Consumers seem content to fork over money to Microsoft in exchange for access to Xbox Live's Gold service. While this may be the case now, can the company get away with such a system in the next generation? How long can Microsoft keep asking people to pay in order to play a game that they already paid to play? As tongue twisting and mind bending as the question is, it's still an important one.

What Xbox Live offers its users is by far the smoothest implementation of online gaming available in the console market. From day one the service has been going strong and rarely sees downtime, so surprising shouldn't be a word used to describe its wide adoption. Straight forward and relatively user friendly Xbox Live has always seemed like the best option around. In spite of the service's appeal though, it's also fairly safe to say that none of the features exclusive to the paid option are anything gamers can't get for free elsewhere.

All the basic amenities that are cut out of the Xbox360's free service are available on PC at no cost, and often at a higher quality level. If a user doesn't want to use Steam for chatting during gameplay they can always boot up Skype or set up a Team Speak server. To top it off, those free services provide a much more stable platform for communication than the egregiously inconsistent Xbox Live Party Chat. Last, but certainly not least, users are free to play their games online without putting any more of a dent in their wallet.

Even Microsoft's biggest console competition, Sony's PS3, provides its users with the ability to play their games online at no extra cost. In reality, today's PSN does a lot of things better than Xbox Live, most of which go unnoticed thanks to early hiccups on Sony's part. Basic PSN users can not only play their games, but browse the web and use apps like Netflix without additional fees. As such Playstation Plus, Sony's paid online service, isn't simply asking people to pay for use of things they already own. Instead it offers actual value to its users in the form of free downloads for smaller titles, extended full game trials of large retail releases, access to betas, exclusive demos, in game content, and finally discounts on select Playstation Store items.

Xbox Live Gold on the other hand affords users the ability to watch YouTube and a few exclusive videos, along with ads that directly contradict a traditional subscription based model which would generally remove them. Little along the lines of exclusive content is provided to Gold subscribers and Microsoft hasn't shown any signs that they're about to offer more. The paid Xbox Live subscription doesn't even afford any security advantages over Sony's free PSN service, despite what certain ignorant people would have you believe in the wake of the now infamous breach that network suffered. Like it or not Xbox Live sees just as many, if not far more, breaches on a regular basis as the Playstation Network does.

All in all, the generally stagnant offerings of Xbox Live are becoming less and less attractive as time passes. The reluctance of Microsoft to offer their Xbox Live subscribers anything truly worthwhile for their money, even in the face of better offerings from their direct competitors, only sees the company becoming even more miserly in appearance and the service embarrassingly underwhelming.

So, the questions beg to be asked: Why is this acceptable and will Microsoft carry over the same model to the next generation? For some reason the now absurd condition of Xbox Live Gold isn't something that anyone talks about. No news outlets write stories on the fact that it provides almost nothing to its users in return for what they pay. Likewise, very few users have a negative attitude about the service itself. In many eyes the service is still seen as vastly superior despite obvious deficiencies in many areas.

I, however, can't overlook them as the time to renew my Xbox Live subscription draws near. I'm left with the choice between another year of the service or a brand new game, when I haven't really been playing online all that much as of late anyways. I know that my money won't be granting me anything more than the right to play something I own online, and that makes the choice difficult. Do I choose to play online with my friends occasionally despite knowing that the service is grossly overpriced? Or do I use that same money to get a new game? Right now I'm leaning heavily towards the game, whatever it may be.

On top of that, it makes me question how a similar service would affect my decision on whether or not to purchase the next Xbox. As it stands, if the next generation of Xbox Live looks anything like this one you can count me out. I'm about at the end of my rope as far as paying someone else to play the games I already bought is concerned. The world's smoothest slap in the face is still a slap in the face and no shiny new console, slick interface, or flashy redesign can change the fact that Xbox Live's current structure is nothing more than that.