Today Microsoft's Xbox Live multiplayer gaming service is celebrating its fifth anniversary. To coincide with the network's birthday, Microsoft has announced that there are now eight million subscribers to Xbox Live. That makes it the most successful multiplayer console gaming platform around.

Xbox Live started out as a small community of gamers in North America, playing a handful of games online with their friends on the original Xbox console. Over the last five years it has morphed into a worldwide social entertainment network on the Xbox 360. In the US, at least, it now offers easy online access to downloadable games, trailers and videos, movies and TV shows.

Xbox Live forges on

"In just five short years, Xbox Live has revolutionised the way friends and family have fun in the living room," said John Schappert, corporate vice president of Live, software and services at Microsoft.

"On its fifth birthday, Xbox Live truly is the place for hanging out with friends and enjoying downloadable TV shows, movies, videos, game add-ons and now downloadable Xbox games on demand."

Xbox Live is arguably Microsoft's biggest achievement in gaming. It's built an enviable reputation as the best online gaming network of the three consoles, incorporating voice chat; text and video messaging; and unique player ranking systems.

Not only does Xbox Live have more users than the PS3's PlayStation Network (PSN), but all 8 million of them also have to pay a monthly subscription for the privilege. PSN, in contrast, is a free service.

If Microsoft's numbers are to be believed, it has added 900,000 subscribers in the last three months alone. That's an average of 10,000 per day. According to Xbox Live's Major Nelson, The top five games played online last week were: Halo 3, Gears of War, Guitar Hero III, Call of Duty 4 and Madden NFL 08.

Fall update in December

On December 4, Microsoft will make available a free system update which will add a host of new features and enhancements to the Xbox 360 console. Included in this update will be the launch of Xbox Originals, which will enable gamers to download and own full Xbox games, such as the original Halo and Fable games, directly to their Xbox 360s.

What's more, as a gesture of thanks to the gaming community, all 8 million Xbox Live members will have the opportunity to download a free Xbox Live Arcade game (probably Carcassonne). The freebie is available from 8.01am GMT today and lasts for 48 hours.

In addition to this, every active member who joined the service in 2002 will receive 500 free Microsoft Points.