I’ve talked about it before, but I’m not a big fan of subscription services in general. Yes, I have some, and some do offer a lot of value, but there’s an underlying problem I see where the very concept of “ownership” of a product is getting eroded away. In the new world, you don’t own a product, you own access to a product, and it can be taken away at a moment’s notice. Honestly, this is a problem with digital goods in general, but it always feels a bit worse when you are just paying to be let in the door.
Part of my reluctance is the way that I consume media. I have a terrible habit I’ve talked about before of buying something and sticking it on a shelf to consume later at my leisure. I do that with books, games, and movies… and sometimes even with music (though with music I just tend to buy the few things I enjoy and stubbornly refuse to use any streaming service). This often means that I buy something for too much, waste that money, and don’t even bother to use the product. I’ve been working to break that habit for some time… which is why I rarely buy a game when it comes out these days and only buy movies when they’re on sale or when I’ve already seen them (MCU, Disney, Pixar, etc).
The reality is that these aren’t going away any time soon. With video games specifically, and entertainment in general, the trend has always been for big companies to chase the big thing in hopes of getting all the money. Of course, time and time again, the result is that people use the big thing because they like the big thing, and everyone else is going to cutting up smaller and smaller pieces of the pie. Everyone wants to be the “next Fortnite” but customers are more-than-likely just going to keep playing Fortnite and ignore the new thing.
Xbox Game Pass
$9.99/month (Xbox One), $9.99/month* (PC), Ultimate $14.99/month (Live+One+PC)
*temporary introductory price of $4.99
Is it weird that I think the (potentially) most expensive option is also the best one? The biggest benefit here is the variety and the value offered when you compare it to other platforms. PlayStation Now kind of nets you access to some exclusive titles, and gets you old titles, but you’re locked to their platform or to what they let you stream to a PC (which is set to expire in early 2020). EA Access is cheap, but only has their titles (and typically old ones at that). Ubisoft relies on people being suckers bad at math for their titles.
Microsoft’s entry is a mix of first-party and third-party offerings, and they launch their first-party stuff on the pass at the same time that it’s available for purchase. Have the pass? You got to play Gears of War 5 in the same early-access period as people who were suckered into a pre-order, with the big benefits. Want to play The Outer Worlds and dislike the Epic Store? Good news, it’s available on the game pass at launch for both PC and Xbox.
Obviously the downside here is that it requires you owning an Xbox and/or a PC, something that leaves Ace out looking in the window wondering what the fuss is about. The Xbox is the “I took the bronze medal!” member of the current generation that gets excited and ignores the fact that it’s a field of three competitors. But if you have one of those, especially if you have a PC that can game, there’s value coming out the ears of this particular plan.
This has the confusing pricing options, though. The base version doesn’t include Xbox Live, which is required to do basically anything online on the Xbox (which is to say, do basically anything). It has a version for the Xbox and one for the Console, or a combined version that has both live and Xbox, which even if you don’t have a PC is probably the best deal, but it comes in at $14.99… more than Netflix, Disney+, or Hulu by themselves.
Here’s the really, really sneaky part about the whole thing, though. If you already have an Xbox Live membership, up to 36 months, you can get your “first month” for $1. What’s in the super-fine print is that it upgrades your existing months to the service as well for that same price, so your first month is at the end of the current subscription. Have 31 months of time on your account (which I did)… pay your $1 and you now have the ultimate game pass.
- Gears of War 5 (Ultimate Edition)
- Forza Horizon 4 (Ultimate Edition)
- Sea of Thieves
- The Outer Worlds
$9.99/month (PlayStation 4/PC), $59.99/year (~$5/month)
I’m going to be honest… I don’t get PSNow. I mean, I understand the service, but I’ve always struggled to see the value. Their focus has typically been around getting access to the older games they don’t want (or can’t) port over to the new system. Sony is so weird with their backwards compatibility… the PS3 could most certainly do it, but they patched out its ability to do so to force people to buy newer games (and that’s kind of crap).
It’s also distinct from their PlayStation Plus subscription, which, like Xbox Live, gives you access to some games every month and allows for multiplayer access in their games. It’s always been easier to avoid PS+ on the PlayStation than Live on the Xbox, mostly because it has more single-player games and let apps like Netflix work without it as well.
The huge distinction between XBGP and PSNow is that one is getting you access to install and play the games, the other is a direct streaming service. There are pros and cons to both of that… if you’ve got a stellar ISP connection, it’s great to stream games and save space. If you don’t, which probably describes anyone living in America, where ISPs are literally the worst we have to offer. Sony has addressed this reality by… mostly ignoring it. Certain games can be installed on the PS4, but usually it’s just PS4 titles, and not on Mac, PC, or PS3 (which are all supported platforms).
Getting access to the back catalog of PS2 and PS3 games on your PS4 or PC is pretty great; there’s a huge number of titles for it. Sony is also advertising that you can play God of War or Uncharted 4, both incredible games, on a PC, so that’s kind of awesome. But you need to pay for the sub and they’re only going to be available until January 2nd, when they pull them and hopefully suckered you into a 12/month sub. There’s been no word on what will happen after that date, or if other things will come into it, but all the fine print around their service just gives me pause.
The game selection feels like it caters more to people who want to play the classic games from previous generations than those who want to be able to play exclusives on the PC. People who liked the PS2 and/or PS3 probably own a PS4 already, so that part of the subscription doesn’t help. Those that don’t… well, you can play them with a good connection for two more months.
Notable Games Not Vanishing in 2 Months
- Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut
- The Last of Us (non-remastered)
- inFamous 2
- Gravity Rush 2
- Red Dead Redemption
Nintendo Switch Online
This both is and isn’t a subscription service. It’s required for playing online, which mostly just means playing Smash Bros. or Mario Kart, but it also gives you the SNES and NES classics app, which has the drip-feed of games that they’ve ported over. Oh, and access to spend more money on customized JoyCons, so there’s that.
This is probably the worst value in the whole bunch… I love my Switch, but this is close to pointless if you don’t play multiplayer. The stuff they’ve released in the classic app is available a lot of other places; there are certainly exceptions, but there are also so many “other” ways to play those games: Virtual Console on older systems (a great “product” that Nintendo frustratingly killed off), the SNES and NES Classics, though discontinued, can still be found not terribly far from their retail price, or just the “not precisely legal” emulation scene that Nintendo loves to fight so much. Or, you know, just heading to a used game store and picking up one of the machines and some games.
This is the cheapest and least useful one of the bunch. I love a lot of what Nintendo does around games, but it’s astounding how often they mess up the everything else part of what they do. The drip feed of games, terrible-at-best and nonexistent-at-worst voice chat and social features, and the “Nintendo gonna Nintendo” way that they handle “cloud saves”… they’re a company that can be frustratingly hard to love.
- Double Dragon (NES)
- The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (i.e., the best Zelda game ever made)
- Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
$4.99/month (iOS, iPadOS, macOS)
I’m going to be honest… I didn’t pay much attention to Apple Arcade when they announced it a few months back. I’m deeply in to the Apple ecosystem, as I’ve mentioned before, but I rarely play games on any of my devices. I have a few mobile games I play, like Star Trek Timelines or Pokemon Go, but they are the things that I play when I’m just killing idle time away from home.
Looking at this now… it seems like there’s potentially a lot of value here, even if it’s different than the other services. You’re not going to get the big and games through this like you do with the others… but you are going to get a curated experience of games that are meant to be fun and interesting. Xbox Game Pass has a focus on indie titles, but they get pushed down in favor of the others, and there’s nothing at all like that on any of the other services.
Apple Arcade solves a problem that has long plagued mobile shops in general: it’s so hard to find the gems amongst the sea of trash. It’s vastly worse on Android than it is on iOS, but it’s still pretty bad. Time-wasters with microtransactions that are playing with psychological tricks to get you to open your wallet are the norm, and it’s hard to just find a game that’s meant to be played and nothing else.
Here, the games are all curated and tested; they’re ad free and have no in-app purchases… so right there is a pretty huge deal, especially on mobile. There is a hook, though, for developers… that access comes at the expense of being Exclusive to Apple Arcade, at least in the mobile sense. If you want your game to be on the service, it can’t be released on Android (it can, however, be released on PC/Mac or Consoles).
For developers, this seems to be a “is it better good than bad” deal. The golden era of mobile development is long past, with trash microtransaction apps making up the huge majority of revenue and developers frequently struggling to get noticed or making a cent on their apps. iOS is the smaller install base but likely a bigger payout (once upon a time, the average iOS user was worth a whole lot more for purchases, and it’s likely that it’s still true today). If a game gets hugely popular, it could thrive on Android, but developers have long struggled, especially on Android and Google Play, to get people to pay for apps.
Also, in a world where thinking about the ethical ramifications of games, and the cost that development can have on people, it’s important to point out how different Apple Arcade is from Google’s Play Pass (up next). While the revenue sharing model is a bit black-box with Apple, their focus has been on relationships with developers and seemingly giving them a more fixed (and predictable) payment for the game. In effect, Apple is acting like a publisher of the game to its service, and developers are giving up the boom/bust potential for a game (which is vastly more likely to be bust than boom).
The fact that it extends the games to macOS as well is a bonus… I can probably count on both hands the number of games I’ve ever played on a MacBook over the years. It’s just not how I think of or use the system… but maybe I’ll have to get this to try a few you.
- What the Golf?
- Oceanhorn 2
- LEGO Brawls
Google Play Pass
$4.99/month (Android Devices)
Guilty confession time… I’ve owned Android devices before. Specifically, I’ve owned a couple of Android tablets from back when I was still trying to break into mobile game development (my skills at game development have stubbornly refused to manifest). I’ve used Android phones in the course of my job many times for testing and validation and… I just don’t like them. The UI for the OS just annoys me, and while it “gives me power” to configure and do what I want (assuming I’m willing to sideload a device and give up a lot of features) – Samsung phones, among the most powerful and popular, are notorious for locking you to their junky version of Android, TouchWiz.
Google has their Pixel phone line (they’ve given up on doing their own tablets), which seem to be great hardware platforms that make you wonder what market they’re really chasing. Logically, though, the majority of people reading this probably have an Android and not an iOS phone in their pocket right now. It makes sense that Google would launch their own game service to counter Apple, because that’s what Google always does. It remains to see how much they’ll support it in the future.
This is especially true with their upcoming Stadia platform, which is still the most “wait, who is this really for?” product of recent memory – I hope it’s not another Google Glass for those who have plunked down the money. It’s a console made for people who don’t want to buy a console, but doesn’t include a subscription or any access to games – you have to purchase titles outright that only work on their system and only work if you want to stream it. Play Pass could be a way to offer some additional value to the platform, since the games on it are designed to work on ChomeOS devices as well as Android.
Unlike Apple, which is taking a partner approach for its service, Google is doing a revenue sharing based on its almighty algorithm to pay developers; early versions of the agreement stated that it was based on “active screen time,” which was later removed from the text, but most developers still suspect it’s a thing. As a developer, I see that as a huge red flag… Google loves to let machines make decisions, and it’s not hard to see how that has turned out by looking at YouTube. If you follow any creators over there, you’ve undoubtedly watched a video or two decrying how the ranking system and automation can wreck their lives (or how often it gets abused by bots and content factories).
Still, the lineup for Play Pass is pretty impressive out of the gate. It’s got recognizable games that have been available for purchase, so it will certainly save you some money if you haven’t purchased them yet, have Android, and want to play them. There are no exclusives, it’s just access to a library of existing games, like Nintendo’s classic system, except there’s more to it and it doesn’t make you as frustrated to see what’s not available. More than that, there are also apps mixed in as well, though I wonder how many people care about
- Stardew Valley
- Game Dev Tycoon
- Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
$14.99/month (PC, Stadia at some point)
Okay… I’ve kind of covered the absurdity Ubisoft’s entry into this space before back during E3. It hasn’t made any more sense in the given months, and honestly, I forget it even exists. Ubisoft has released one major game since it’s release, Ghost Recon Breakpoint, and by all accounts, it’s an abomination. You get 100+ for your high price, the same as getting Xbox’s larger catalog on PC and a console… but their offerings are mostly older games.
Yes, Ubisoft has released a lot of big titles in the past… I’ve really liked a lot of them. It has current hits like the Division 2… but if you wanted to play that you probably already own it. More than that, Ubisoft titles go on sale all the time, and can be frequently purchased for less than what’s listed here. A huge portion of their catalog have been titles they’ve given away before, multiple times.
Ubisoft is an infuriating company to be a fan of. They make great games, and then hurt them with monetization. The stuff they release, Ghost Recon titles notwithstanding, tend to be fairly enjoyable, but at the same time, don’t stick because they’re too damn big because of all the open world fluff. They chase every single trend out there, sometimes making something fun, but often, you just get also-ran junk like this.
They do not have the clout and release cycle to support something like this; none of the big AAA publishers do, since most release only a handful of games a year (or in the case of Blizzard, none at all). Asking for $170 a year (they don’t have a non-monthly plan) for continued access to a back catalog of games you either already own or didn’t feel like playing before simply isn’t worth it.
- Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
- Watch Dogs Legion
- The Division 2
- Beyond Good and Evil
EA Access / Origin Access
$4.99/month (EA Access XB1/PS4, Origin Access on PC)
Remember when Electronic Arts made awesome games and was a leader in innovation? Yeah, me either… but this is one area where you kind of have to give them a bit of credit. They were among the first to get to the gaming subscription all the way back in 2016, which is basically centuries in modern gaming times. Think about the games that came out all the way back then… Uncharted 4, Pokemon Go, Overwatch, Battlefield 1.
Most of those games are still fun to play! It was weird when it came out, since it launched at a seemingly-okay price of $5… but because it’s EA, you knew they were going to EA it up. For the most part, their focus has always been on adding old games people aren’t buying anymore to the service and making them available. The launch titles were stuff like Dragon Age: Inquisition, SimCity, and Battlefield Hardline… one of those was worth it but also a game you can frequently buy for $5 on sale. The other two you should expect them to pay you to install.
Of course, this is EA, and they’ve just got to make it gross… so the biggest feature right now seems to be “timed exclusive trials” of their new games. They don’t release the biggest and latest, but you can play a few hours and then carry over your progress if you want to pay mostly-full price (you get a discount on the PC side through Origin if you buy the game)… but still, let’s call it what it is. They’re charging you to pay for a trial… that thing you should get for free.
This one is among the cheapest, but offers the least value. It’s just last year’s sports titles and games everyone else has moved on from, at best. You know, stuff like Anthem, which is currently in a three-way-tie for worst thing in gaming all year, along with Bethesda’s Fallout 76 and all the stuff Activision|Blizzard has done. Just think, you could pay $5 a month and be playing Anthem, right now, with dozens of other people!
- The Uninstall Program
So, the end question is are any of these worth it? Honestly… it depends more on consumption than anything else. Nintendo Switch Online is required if you want to play things like Smash Bros. or anything else online, so you probably have it if you already needed it. Origin Access and UPlay+ are hot garbage that should be avoided by anyone… yes, UPlay+ gives you access to newer games, but it’s too expensive; EA/Origin Access is the opposite… cheap but gives you access to older games that aren’t that great.
I don’t know how Google Play Pass lines up, but it’s also the one that doesn’t deliver any extra value past price; everything on the service was already available, and there is nothing exclusive. It has some great titles, but they’re also older titles. Apple Arcade takes the opposite direction, where everything on it is exclusive in the mobile space, and they’re constantly adding new stuff to it.
The big two, honestly, are with PSNow and Xbox Game Pass. PSNow is good if you want to play some old stuff and don’t want to dig out a PS2 or PS3, but it has some serious drawbacks. XBGP is the one that comes out on top for me, despite the price, because it’s delivering the new goods.Playstation is better for exclusives, but they’re only hanging out on PSNow for a limited time, while the Xbox has always struggled for exclusives not named Forza or Halo.
Want to play the fantastic Outer Worlds on PC or Xbox? You can play it for 4 months with game pass for the same price as just buying the game outright. It’s biggest limitation is that the Xbox One console is the least desirable of the systems out there, and not the one I would recommend. If you have a Windows PC and use it for gaming, it’s not really a contest… the Xbox Game Pass will give you more than enough to play for as long as you keep it.