Every gaming platform has monthly game subscriptions, from Xbox Game Pass to PlayStation Plus.
Updated Sept. 21, 2023 12:00 p.m. PT
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Dan AckermanEditorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications.
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Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Gaming streaming services are available and here to stay. Just like movies and television, game streaming is a thing now. Every gaming platform has at least one, with Xbox, Nintendo and PlayStation building their gaming subscription services around multiplayer and a library of playable titles. That's right, even if you aren't interested in a digital gaming library, it might be more cost-effective to subscribe to one just to access things like multiplayer -- and you might even find a new favorite game along the way.
With cloud gaming and the PC version of Xbox Game Pass, subscriptions are a big part of PC gaming, but not yet the default. It helps that PC gamers can buy games a la carte from a variety of shops (Steam, GOG and so on), which means individual games are often discounted.
And if content subscriptions are the future of gaming, then cloud gaming subscriptions are the future of that future, as they require almost no specialized hardware, and generally work anywhere, from an iPad to a cheap Chromebook. For this roundup, we're including both download and cloud-based subscription services.
That said, the road to cloud gaming isn't always a smooth one. Google shut down its Stadia service in January. And the very first cloud-gaming service, On Live, started in 2010 and shut down in 2015.
Xbox Game Pass Ultimate remains the gold standard, offering a catalog of games across console, PC and cloud (which works on practically any device). But Sony has revamped its PlayStation Plus service to be much closer to what Microsoft offers.
Game Pass has evolved far beyond its Xbox-bound origins to become a subscription that delivers something for everyone who plays games, and now encompasses console and PC game downloads, access to online multiplayer services, a deal with gaming giant EA and a cloud-based service that streams games to nearly any device.
Microsoft offers several versions, but because of how the features are sliced up between them, only the $15-a-month Ultimate plan, with all the benefits detailed above, really makes sense. New subscribers can get their first month for just $1 right now as well.
This service went through a dramatic change in 2022. The new PS Plus incorporates a large game catalog and also Sony's PS Now cloud gaming service. Subscribers have access to three tiers: Essential, Extra and Premium (called Deluxe in some countries).
Essential is the same as the previous version of PS Plus, allowing access to online multiplayer games, along with PSN in-store discounts, cloud game saves and two new free-to-you games each month (similar to Xbox Live Gold).
Extra has about 400 PS4 and PS5 games available to play via download for $15 monthly, while Premium costs $18 a month and adds PlayStation 1, PS2, PS3 and PSP games, a handful of time-limited game demos and cloud streaming for select games.
Essential is the least expensive ($10 a month), but Extra ($15 a month) is the tier everyone should have. Premium ($18 a month) feels like a stretch, unless you're really into retro games. -- Oscar Gonzalez
If you want to play online multiplayer with a Nintendo Switch, there's only one option: Pay for Nintendo Switch Online. The service ranges in price depending on whether you're playing by yourself or have other family accounts: $19 for a single person is the way to go for most, while $35 covers eight Nintendo family accounts in case others play (or have their own Switches).
Unlike other services, which charge by the month, this single fee covers an entire year. Besides online play, access to a bunch of free NES and SNES games are included, as well as Pac-Man 99. Online cloud saves are useful in case you play across multiple Switches, too.
A bonus tier introduced in 2021 called the Expansion Pack probably isn't worth it unless you're a serious Switch player or a lover of retro games. It comes with add-on Animal Crossing, Splatoon 2 and Mario Kart 8 DLC packs that normally cost around $25 each, and adds a bunch of Sega Genesis and N64 games.
But the $50-a-year plan ($80 a year if you choose the family account access) still doesn't feel worth it yet. If you really love Sega games, there's already a Genesis Classics compilation in the eShop that's often on sale. -- Scott Stein
GeForce Now differs from the competition in that it lets you play games you've already paid for rather than requiring you buy a special version of the game (like Google Stadia or Amazon Luna) or stream games from a circumscribed subscription library (like Xbox Game Pass Ultimate or the Sony PlayStation Plus Premium).
It also works, via an app or web browser, on Android, Windows and Mac OS devices, as well as Chromebooks, iPhones and iPads.
The service costs $10 a month for a version that supports 1080p resolution at up to 60 frames per second. For $20 a month, a premium tier supports 4K resolutions at up to 120fps. A free tier is a great way to try it out, but limits you to one hour of play at a time.
Because of its smart set of plan options, solid performance and big and growing list of supported games, along with Nvidia's aggressive strategy for its data center and GPU businesses (the bedrock on which GeForce Now is built) I'm recommending it for gamers who've amassed large game libraries and want to play them in more places. -- Lori Grunin
Apple Arcade has established a polished service with something for every kind of gamer since its launch in 2019. For just $5 per month, subscribers can play hundreds of games without ads or in-app purchases across all their iOS devices. New games are added weekly along with updates for existing titles. You can download and play all of Apple Arcade's games offline.
The service is still a solid option for users seeking family-friendly gameplay, but Apple Arcade increased its appeal by adding more social and multiplayer games, as well as classic and well-known games already available in the App Store. -- Shelby Brown
Luna is Amazon's cloud-based service, like Stadia, that offers different catalogs for between $5 and $18 a month. Prime members can stream some games at no additional cost, and also get access to "a rotating selection" of full downloadable games. Amazon also owns Twitch, so there's deep built-in integration for streamers.