In addition to a new pricing structure that it hopes will encourage players to splurge for a full year's subscription, the company said it will no longer require a credit card to sign up.
Later this year, Microsoft is expected to begin selling its much-anticipated next-generation console, the. The new Xbox, if released on time, would likely give Redmond a head start of several months over its console rivals, Sony and Nintendo, which plan to release their new machines, the PlayStation 3 and Revolution, respectively, next year.
The company originally launched Xbox Live in 2002, and the service has grown to more than 2 million subscribers. Microsoft is positioning the online service at the center of its next-generation console strategy and said it will eventually try to connect a billion users.
Microsoft said it will offer its Xbox Live silver membership free to all Xbox 360 owners. Silver membership entitles users to access online games and thecommunity, as well as to send and receive text and voice messages. Silver-level players will also be able to partake in the Xbox Live marketplace, where users can buy game-oriented content such as demos and game trailers, as well as add-ons that provide access to new game levels, weapons and characters, the company said.
For Xbox 360 players willing to shell out $50, Microsoft will offer a year's subscription to Xbox Live Gold. This upgrade allows users to access "premium" multiplayer games made specifically for gold members, including some that are online multiplayer games with accentuated matchmaking and feedback tools.
Those who don't want to invest in a full year of gold membership can also buy in for one-month and three-month packages for $8 and $20, respectively. Players who pay for three months of a full year get a bonus of an Xbox 360 headset, as well as points to spend in the marketplace, the company said.