What do you think of when people mention “subscription service” nowadays? For many of us, the first word that pops into mind would probably be Netflix.
And although such business models have been around a while, Netflix was the company that shoved that business model into the public eye.
Fundamentally, this model operates along the same lines as most newspaper subscriptions.
By paying a certain amount every so often, usually monthly or yearly, users get access to the service's entire repertoire of games and bonuses for that same duration of time.
Essentially, this business model aims to derive consistent returns over a period of time versus a single big dollop of money.
Following Netflix's train of thought, it didn’t take long for other companies, especially gaming publishers to think along similar lines for their own video games.
Currently, we now have various such options, like Xbox Game Pass, EA Access and Apple Arcade, among others that utilise such a model.
Of course, these are a little different from our regular membership subscriptions, in the sense that signing up gives you direct and unlimited access to games in their particular collection, rather than just discounted prices and the occasional freebie.
However, that doesn't mean the latter can't make big bucks anymore. Good examples of services that still utilise it today are Sony’s PlayStation Plus, Microsoft's Xbox Live Gold and Nintendo Switch Online.
After all, it still has its plus points (no pun intended), and the offerings tend to be slightly different versus the Netflix-style model.
However, the main point here is: which of these services are the most worth spending on?
We’ll get into that, but first let’s see what each of them has to offer.
1. The Netflix-style subscription
From a bystander's point of view, this is the model that seems to be more popular amongst gamers and developers nowadays.
By paying a monthly, or yearly subscription fee, members get instant access to a wide variety of games that they can play as much as they want.
Consider it like signing up for the gaming version of a mobile library - once you join, you can download and read the “books” as and when you want.
Sounds pretty peachy on paper, but here’s the catch: you can only play the games as long as you continue paying the membership fee.
Sure, most of them don’t cost an arm or a leg, but in the event that you do terminate the membership, you won’t be able to play them at all, although you do retain your game progress should you decide to return.
Of course, this last bit isn't a hard and fast rule - some games don't set up shop in the service's library forever.
They might get taken off the roster indefinitely for a myriad of reasons, and while they'll probably stay inside the console storage for as long as they're downloaded and installed on the device itself, it's gone for good if you happen to delete it.
2. Xbox Game Pass: A never-ending buffet of games
Moving on to the actual value discussion. Well, if we’re talking about these three services purely by merit of their roster, Xbox Game Pass is far and away the best option, but why’s that?
Well, just look at the absolute number of AAA games that they’ve got in the repertoire, which you’ll be able to download and play for free, no questions asked.
From widely-acclaimed hits like Red Dead Redemption 2 to interesting newcomers like Minecraft Dungeons, the variety is quite simply gobsmacking.
In fact, the sheer quantity of top-shelf titles alone is almost enough to justify subscribing for it, and the only other service that gets you this many games is probably the Apple Arcade.
However, that's an entirely different ball game, considering it's catered purely for iOS devices while Xbox Game Pass is open to Xbox One and PC users.
Oh, and since we're on the topic of Minecraft Dungeons, why not check out our review of it here? It's a simple and great gateway into the dungeon crawler genre, but you'll probably enjoy it even if you're a seasoned veteran.
3. EA Access: Niche games and some solid classics
Now, you might argue that EA Access does pretty much the same thing as the Xbox Game Pass, but where these two differ is in terms of their audience demographics.
From an objective point of view, most of the titles there right now either have relatively more niche fanbases or simply aren't doing that well in gamers' books.
Series like FIFA and NBA 2K are more geared towards gamers who are familiar with those sports in real life, while others like Anthem are just hovering about the "meh" category, to put it nicely.
Sure, there are some really good bits like the Dead Space and Battlefield games in there, but these "oldies" are only going to count for so much in terms of value.
To be fair, we're not saying those who pick one service don't like the other at all, but then it goes back to the question of which you'd rather fork out money for, assuming you could only select one.
Essentially, you could say that EA Access, while theoretically similar to the Xbox Game Pass, largely offers games that are either an acquired taste or for those taking a trip down Nostalgia Avenue, so to speak.
Which means that if we're taking the position of a generic gamer who wants only the best and latest, it's simply not as enticing as the latter. But what about the Apple Arcade?
4. Apple Arcade: A members-only street market for mobile games
To be honest, the disparities in terms of game offerings here are rather obvious, and platform difference is but one of them.
The Xbox Game Pass offers free flow gaming on two platforms: Xbox One and PC, while the Apple Arcade is restricted to iOS devices. Now, that's a pretty big gap in terms of demographics already, but there's one other thing to consider.
Check out the Gaming section of the App Store: there are definitely tons of games from different genres on the Apple Arcade's repertoire, but how many of them rank among the top-performing mobile games?
Indeed, you hardly see any. Granted, all those games might be mobile-exclusive to the Apple Arcade, which means you'll never be able to play them on Android devices, but there isn't much "good meat" to be found on this cow at the moment, although the quantity is there.
This roster is also dictated (some might say, hampered) by Apple's mantra of only allowing family-friendly games into its Apple Arcade library.
Which is to say that apart from personal curiosity and interest in a particular mobile title on the roster, there simply isn't much that the Apple Arcade subscription offers right now, although this could still change in future as more developers hop on board the bandwagon.
Hopefully so, as the Apple Arcade is actually quite popular among indie developer.
5. The "country club"-style membership
Despite the potential benefits of the Netflix-style subscription mode, there's no harm in adopting the older, but apparently more straightforward stance either.
Here, users pay a flat fee every so often to renew the membership, but instead of getting a large library of games to pick from anytime they want, they get exclusive discounts on various games in the store, which are often rather substantial.
Additionally, a common tactic used by services with this model to encourage signups is that players won't be able to play online multiplayer without them. Admittedly, it sounds a tad underhanded, but hey - they're businesses.
Still, the most obvious counterargument against spending money here is that "gamers still need to pay for the games", which is true, but unlike the Netflix-style model, you actually own the game this time - terminating membership doesn't completely restrict your access to it.
6. PlayStation Plus, Xbox Live Gold, Nintendo Switch Online: Members-only fire sales
In fact, you could say Sony has made the best use of this concept in tandem with what we call "platform exclusivity", which largely (and amusingly) ensures that the PS4's closest competitor, the Xbox One, can't "hijack" the popularity of its hottest games by tossing them into the Xbox Game Pass.
That isn't to say users have to pay for everything, though. Sony does give out occasional freebies to PS Plus members too, some of which are absolute top-shelf games.
If memory serves, among the most recent of these big-league games were Call of Duty: WWII and Monster Hunter: World, and being able to play them forever regardless of membership was a big hooray for me personally.
The only main drawback, though is that players will need to subscribe to access the online multiplayer aspects for the majority of PS4 games
In short, Sony's main angle is one which favours "quality" over "quantity".
They might not throw an entire catalogue's worth of games at you for free, but many of the titles that they give discounts for usually cost a bomb.
And as we mentioned earlier, the PlayStation 4 has got their whole platform exclusivity gig going on too.
Meanwhile, Xbox Live Gold and Nintendo Switch Online both ride along with the "subscribe or no online play" tactic, although you're somewhat "coerced" to buy the former if you have the Xbox Game Pass too.
It's interesting that Microsoft has found a way to make money concurrently using both models - the Game Pass might give you access to a lot of games, but you're pretty much stuck to playing alone without an Xbox Live Gold subscription to go with it.
To be honest, the latter is arguably the Xbox equivalent of PS Plus - member discounts, occasional freebies, the usual works.
Considering that they're both the same for the most part, we'll just skip right ahead to Nintendo's take on subscription services.
Apart from the standard member discounts, Nintendo Switch Online also takes a page out of EA Access' book in the sense that they give a huge catalogue of old favourites to go with the subscription.
Subscribers can enjoy a constantly-updated library of classic NES and SNES games using their Switch, and Nintendo has actually created some external infrastructure to go with it too.
For example, Nintendo Switch Online subscribers can also use the associated mobile app to initiate voice chats and other interesting functions.
It's an especially smart move when you consider that many people bring their Switch with them when they go out - it's much easier to take on multiplayer raids and bosses on the go when your friends are but a button away.
Last but not least, let's address the outliers, which are the services who adopt either one of these models but prioritise users' accessibility to games above all else.
7. Google Stadia, NVIDIA's GeForce Now: Accessibility is king
While the aforementioned subscriptions duke it out in the metaphorical arena, there are two more that don't really fit into either faction, simply because they're not about providing games per se, but rather access to them. Case in point, we have Google Stadia and NVIDIA's GeForce Now, both of which work along similar lines.
Like the other services, members pay a sum of money periodically for membership, but instead of giving free games or discounts, they let you play your existing titles on almost any platform. Using a dedicated server, players can access, stream, and play their most demanding games on any compatible device provided they've bought it. Essentially, this meant you could enjoy a PC copy of Overwatch on your Android smartphone, just to quote an example.
Of course, it all sounds like an excellent deal, but the key takeaway here is that both services are wholly reliant on your existing games library.
This leads on to the point that they are never really going to match up to the Xbox Game Pass or even EA Access for sheer value, given the number of games in your collection will never change whether you subscribe or not.
And to be frank, while Stadia and GeForce Now do talk a big game about accessibility, you wouldn't buy Assassin's Creed Odyssey on PC just to play it on your Google Pixel smartphone.
Furthermore, these services have had their own medley of issues, most of which are technical.
For a start, the graphics quality of the streamed games tends to vary (often in a bad way) depending on the strength and stability of the user's Internet connection.
Naturally, having crappy graphics can really take away from the gaming experience in most AAA titles, especially in games that focus a great deal on cinematic storytelling, such as The Last of Us. NVIDIA's GeForce Now also happens to have a problem with "limited variety", made worse by the fact that they actually lost access to Blizzard games over a little "administrative dispute" of sorts - read about it here!
Addressing the elephant in the room
After some (read: a lot of) thinking, in terms of absolute value, we find that there’s simply no winning the Xbox Game Pass for the title of “Most Value-for-money Gaming Subscription” right now.
Its toughest competitor in PS Plus might drop a few bombshell games for free every so often, but with the former, you already have access to many bombshells plus free trials for upcoming titles too - no need to pray and wait for them to swing by.
Nor do you have to worry about possible variance in graphics quality, stability issues, and queue times like you might with Google Stadia or GeForce Now.
What makes the Game Pass even more attractive is that you get all of that for about the price of three Starbucks coffees a month, and on two different platforms to boot.
Granted, you might still require your computer or console with you to play, but it’s honestly a steal if we've ever seen one.
Regardless of which subscription is objectively better, it’s important to remember that these comparisons are meant to be taken with a pinch (or even a handful) of salt.
After all, it depends on what you like to play. If you are a die-hard FIFA and NBA 2K fan, then EA Access might well be the most tempting, and if you mostly play games on your iPhone, then the Apple Arcade would probably give you the most bang for your buck.
Perhaps you could even consider GeForce Now out of curiosity, though we’re not really sure if they’ve finished wiping the egg off their faces yet.
This article was first published in Hardware Zone.