The days of free online gaming are numbered, as console makers gear up to start charging players for internet services.

Microsoft will launch its Xbox Liveonline console gaming service in the US next month. It recently announced the UK Xbox Live service will start on 14 March 2003. It plans to charge players £39.99 for the Xbox Live Starter Pack, which gets you access to online gaming for a year.

But this is just the start. Online console gaming will be big business. According to a study commissioned by Elspa (the European Leisure Software Publishers Association) and carried out by Screen Digest, spending on these emerging services by European consumers will grow by 5,000 percent in 2006.

The report forecasts online console services will generate more than €2.5bn in European revenues by 2006. It also believes such activities will drive the take-up of broadband services in Europe — a predicted 16.6m European households will connect their game consoles to the net over the next five years.

Despite the bandying of such huge figures, Microsoft is so far alone in taking the plunge. Nintendo and Sony have yet to reveal how they plan to extract cash from their console players.

Sony has launched an online PS2 gaming scheme in the US and Japan, but says this is not necessarily what it will do in Europe.

"At the moment there's only conjecture and we're not necessarily going down the same route as the US and Japanese model," said David Wilson, PR manager at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe. "We are watching the European market to see what happens."

Whichever route Sony and Nintendo take, it is sure to involve charging users to play online, which will spell the end for free online gaming for PC users too. Some companies hosting free servers for players are already planning payment systems, so the scene is already set for the implementation of subscription-based online gaming for all players.

BarrysWorld, one of the leading free European online games sites, recently declared its intention to charge for its services. Its main competitor, Jolt, has yet to announce similar plans, but PC Advisor thinks it is only a matter of time before it does.

This view is backed up by Geraint Bungay, head of Games Strategy at BTopenworld: "I can say with some confidence that no professionally run online games service will exist within 12 months, on the PC, which will not be looking to charge users". BT already owns Games Domain, a payment-only online gaming service.

Of course charging PC gamers to play online is not an entirely new concept. MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) games such as Everquest have always been subscription-based because they require players to devote hours of time online. But now even the casual player is being targeted by companies.

Professional gamers know how to run and set up amateur servers and passionate PC gamers will probably be able to find ways to play for free. But for the majority of online players, Microsoft's move heralds the beginning of the end for free play.