Why I Canceled Xbox Live After 20 Years

Xbox Live has been the gold standard in online multiplayer gaming since its introduction back in 2002. Though the service tends to attract the sort of scum and villainy that would make Mos Eisely proud, it just works. Xbox Live serves more than 100 million active users every month. For gamers who call the Xbox home, subscribing is sort of the default assumption. Game Pass has only enhanced the proposition. What is an Xbox without Xbox Live? I’m about to find out.

My subscription to Xbox Live has never lapsed once in 20 years. Never. Not even for a second. In fact, I’ve been a user longer than there was a service to subscribe to. I was part of the beta test in mid-2002. When I say I don’t really know what Xbox is without Live, I mean it. This is completely alien territory.

Like most things, it started with the best of intentions. I’d recently read Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism and decided to put some of his ideas into practice. Newport suggests a 30-day digital declutter, during which you re-evaluate how you use technology and how you allow it to use you. The 30-day period is meant to provide the space for clarity. Aha moments tend to go unnoticed when you are distracted by Instagram notifications.

I was mostly interested in reducing my tendency to pick up my phone just because. Gaming wasn’t part of the experiment, at first. As an adult with responsibilities galore, my desire to play far outstrips my actual availability. But I decided I’d just avoid playing Halo Infinite multiplayer unless I was getting on with friends. I’d noticed I’d fallen into a habit of jumping on to grind perks, a fun if ultimately fruitless distraction. How many freaking visors does one Spartan need, anyway? 30 days passed. I didn’t turn my Xbox on once. In fact, I didn’t do any gaming at all.

I thought the declutter would just wean me off of Reddit. I was hoping the self-imposed break would get me to stop chasing those meaningless Halo customizations. But no Xbox at all? As a person who has been a gamer since I first mastered the Intellivision’s bizarre controller-by-way-of-calculator, this rocked me to my core. It also invited further self-analysis. It’s not like Halo Infinite is the only game I have. I own all three consoles and way too many games.

The Xbox has always been my default console. It’s the one I turn on when I get the itch to play. Blame it on the Achievements, more empty calories that I can’t say no to. Blame it on the games: Halo, Gears of War, Fable. Mostly, blame it on my friends. It is the console du jour in my extended friend group. Or, at least, it was.

Everyone I knew owned an Xbox 360, and we all played online multiplayer. During our heyday, you could get on any given night and find three or four friends to play with. My friends started dropping off, one-by-one, after the Xbox One launched. Some didn’t upgrade. Some started families and just stopped playing. One moved to Ohio, which apparently is like Siberia in terms of connectivity. Life happened, in other words. Slowly and then suddenly all at once, the days of finding a game by happenstance were gone. If I wanted to play with friends the last few years, I needed to arrange it ahead of time, and even then it was no sure thing.

You know that level at the end of Halo Reach, where you fight endless hordes of Covenant all by yourself until you eventually succumb to the inevitable? That’s sort of what I’ve been doing. Halo Infinite is the best-playing Halo. It harkens back to my halcyon days playing Halo 2 and 3 with friends for hours on end. But I am the last man standing, and no help is coming. My friends list is a time capsule from the mid-2010s, a colorful army of ghosts forever offline.

And while I could keep fighting across virtual battlefields, the allure is gone now that I’ve faced the facts. At its best, online gaming is a social activity, but I’m sitting in a party of one, making no attempt to communicate other than the odd teabag. It was time to cancel my subscription.

I felt vaguely sad about it at first, but not as much as you might think. Mostly I’ve felt a quiet acceptance about the rightness of the decision. If the stars align and friends come back, I can always pick it up for a month or three. But there is little sense in paying for something that I’m never going to get the value out of, even with Game Pass. Especially since Halo Infinite’s multiplayer is free-to-play.

On the bright side, I suddenly have time for my enormous backlog of single player games, which I was forever ignoring in favor of the latest online shooter.

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