Getting Into Subscription Gaming Services? What’s the Difference?

Game streaming—cloud gaming—subscriptions are like Netflix for video games, allowing you to access content on remote servers via your internet connection. Use a gamepad to send inputs to the server from your home (or on the go), and get back a video and audio feed of the game in near real time. In theory, this allows you to play games your hardware might not otherwise support and to access large libraries of games without new downloads. (Game streaming is different from livestreaming, like on Twitch, and they’re not mutually exclusive. You could livestream yourself streaming games!)

Let’s walk through the big subscription services and their capabilities. Choosing the right gaming platform depends on the games you want to play, the hardware you have and the kind of performance you need.

PlayStation Services

Sony is currently merging two services: PlayStation Plus and PlayStation Now. The upcoming merged PlayStation Plus membership will include access to online multiplayer games, early access to demos, discounts, cloud-based game saves and two downloadable games a month. Each of three tiers adds successively more games, while only the new Premium tier adds 300-plus PlayStation back catalog games for streaming. This revamped PlayStation Plus doesn’t launch until June, and it’s possible Sony will make adjustments after the service hits the market.

Required hardware: PlayStation 5 or Windows 10 PC* (requires Premium tier)

Cost: Check here for latest pricing

* Reviews note that the Windows 10 PlayStation Now app has interface issues, and it’s unclear if the merger will fix them.

Xbox

Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass service includes perks like day-one access to Xbox Game Studios games, partner discounts, EA Play membership and Xbox Cloud Gaming (aka xCloud). With access to 100-plus Xbox games, Game Pass is the gold standard right now and is practically a must for anyone with an Xbox.

Required hardware: Windows 10 PCs, iPhone, iPad, Android devices

Cost: Check here for latest pricing

Nintendo

Nintendo Switch Online membership is relatively spare. Membership enables online play in games like Animal Crossing and Super Smash Bros., plus download access to classic games from the NES and Super NES consoles. A new paid upgrade called Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack includes those benefits plus N64 games, Sega Genesis games and new DLC for Mario Kart 8 and Animal Crossing.

Nintendo Switch Cloud Streaming offers access to a handful of titles that you’ll still be able to play without having to upgrade your console’s aging hardware. This cloud gaming does not require Nintendo Switch Online membership.

Required hardware: Nintendo Switch (Lite, OLED or original model) with good internet connection

Cost: Check here for latest pricing

Amazon Luna

Amazon Luna is a game streaming service featuring multiple subscribable “channels” (themed packages) of games. Amazon Luna games include Jackbox Games, a family channel and Ubisoft+, featuring recent titles like “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.” A cool  feature is Couch Play, which lets you set up sessions for local co-op gameplay, even with people who don’t have Amazon Luna accounts.

Required hardware: mobile phone, PC or Fire Stick

Cost: Check here for latest pricing

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Google Stadia

Google Stadia is a game streaming service built by search giant Google. The company recently announced that it will license the underlying technology to other companies and stop developing its own games. One of this service’s big differences is that Stadia offers a dedicated controller that connects directly to your Wi-Fi and helps cut milliseconds of lag. Google Stadia Games include a handful of titles with your subscription, but many high-profile titles require additional purchase.

Required hardware: Google TV, Chromecast Ultra and more

Cost: Check here for latest pricing

Nvidia GeForce

Nvidia GeForce has a different model from other services listed here. Instead of offering its own games, a GeForce subscription allows you to access games you’ve purchased elsewhere (like Steam, see below) from a wider variety of devices without downloading them. With Nvidia GeForce you pay for longer gaming sessions and priority access to higher-quality servers.

Required hardware: Native apps for Windows PC, Mac, Android, Android TV, LG TV (via iOS Safari app)

Cost: Check here for latest pricing

Will Steam have a gaming service?

Steam is a massive online store for purchasing games and other media. Run by the developer Valve, Steam has been the vanguard in PC gaming for nearly two decades. It includes features like cloud saving, occasional sales and the ability for developers to release new content and bug fixes. You can also buy subscriptions to services like EA Play via Steam. Steam does not officially offer a commercial cloud gaming service at this time, but don’t be surprised if they release one, as there’s already a developer beta out there.

Required hardware: more powerful PC for more recent titles

Cost: Games-only for now

What kind of internet service do I need? What about data caps?

For cloud gaming and online multiplayer, the faster the internet, the better. Because the device you’re playing on isn’t in the room with you, a strong connection with high upload and download speeds is key. Ethernet is super helpful because there’s less interference, and a fiber connection is ideal.

Data caps are being rolled out by some of the nation’s biggest broadband providers, and streaming games could cause you to hit those caps. Wired estimates you’d have to stream only about 100 hours per month to hit Comcast’s 1.2 terabyte cap, and then you’d start to get charged extra. If you game for hours a day, it may be worth downloading games to dedicated hardware, or upgrading your internet to an unlimited plan. For everyone else, game streaming and subscription gaming services offer an exciting frontier for giving games new and old a try—often from anywhere.

Game features and prices may have changed and are subject to change.

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