Xbox Live's Games With Gold initiative was a great idea. Giving Xbox Live gold members free games every month as part of their subscription provides a welcome extra perk, but now that PlayStation Plus has levelled the playing field, the service finds itself at the sharp end of many a criticism. However, we reckon that Microsoft might be missing a fairly obvious trick, at least in terms of what games to give us.
No, I'm not talking about big blockbusters. Games with Gold definitely needs more in the way of juicy triple-A titles to give Sony's service a run for its money, but Microsoft already knows it. We already know it. Considering that making a huge pricey game free to download and keep forever requires an enormous amount of financial finagling behind the scenes, it'll be interesting to see how Microsoft goes about their unenviable task, but there's not much point retreating old ground.
Instead, I'd like to point out another interesting use for Games With Gold, and a potential new avenue for the service to tap into alongside its big hitters. Namely: underrated XBLA games with dead or dying multiplayer communities.
We've seen any number of decent, great and fantastic XBLA titles release with exciting multiplayer modes, but they rarely retain their player bases for long. How could they? Often having niche appeal or little in the way of marketing compared to the big boys on gaming capus, gamers tend to gravitate back to their favourite annualised shooters or the bigger games available on Xbox Live Arcade. Any number of excellent games either launched dead in the water, or haemorraged their small communities within a matter of weeks.
But Games With Gold is available to an enormous new audience of gamers who have already paid for online multiplayer, ready and waiting to give some of these titles a shot in the arm and another chance to shine - and try out multiplayer games that may have completely passed them by the first time around.
Examples abound. Take Snoopy: Flying Ace, a superb arcade flight sim with utterly magnificent multiplayer dogfighting. It was excellent, and frankly cries out for another influx of plauers onto its servers. Hybrid would be another obvious shout: 5th Cell's solid online shooter offering jetpacks and high-octane multiplayer battles for territory, that sadly launched straight into Counter-Strike: GO's shadow. Seeing as Microsoft published it, surely it'd be a perfect shout as an accompaniment to a big AAA title.
I hate to stray into list territory, but there are so many prime opportunities here. Marathon 2: Durandal offers an outrageous old-school FPS smorgasbord of gametypes -- seeing as it was the forerunner to the Halo series -- yet no-one plays it. Madballs In Babo Invasion shocked those of us who played it by actually being a good toy tie-in with competitive multiplayer so fully-featured that it knocked us for six. Castlevania: Harmony Of Despair offers hectic cooperative shenanigans in massive maps and one of the best rock soundtracks around.
Jugga jugga jugga daa daaa dow dowwww... sorry. I got sidetracked there.
Not to mention Monday Night Combat, Heavy Weapon: Atomic Tank, Small Arms, Quake Arena Arcade, Aqua, Carcassonne, Doom II and so many more besides - those just off the top of my head.
I'm not for a moment suggesting that games like these will somehow elevate Games With Gold to new heights. But as an accompaniment to larger titles and other XBLA games, as an extra or bonus each fortnight, Xbox Live Gold members will have the opportunity to chance their unique multiplayer experiences while supporting games that, frankly, deserved better. Who knows, we might just discover a whole new addiction.
As an aside, what games would you like to see offered on Games With Gold? I'm mulling over an article or top ten, so let's get some feedback!