Gaming is starting to look more and more like Netflix: Instead of buying a disc at the store and popping it in at home, subscription services from Sony, Microsoft, Nvidia, and others allow you to access tons of games for a monthly price, or even stream them without the need for a long download. But between Xbox Live Gold, Game Pass, xCloud, PS Plus, PS Now, Nintendo Switch Online, and everything else, it’s hard to know what does what—and which are worth paying for. And that’s before we mention mobile gaming. Let’s break it all down.
Updated November 2021: We’ve expanded this guide to mention Nintendo Switch Online, Apple Arcade, Google Play Pass, Google Stadia, GeForce Now, and Amazon Prime Gaming subscriptions.
PS Plus vs. PS Now
Let’s start with Sony, which has a slightly simpler range of offerings. If you have a PlayStation 4 or PlayStation 5, you can subscribe to two different services: PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now.
This is Sony’s online multiplayer service. For $10 per month (or $60 per year), you can play online with friends and rivals. (Without a subscription, you can play only single-player games offline.) PS Plus sweetens the deal by giving you a few free games each month, which you can keep as long as you’re a subscriber. If you have a PS5, the new PS Plus collection adds 20 of the best PS4 games for you to catch up on. There are also exclusive discounts to the PlayStation Store—and, best of all, you can often get PS Plus super cheap from reputable sellers on eBay or buy codes from Amazon, so it’s an easy purchase.
PlayStation Now is Sony’s game subscription and streaming service. For $10 per month (or $60 per year), you get access to hundreds of PS4, PS3, and PS2 games—800 of which you can stream right to your console or PC via the internet, without having to download and install them. Or you can download and play over 400 PS4 games in a more traditional, offline fashion. You’ll need a stable internet connection for streaming to work, but otherwise, it’s like Netflix for PlayStation games—and it’s also the only way to play PS3 and PS2 games on your modern console. You don’t need a particularly beefy PC either.
Note: PS Plus and PS Now are separate subscriptions, so if you want online multiplayer and online game streaming, you’ll have to pony up for both. PS Now’s streaming is also different from PS Remote Play, which lets you stream games from a PS4 or PS5 in your house to another PS4 or PC. Remote Play is free for everyone as long as you own the console and the games.
Xbox Live Gold vs. Game Pass vs. Game Pass Ultimate
Xbox’s stable of services is far more confusing—there are three separate subscription services, some of which have separate tiers and include other subscriptions bundled into them. Here is everything you can subscribe to from Microsoft.
Formerly known as Xbox Live, Xbox Network isn’t actually a paid subscription, but in the interest of clarity, we are including it here. This is where you create your online profile and friends list, send and receive messages, and so on. Microsoft allows online multiplayer without a paid subscription for more than 50 free-to-play games. You cannot, however, play premium games online with friends unless you have a paid subscription to …
For $10 per month (or $25 quarterly), this subscription allows you to play Xbox games online with friends. (A Gold subscription is not required to play Microsoft’s PC games online.) You get two free games per month as a part of your subscription, as well as discounts to other games in the Microsoft Store.
Subscribe to Game Pass on your Xbox and you can access hundreds of games to download and install. The standard Game Pass for console costs $10 per month and includes “more than 100” games, with some titles occasionally rotating in and out, Netflix-style. Microsoft’s first-party Xbox Game Studios titles will appear on the service as soon as they launch, while others may take longer to show up.
This is the same as Xbox Game Pass for consoles, but—as the name implies—it lets you download and play those games on your PC. It costs the same $10 per month but includes games from EA Play, meaning it has a slightly larger library.
As the name suggests, this subscription includes everything we’ve mentioned so far. It’s a combo service for $15 per month that lets you access the entire Game Pass and EA Play libraries on your PC and Xbox, along with online multiplayer and discounts in the Microsoft Store (no need for a separate Xbox Live Gold subscription). This also includes Microsoft’s new game streaming service, xCloud, which is in beta and streams games from the internet to your Android phone. If you want everything Microsoft has to offer, you can get it all in Game Pass Ultimate. It’s one of the best deals in gaming right now—though that moniker really depends on your habits. If you play a lot of different games, it’s worthwhile—but if you tend to stick to a few titles for months at a time, it might not be as compelling.
If you have Xbox Live Gold credit, you can convert it to Game Pass Ultimate at the rates described on this page—which is actually pretty great if you can find Xbox Live Gold codes at a discount.