Video games are fun. They’re also expensive, at least if you want to play a game that isn’t loaded with microtransactions. If you’re looking to play tons and tons of games while spending the least amount of money possible, then this guide is for you.
Assuming you’re interested in playing paid games (as opposed to freebies like Fortnite), there are two ways to go about it: paying for a subscription for lots of games at once or paying to get a few permanently free games at a slower rate. There are also a few premium games that anyone can claim for free on some platforms.
Your options depend on which game platform you have right now. So, let’s start with what’s easily the best option for free premium games and low-cost game subscriptions: the PC.
PC: Xbox Game Pass, Humble Choice, and Epic Games Store
PC gamers are kind of spoiled for choice when it comes to cheap games, with thousands and thousands of older titles and indie games available on a dozen different game stores for almost nothing. But we’re proceeding here under the assumption that you don’t already have a Steam library that would put Alexandria to shame, and you want to play premium (read: paid) games for as little as possible.
There are a lot of ways to go about this. For subscription services, there’s the Xbox Game Pass for PC (yes, it has Xbox in the title, and yes, it’s for the PC), EA Play (formerly EA Access, formerly Origin Access), and Ubisoft’s Uplay+. All of these offer a wide selection of games—some new, some not—for a monthly fee.
Among them, the Xbox Game Pass for PC currently has the edge. While the options from EA and Ubisoft are pretty solid, Microsoft’s has a single-minded dedication towards offering a variety of games from different publishers and developers, and new high-profile games as soon as they’re released. The much-loved The Outer Worlds came to the Xbox Game Pass for PC on launch day at no extra charge, which is a pretty sweet deal for a story-based game with limited replay value. This puts the library of the Xbox Game Pass above those from EA and Ubisoft, which can get kind of same-y, relying on a lot of games in the same big franchises.
The Xbox Game Pass for PC is $10 a month with over a hundred high-profile games, and as an extra bonus, it will soon include games from the EA Play library, too. If you also have an Xbox, you can get a bunch of games for your console, too—some of which are available on the PC, some of which aren’t. That requires the $15 Game Pass Ultimate subscription—still a great deal.
Note that, while the service is set up kind of like a streaming movie service, it’s still downloading games directly to your PC and playing them locally. If you’re using a laptop or a low-power desktop, there may be games available that you can’t actually play on your machine, especially newer 3D titles. If your computer isn’t powerful enough to play the games you want, you might consider Google Stadia instead. It has a much smaller selection, especially of free games, but the streaming system only needs a solid Internet connection.
Another alternative you might consider is the Humble Choice subscription, from the same people who organize the Humble Bundle. For $15-20 a month, you get access to the “Humble Trove” of 90+ games, and you get to choose and keep up to nine titles a month. That’s “keep” as in “retain access to permanently,” so you can continue playing them even if you decide to end your subscription. Humble-acquired games are usually redeemable on external services like Steam. Also cool: 5% of all subscription fees go to charity every month.
There’s one more option to consider for PC gamers: the Epic Game Store. Epic gives away one to three new premium games to its users every week, which they can keep and play forever without ever spending a penny. I’ve amassed over 60 free games—games that would have cost anywhere from a few bucks to $60 normally—just by checking out the new offerings every Thursday. You have to pay attention to get the best titles, but it’s a great way to build up a collection on a budget.
Xbox: Xbox Game Pass
It shouldn’t be any surprise that the Xbox Game Pass is also the best way to play a ton of games for very little money on, well, the Xbox. Microsoft’s subscription offering is getting better all the time, and it’s now bundled in with Xbox Live Gold (the multiplayer component of the Xbox One) for a very reasonable $15 a month. That service will continue on the Xbox Series X and Series S.
That Gold subscription includes a few extra games every month, above and beyond the games available in the Game Pass, and you can keep playing those games even if you stop paying for the subscription. For example, this month’s free Games With Gold are The Division, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2, De Blob 2, and Armed and Dangerous. Game Pass now includes free streaming games to Android phones and tablets, too.
PlayStation: PlayStation Now and PlayStation Plus
Sony has a similar option for the PlayStation 4, called PlayStation Now. For $10 a month, you can download hundreds of PS4 and PS2 games to your console, or stream games from the PS4, PS3, and PS2. (Streaming is pretty low-quality—if you have the option, you want those downloads.) PlayStation Now doesn’t include brand-new titles like the Xbox Game Pass, but its selection of older games is much wider at the time of writing.
In addition to playing locally on the console, you can stream PlayStation Now games to a PC if you plug in a PS3 controller. Your game selection and progress sync across the network.
Sony’s premium online system is called PlayStation Plus—you have to pay for it if you want to play multiplayer PS4 games online. It’s $10 a month, or $60 for a year, with the latter option obviously being a better deal. PlayStation Plus includes a couple of free premium games every month that you can associate with your account. This month’s free games for PS Plus members are Street Fighter V and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG).
These free games are yours as long as you keep your PlayStation Plus subscription active. Unlike Xbox Gold, you don’t get to keep playing them if you stop paying. But if you return to the PlayStation Plus service later, they’ll still be available, even if they’re no longer listed as “free.” PlayStation Plus subscribers also get access to some exclusive games on the PlayStation digital store.
Nintendo Switch: Switch Online (Isn’t Very Good)
At the moment, the Switch is definitely the odd man out in terms of free games. Nintendo has an online multiplayer subscription simply called “Switch Online,” and it’s quite cheap at just $4 a month, or $20 a year ( or $35 for a family plan with up to eight users). And, it includes a lot of free games … from three or four decades ago.
Switch Online includes access to a selection of games from the Nintendo Entertainment System and Super NES. It’s a pretty great library, filled with absolute classics from Nintendo’s library and third parties. And, Nintendo adds a few more every month. But they are, well, very old games. Compared to the new and almost-new titles available on the Xbox and PlayStation services, it’s a pittance.
Switch Online does include a few newer games for free that aren’t available elsewhere like Tetris 99 and the upcoming Super Mario 35. But the Switch’s choices for free games and low-cost subscription services, are pretty limited.
iPhone and iPad: Apple Arcade
Apple has gotten into the subscription game service, um, game, and its offering is called Apple Arcade. Because there are literally hundreds of thousands of games available on the iOS App Store, it’s almost more valuable as a curation service than anything else: The games in Apple Arcade are all premium, featuring none of the ads or in-app purchases that are so common in mobile games.
The service is $5 a month for more than 100 games. These range from high-quality touchscreen titles to full-on console ports, and many of them have been made exclusively for the Apple Arcade platform. Some of them work with controllers, and the games can be played on an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV, or Mac computer. You can start playing on your phone and move to any other device without losing your progress.
Of course, if you want to play free games, there’s no shortage of them available on the iOS App Store, no subscription required. But almost all of them include ads or annoying in-app purchases. However, there are fairly frequent promotions that will allow you to get a previously paid game for free, which usually means no ads and no (or fewer) IAPs. Keep an eye on gaming sites and iPhone blogs to spot these freebies.
Android: Google Play Pass
Google’s alternative to the Apple Arcade subscription is the Google Play Pass. It’s pretty much the same setup as Apple Arcade for Android phones, with a big difference: The selection is wider, and it has a lot fewer exclusive games. It’s $5 a month, or $30 a year.
Play Pass includes a few good titles, especially if you’re looking for something for kids to play. But Google hasn’t invested in the original development that Apple has, and it doesn’t have that seamless device switching. (Some of the Play Pass games might also be available on Chromebooks or Android TV, however.)
Just like iOS, Android has hundreds of thousands of games on the Play Store, most of which are free … and most of which require either watching tons of ads or buying in-game items to actually enjoy them. But periodically premium games are made available for free, temporarily, allowing users to build up a free collection of better games if they act quickly.