video games

Video Game Usage Spikes During the Pandemic

Consumer Reports breaks down some of the best game subscription services

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Molly Davis, a video editor in Atlanta, has been homebound for more than three weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic. Video games, she says, help pass the time.

“I’ve been playing for several hours a day, probably five,” says Davis, listing Pokémon Sword for the Nintendo Switch and The Sims 4 for the PC as a couple of her go-to picks.

“I’ve also been playing Mario Kart 8 Deluxe online with my friends, and we’ve been using the Nintendo Switch Online phone app to talk to each other while we play.”

Although games like Pokémon Sword and Mario Kart 8 can be played only on a Nintendo Switch, a new crop of video game subscription services from companies including Apple, Google, and Microsoft eliminate the need for dedicated hardware.

These services work a bit like Netflix: You pay a small monthly fee and gain access to a large library of games that can be played on your smartphone, laptop, tablet, or TV. These services are all quick and fairly painless to join and use. And they can help you pass the social-distancing hours for prices starting around $5 per month. They're a great alternative to buying games one at a time.

However, there are some key differences among these services, starting with the price and what kind of hardware they require. Here are the leading options. 

Apple Arcade

Price: $5 per month
Free trial? Yes, one month
Supported hardware: iPhone, iPad, macOS, and 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 an Xbox or PS4 controller to control the games if you don’t like touch-screen controls.)

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 in full, 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. 

Google Stadia

Price: Free, or $10 per month for Pro tier; games are purchased separately
Free trial? Yes, two months
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 tier 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. And Pro subscribers also get occasional free games.

The price for games on Stadia varies. For example, the popular fighting game Mortal Kombat 11 costs around $60 (or $40 with Pro), and the adventure game Final Fantasy XV costs around $40 (or $30 with Pro).

Where Stadia excels is 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: $5 to $15 per month, depending on which tier you choose
Free trial? No, but the introductory price is just $1 for the first month
Supported hardware: Xbox One (starts around $200) and PCs

Xbox Game Pass represents a real value for anyone who plans on playing a lot of video games. For $15 per month you get access to a library of more than 100 titles, many of which can be played on either an Xbox One game console or a Windows-based computer. If you want to play only on an Xbox, the service costs $10 per month, and if you want to play only on a PC, it costs just $5 per month.

Microsoft has done a good job adding games to the Game Pass library on the same day they're available at retail—a unique selling point for the service. You download these games, but you lose access to them if you drop your subscription.

You can also play select games online against other players.

Microsoft is also developing a service called Project xCloud that will let you stream games to your mobile device, but no official launch date has been set.

Nintendo Switch Online

Price: $4 per month
Free trial? Yes, seven days
Supported hardware: Nintendo Switch (starts around $200)

Nintendo Switch Online is the online service for Nintendo's popular Switch console. A subscription grants access to more than 70 classic NES and SNES games, including popular titles such as Super Mario Bros. (1985, NES), The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (1991, SNES), and Super Metroid (1994, SNES). That’s a good amount of content for just $4 per month. 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 (roughly $4 per month) or $8 monthly
Free trial? Yes, 14 days
Supported hardware: PS4 (starts at around $300) and PCs

PlayStation Plus is Sony’s online service for its PS4 game console. 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 either a PS4 or a Windows PC.

Various Digital Stores

Price: Varies by store
Free trial? Free demos are frequently available
Supported hardware: Varies by store

Beyond 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.  

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