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Just like watching Netflix and Disney+ for hours on end, playing video games can be a great way to pass the time. That’s especially true right now, when so many of us are largely stuck at home all day.
But unless you pay close attention to gaming news, you may not be aware of the new crop of services that, among other features, provide access to a large library of games and let you play online with your friends for a monthly fee. You can use some of these services with devices even nongamers already have, like smartphones, tablets, laptops, and streaming TV players.
Not bad, especially if you’re having trouble finding one of the new consoles this year.
Of course, no two services are exactly the same, and figuring out which one fits best into your life can be confusing and time-consuming. To help, we’ve put together this guide to help you sort through some of the most popular gaming services available.
Price: $6 per month
Free trial? Yes, seven days
Supported hardware: Fire TV devices, Windows PC, Mac
Introduced in the fall of 2020, Amazon Luna is a cloud streaming platform, similar to Google Stadia, that streams popular, newly released games over the internet to a variety of different devices. The service currently has a wait list and requires an invitation to sign up.
Games are streamed in 1080p. Amazon promises 4K support at a later date. Amazon has developed its own controller for the service, which costs a separate $50, though you can also use an Xbox or PlayStation controller. Because games are streamed over the internet, Amazon recommends a connection of at least 10 megabits per second.
Price: $5 per month
Free trial? Yes, one month
Supported hardware: iPhone, iPad, Mac computers, Apple TV
Apple Arcade is a subscription service that unlocks a library of more than 100 games that can be played on an iPhone, iPad, and Mac, and on a television through Apple TV. You can use touch-screen controls or an Xbox or PS4 controller (but not a PS5 controller).
Apple Arcade's lineup consists mainly of high-quality games such as Sonic Racing, Rayman Mini, and Pac-Man Party Royale, a four-player version of the classic puzzle game. Games are downloaded to your device, but you lose access to them if you cancel your subscription.
The games don’t have ads or in-app purchases, which can make them particularly appealing for families who are concerned about their kids spending money on virtual items.
Price: Free or $10 per month for Pro tier; games are purchased separately
Free trial? Yes, one month
Supported hardware: Computers, smartphones, tablets, TVs
Google Stadia is a streaming service, which means you don't have to wait for games to download, you just start playing. Exactly how well the service performs depends on your internet connection, but Google recommends at least 10 megabits per second to stream in 1080p (aka Full HD).
There are two subscription tiers: a free one and a $10 per month tier called Pro. The free tier lets you stream games with a video resolution up to 1080p, while Pro lets you stream up to 4K HDR and supports 5.1 surround sound. Most games have to be purchased outright, but you get a discount if you subscribe to Pro. Pro subscribers also get occasional free games.
The price for games on Stadia varies, but expect the latest big budget releases like Cyberpunk 2077 and Baldur’s Gate 3 to cost around $60.
Stadia excels in its compatibility with a wide variety of devices. It works on just about any computer as long as you’re using a recent version of the Chrome web browser. It can also be used on smartphones and tablets through the Stadia app. You can play on your big-screen TV if you have a Chromecast Ultra streaming device.
Microsoft Xbox Game Pass
Price: $10 or $15 per month, depending on which tier you choose
Free trial? No, but the introductory price is $1 for the first three months
Supported hardware: Xbox game consoles, Windows PCs, Android smartphones and tablets
Xbox Game Pass represents a real value for anyone who plans to play a lot of video games. For $15 per month you get access to a library of more than 100 downloadable titles, many of which can be played on Xbox game consoles and Windows PCs. A $10 per month tier is also available if you only plan to play on Xbox or PC (but not both). These games can also be played on Android mobile devices via cloud streaming. You lose access to games if you cancel your subscription.
The cloud streaming service will become available for the iPhone and iPad in the spring.
Nintendo Switch Online
Price: $4 per month
Free trial? Yes, seven days
Supported hardware: Nintendo Switch
Nintendo Switch Online is the online service for Nintendo's popular Switch console. A subscription grants access to more than 70 classic games from older Nintendo consoles including Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Metroid. As with other services, Nintendo yanks your access to the games if you cancel your subscription.
The service also lets you play select games online against other players. Those titles include Mario Kart 8 Deluxe and Tetris 99, a version of the classic puzzle game where you compete against 98 other players simultaneously.
Nintendo's games tend to be family-friendly, making this service a good choice for families with younger children.
Sony PlayStation Plus + PlayStation Now
Price: $50 per year (about $4 per month) or $8 monthly
Free trial? Yes, 14 days
Supported hardware: PlayStation game consoles and PCs
PlayStation Plus is Sony’s online service for its PlayStation game consoles, including the PS4 and PS5. Primarily, it lets you play select games online. You don't get a Netflix-like library of games included with your subscription—you’re expected to buy games separately—but Sony does provide two games per month free to subscribers. These games are yours to keep for as long as you’re a subscriber.
Sony also has a streaming service called PlayStation Now ($10 per month). How well that works largely depends on your internet connection; Sony recommends at least 5 megabits per second, which isn’t a particularly demanding speed. (If that's more throughput than you're getting, there are ways to improve your home WiFi network.) PlayStation Now can be accessed on a PS4, PS5, or Windows PC.
Various Digital Stores
Price: Varies by store
Free trial? Free demos are frequently available
Supported hardware: Varies by store
In addition to the subscription services already described, you can download games à la carte from several popular digital stores. These include Steam (PC/Mac), Epic Games Store (PC/Mac), GoG (PC/Mac), the Microsoft Store (PC), and of course the iOS and Android app stores. Prices vary for games, but you'll encounter frequent sales throughout the year, particularly around major holidays.
A separate service called Nvidia GeForce Now can stream games you’ve purchased on Steam and the Epic Games Store to devices like Chromebooks, Android TV, and the iPhone and iPad. The base service is free but is limited to 1-hour sessions. You'll have to pay $5 per month to play more than an hour at a time, up to six hours max.