month sub ($9.99), $5 for a three-month ($24.99) and $10 for a full year ($59.99).

The relevance of the rise will vary from person to person - and many will consider it insignificant. But it is important to take note of what changes are occurring on a service level - namely, none.

With no noticeable improvements or changes to the Live experience on the horizon, most users won't be able to perceive any tangible benefit to warrant the increase.

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Meanwhile, Sony has set the price of PSN Plus to directly challenge Live Gold - and now sits $10 cheaper than MS's offering in the US ($49.99).

More importantly, it doesn't have to answer awkward questions. It's not on the backfoot, justifying why it chunks what it does off your debit card each month. It's free to push the idea of £200-worth of 'extra content' to consumers. Which is exactly what it's doing - and with some vigour.

It also still has that wonderfully attractive ability to get you hooked for nothing. 'Basic' PSN has changed dramatically over the last few years - no doubt as a response to Xbox Live. It now offers a service that is almost as feature-rich and usable as its competitor - but won't cost you a dime.

This may be the opportunity to get a significant foothold in the online gaming world that Sony has been waiting for.

Though many subscribers are committed to Xbox Live and have invested significant time into building an identity, could the allure of a free service and a better perceived subscription value strike a killer blow for PS3?

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