Only a few years ago, the various console brands were competing against each other along the lines of exclusive features and technological performance. Dematerialized games and the internet have, to a certain extent, been responsible for modifying the habits of gamers and manufacturers alike. These days, manufacturers are attempting to set themselves apart by the services they offer, namely their online services. These online services make it possible to consult online catalogs before buying games, to purchase subscriptions, to take advantage of the benefits offered by online stores, and to participate in online communities. As far as gaming consoles are concerned (especially the living room variety), the main online services are those being offered by PlayStation, Microsoft, and Nintendo. While Nintendo has been rather reserved about its eShop, this is likely to change in 2018 with the arrival of Nintendo Switch Online.
Since it can be hard to navigate through the various services and subscriptions being offered, Tom’s Guide would like to offer you the opportunity to take stock and to help you find the most advantageous offers.
Different types of online services and subscriptions
Xbox Live Gold and Xbox Game Pass
- Xbox Live Gold is the service that has been around the longest. Microsoft is the first to have implemented a paid online multiplayer system. This service offers a small selection of games to download for free, as well as discounts for purchasing game titles or extensions.
- Microsoft has also launched Xbox Game Pass, which received a major update in early 2018. Its no-commitment monthly subscription provides unlimited access to a large library of games. This is not a streaming service; you will need to download the games to your computer in order to play them. Subscribers also have the option of purchasing any game in the catalog at a 20% discounted price.
- Microsoft also offers Xbox players the benefits of its Windows operating system. As of 2016, some dematerialized games can be played on the Xbox console as well as on any Windows PC. This is called Xbox Play Anywhere and it does not require any subscription.
PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now
- Sony offers two services. The first is PlayStation Plus. Subscription to this service works like a subscription to Xbox Live Gold. Every month, you can download game titles for free and benefit from discounts on a selection of games in return for a monthly, quarterly or annual subscription.
- To compete with Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, Sony developed PlayStation Now – a service that allows unlimited play of PS4 and PS3 games on console and PC. This service is ideal for people interested in replaying or discovering older game titles as well as for people interested in playing on their PC. Note however that this is not a game download service, but rather a streaming service; we will come back to this later.
To use Sony’s services, you will need to create a free account on the PlayStation Network. Subscription is done online, just let yourself be guided. For PS Now, you will need to install the dedicated application on your PC and select your desired subscription.
Nintendo is catching up
Nintendo does not currently have a paid online service, but this Japanese manufacturer is hoping to catch up with a brand new service: Nintendo Switch Online. As with Sony and Microsoft consoles, Switch will offer paid access to multiplayer online games, but it will also offer free games and great deals. The service was due to be released at the end of 2017 but was postponed until September 2018.
Nintendo also has a companion app to organize play sessions with friends. It connects to the console and is available for iOS and Android. It can already be used with Splatoon 2: SplatNet 2 and collects online battle stats, equipment, and more.
The cost of video games can often be an obstacle. Expect to pay 60 to 70 euros for a big production console game at the time of its release. Subscriptions and exclusive online offers allow you to save money, but depending on your player profile and any applicable conditions, these subscriptions will be more or less interesting. To whom are these services geared, and are they always a bargain?
Xbox: two services, two prices
Xbox Live Gold, which allows you to play multiplayer online games and to enjoy a small selection of free games and discounts, requires a subscription costing 6.99 euros per month or, more interestingly, 59.99 euros per year. The no-commitment Xbox Game Pass and its access to unlimited games costs 9.99 euros per month.
Both services are independent of each other. You can combine both services to enjoy their respective advantages; however, there is currently no means of combining both services at a preferential rate. Subscribing to Sony’s two services will cost you 16.98 euros per month. Opting for the annual Xbox Live Gold subscription and keeping the Xbox Pass all year round will cost you 179.87 euros per year.
PlayStation: most expensive
The PlayStation Plus subscription is based on a similar model to that of Xbox Live Gold, but it is more expensive. To benefit from the cheap rates and the monthly selection of free games offered by this service, expect to pay 59.99 euros per year, 24.99 euros per quarter or 7.99 euros per month. A quick calculation shows that opting for the annual subscription will save you money. Sony also offers a 14-day free trial to allow you to become acquainted with its service.
After the first seven days, which are free, you will be required to pay 16.99 euros per month to access PlayStation Now (this comes to almost 204 euros for an entire year), and there is no way to lower the service’s cost by committing to a subscription of more than a month. Cumulating both of Sony’s offers will cost you 24.98 euros per month or 263.87 euros per year – almost 85 euros more than the services offered by Sony’s direct competitor, Microsoft.
Nintendo: least expensive (by far)
Although Nintendo Switch Online is not yet available, we already have an idea of its prices. One month will cost you 3.99 euros, three months will cost you 7.99 euros, and the yearly subscription will cost you 19.99 euros, making it much more affordable than subscriptions offered by both Sony and Microsoft. Note that until its official launch in September 2018, multiplayer online play is completely free – a first for Nintendo.
For an affordable price, all these services offer access to a large game library and preferential rates for purchasing game titles; however, the games offered each month are not always that interesting – sometimes older games or small independent games already available elsewhere are put on offer. In concrete terms, what do these services give you access to?
Xbox: less generous, but features day-one titles
Xbox Game Live offers two free titles for Xbox One and two others for the 360 – Microsoft’s previous generation of gaming console. Subscription to this service allows you to discover new games every month, but these games are not necessarily big budget productions. The way we see it, these games are simply a bonus that you receive in exchange for paying to play multiplayer online games. If we look at the games offered in 2017, we note the presence of quality games, but not the latest game titles: The Walking Dead Season 2, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, Speed Runners… games already available at low prices on other platforms.
For some time now, the newest Xbox console has been backward compatible with Xbox 360 games. To take advantage of this compatibility you are required to own the game in physical or dematerialized form (by purchasing it on the Xbox Store). In addition to allowing you to play major Microsoft Studios day-one game titles, the Xbox Pass also allows you to take advantage of this compatibility. The first of these major titles to become available will be Sea of Thieves, the day of its release on March 20, 2018. The list of available games will grow throughout the year and will feature Crackdown 3 and State of Decay 2. We imagine that the next installments of Microsoft’s flagship game franchises such as Halo, Forza, and Gears of War will also become available. All in all, this pass gives access to more than a hundred games.
The Xbox game library also relies heavily on third-party publishers. Titles like Bioshock or Borderlands, are, however, only temporary. Each month, games disappear to make room for new ones. Of course, those you have downloaded do not disappear: if your pass is still active, you can continue to play them; only, they will no longer be downloadable via the Xbox Pass catalog. And if you do not renew your subscription, you will not be able to launch your games. If you decide to purchase any particular game, you will be able to do so with a 20% discount. The ability to play major games from the moment of their release for only 10 euros per month (instead of the 60 to 70 euros they usually retail for) definitely has its advantages. Hopefully, Xbox will announce its upcoming game titles sometime soon.
PlayStation: excluded games, no new titles
Every month, PlayStation Plus offers free games and discounts on a selection of game titles for PS4, PS3, and PS Vita. We had a PlayStation Plus subscription for two years (2015-2017) and were often disappointed by the games on offer – nothing really new. The main advantage of this subscription is that it allows you to easily get hold of game titles that are a little dated and that may have passed you by. Free games are always good if you have not played them already, but when it comes to discounts, they are not always worthwhile. It is often possible to find the games offered by the PlayStation Plus service at the same price or cheaper on other stores such as Steam (if they are not PlayStation exclusives) or even boxed at some retail outlets. Nevertheless, March 2018’s selection looks quite enticing, with two excellent titles: Bloodborne and the remake of Ratchet & Clank. These are certainly very good games, but they date back to 2015 and 2016…
Caution: when you have downloaded a game offered with your PlayStation Plus subscription, it will be removed from your game library if you have unsubscribed from the service. Remember that you are purchasing access to the game, not the game itself.
While PlayStation Now has an impressive game catalog, in terms of number of titles, it remains incomplete. Sony does not offer the latest games developed in its own studios (as Microsoft does via its Xbox Game Pass). As such, you will not be able to stream the latest major Sony game releases. Nevertheless, the number of available games (even if they are largely old titles originally released on PS3) is colossal: around 500 games, versus the hundred offered by Microsoft. Sony’s approach is different from that of Microsoft: PlayStation Now was designed to make older PS3 games more accessible, whereas the new version of Xbox Game Pass highlights Microsoft’s featured games.
PlayStation Now’s game catalog is excellent for anyone interested in catching up on games from the past. You will have access to excellent game titles such as The Red Dead Redemption, God of War Trilogy, Ratchet and Clank… but also less well-known titles like Journey, which are well worth discovering. In recent months, PlayStation has enriched its catalog with such PS4 games as Saint Row IV and some remastered classic games like Grim Fango, God of War 3 and The Day of The Tentacle (no recent and exclusive games such as Unchartead 4 or Horizon Zero Down, however).
Nintendo: difficult to evaluate
Nintendo is still being quite elusive about the games that will be made available to subscribers. All we know for sure is that this publisher will offer a selection of classic games. You will be able to play these games online and at no additional cost, and you will be able to play or replay key Nintendo titles such as Super Mario Bros 3 or Dr. Mario. This may be good for younger people who have not experienced these classic games or for older, nostalgic, players interested in replaying them.
Nintendo also announced that its subscription would provide advantageous offers for purchasing games on the Nintendo eShop. However, given the low cost of Nintendo’s service, it is difficult to imagine that recent games such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Mario Odyssey will be sold at a low price. Nintendo already allows users to revisit its classic games at low prices on its online store, but its policy has never been to lower the price of its big-ticket games. Unresolved questions concerning Nintendo’s service should be answered in the coming months. These questions have to do with the renewal of Nintendo’s game selection for subscribers, the type of discount that will be offered, whether its games will only be temporarily accessible, etc.
Interface: downloads vs streaming
Xbox: total control over the gaming environment
The interface of Xbox Live has evolved quite a bit, and it is now able to run on Windows 10. While its “tile” system may be confusing to some people at first, it remains a very intuitive way to navigate menus. Users accustomed to Windows will find it simple enough. Microsoft has managed to create its own ecosystem and you will find it quite easy to transition from your console to your PC in order to view your account and Xbox services, as well as to play via Xbox Play Anywhere. It is impossible to get lost: every option is readily identifiable. Access is fast and customizable. You can choose to pin a shortcut summarizing Xbox Live Gold offers directly from your PC’s home screen. You do not even have to go through the store to check the currently available offers.
PlayStation: somewhat chaotic
If there is an online console service that is difficult to defend, it is the one developed by PlayStation. PlayStation’s virtual PS Store is currently accessible via the web, PS4, PS3, and PS Vita. Even if the latest version is an improvement over the 2016 version, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of making it enjoyable to use. Generally speaking, browsing the menus is quite tedious. Access to its various services is not clear either. Often, you will have to go back and forth to find what you are looking for. Even finding a game in your own library can be a challenge. Unlike with the Xbox, it is necessary to go through the PS Store to access online services.
Having to credit your wallet instead of paying directly is also impractical and requires advancing a sum that does not always exactly match the price of the game being purchased. The wish list could also use some work: it lacks the ability to be personalized, as well as the ability to gift a game to a friend. On the PlayStation 3, between the bugs and the lags, navigating the PS Store can quickly turn into a nightmare. The good news is that with a subscription to PlayStation Plus, it is possible to download games via the web version, which is easier to understand than the console version.
We do not yet know how much the arrival of Nintendo Switch Online will change the interface of the console’s online services. We have a number of expectations for Nintendo’s newest service. Currently, searching for friends and managing them is quite tedious. What’s more, Nintendo does not offer built-in voice chat. As it stands, a third-party app is required to communicate in online games. Since Nintendo’s focus is on making online multiplayer gameplay into a paid service, we hope that Nintendo Switch Online will finally introduce these crucial features.
Streaming vs downloading
For PlayStation Now, it is all about streaming – like Netflix. Games are available immediately as the name of the service implies, but they are distributed via the cloud. As such, you will require an excellent internet connection in order to enjoy them. The quality of the service will largely depend on your internet connection – an important consideration since not everyone in France has access to a fiber optic internet connection. In this respect, the Xbox Game Pass has a huge advantage since its games are stored directly on your hard drive. Of course, this implies the need for sufficient storage capacity. If you intend to download many games, you will need to choose the model of Xbox with the largest internal storage capacity or invest in an external hard drive. At any rate, the Xbox service offers a better overall user experience, unimpeded by lags and dropped connections.
Multiple accounts and sharing
Xbox: access for the whole family and even for friends
A subscription to Xbox Live Gold can be used on multiple consoles (Xbox One and Xbox 360) and by multiple accounts. Indeed, just set up your Xbox One as the main Xbox in your home, and every member of your household will be able to enjoy your subscription using his or her own account. With the Home Gold feature, you will not even need to go through your account. With a single subscription, everyone in your household will have access to their own gamer tag, statistics, recommendations, etc. Allowing everyone to have their own profile guarantees a personalized experience.
Also, you can sign in to your account on a friend’s console and enjoy all the benefits of your Xbox Live Gold subscription, such as online multiplayer gaming. All users of this console can also enjoy it. For this to work, you only need to be logged in to your account.
Xbox Pass also has the same standards as Live Gold meaning that your family and friends will be able to take advantage of your subscription.
With Cloud and Xbox Play Anywhere backup, you can resume your game wherever you want. It works with games that are compatible with Play Anywhere and of course those available in the Xbox Game Pass catalog. There are currently 6 such games, including Gears of War 4, Halo Wars, Recore, etc. This small selection is expected to grow over time. Without a subscription, it is advisable to buy the game in dematerialized form in order to be able to play it from anywhere without additional cost. At any rate, it’s a great way to play on a laptop during long train rides for example. And since this service is not based on streaming but rather on downloading, once the game is installed, your enjoyment will not be dependent on your internet connection.
PlayStation: limited to one console
If you have purchased PlayStation Plus on your PS4, other active accounts on your console may also take advantage of it (so long as you set your console account as the main console). However, it is not possible to use your account and subscription on two different consoles at the same time. Your library and your benefits will only be accessible to other users on the device that is activated as the main console – a real limitation compared to what is possible with the Xbox. Remember that the Plus subscription also applies to the PlayStation 3 (although Sony has announced the end of support for it in 2019) as well as to the PS Vita.
With PlayStation Now, it is no longer necessary to own a console to enjoy PlayStation’s game library. You can play directly from your PC or Windows laptop via a dedicated application. Backups are also stored in the cloud, allowing you to resume your game on any compatible platform.
Nintendo: all about the Switch
Nintendo has been stingy in terms of the information it has released regarding Nintendo Switch Online and its account system. However, we imagine that it has been designed with the whole family in mind and, as with the Xbox and PlayStation, it will likely be possible for all members of a household using the same device to take advantage of the subscription (but will it also be possible to have a subscription for more than one device?) Nintendo has stated that its service will only be available for the Switch; it will not be available for other consoles like the Wii U and those in the N 3DS family – at least for the time being.