Free online multiplayer is a thing of the past for consoles, but which subscription service offers the best value?BI GraphicsSince its launch in March 2017, owners of the Nintendo Switch console have been able to play games like “Splatoon 2” and “Mario Kart 8 Deluxe” online for free.
Nintendo was the last major console maker to offer free online multiplayer services, but the launch of the Nintendo Switch Online subscription service marks the end of an era for the console — and for online gaming in general.
Starting September 18th, all console gamers on the current generation of systems, which include Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PlayStation 4, and the Nintendo Switch, will need to pay for a premium service to play their games online with friends and other players around the world. Switch Online will be significantly less expensive than Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus, but players may be getting less bang for their buck with the Nintendo service.
Let’s dive in to how the three services stack up:
Nintendo Switch Online: the price is low, but at what cost?
Nintendo Switch Online will start at $20 a year with options to pay $3.99 for one month or $7.99 for three months. There is also a $34.99 family plan for those with multiple Switch consoles, allowing up to eight different Switch consoles under a single account.
And for those with other Nintendo consoles, it’s worth noting that Nintendo’s paid online service remains specific to the Switch; Nintendo 3DS handhelds and Wii U consoles will continue to offer free online multiplayer.
Switch Online launches with 20 NES games, with more classics to be released each month.
As a part of Nintendo Switch Online, subscribers will receive access to 20 games from the original Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) including “Super Mario Bros,” “Donkey Kong” and “The Legend of Zelda.”
These titles will be playable online as well, and “Super Mario Bros.” will feature a co-op mode for the first time. Nintendo has hinted it might release more classics in the future, but so far the offerings are restricted to NES games. Classic Nintendo titles are otherwise not for sale in the Switch eShop.
Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus already offer free games every month.
In 2013 Microsoft launched “Games with Gold,” a program offering free digital Xbox games to Gold subscribers each month. Much like Xbox Live Gold, PS+ also gives subscribers free games each month for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita. Both companies offer exclusive discounts and early access opportunities through the Microsoft and PlayStation stores, respectively.
The free games are only available for active Gold and PS+ subscribers and become unplayable if the subscription lapses. Resubscribing will allow the player to reclaim those titles. Sony recently announced that free games for PlayStation 3 and Vita will no longer be offered after March 2019, though free PlayStation 4 games will continue.
The Nintendo Switch App is still a requirement for proper online play.
For players who want to invite friends to play with them or chat with teammates, Nintendo will still require users to download the Switch Online app to a smartphone or tablet.
The companion app is essential for players to have full access to the console’s social features. It allows for additional features like stat tracking, maps, and a shop for in-game items, but so far only last year’s “Splatoon 2” has properly implemented those features.
Xbox Live and PlayStation Network offer game-specific community hubs.
Xbox Live has the most fleshed out social features of the three major consoles, allowing voice and text messages, party chat for groups, and video chat using Skype or Kinect. PlayStation Plus offers most of the same features but does not have video chat, despite having camera functionality.
Both Xbox Live and PlayStation Network also offer community hubs for each game on their respective consoles, allowing users to upload pictures and video for popular titles and exchange messages. In some cases, players can even register for online competitions using the service.
Nintendo is offering cloud saves for some, but not all, games.
Nintendo will begin offering cloud storage for some Switch game saves, but the exact details of the feature still seem to be up in the air. Not all Switch titles will have cloud saving available (there’s no official list so far) and if the player’s Switch Online subscription lapses, their cloud saves will be deleted.
In a statement to Kotaku, Nintendo said that some games like “Splatoon 2” and “Dark Souls: Remastered” will not have cloud saving to prevent players from cheating and modifying their saves.
Sony and Microsoft began offering cloud saves with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and they remain available for nearly every game. Xbox Live users can backup their game saves without a subscription while PlayStation owners need PS+. PlayStation and Xbox can also backup their gamesaves to a USB device; the Switch cannot.
The verdict: Nintendo is still playing catch-up with its online service.
At the core, these premium subscription services are most important for their access to online multiplayer and, without them, players will be severely limited in their options for new games. Many of the most popular games in the world are exclusively based on online multiplayer, with popular titles like “Overwatch” and “Destiny” completely forgoing a single-player experience in favor of robust multiplayer options.
Online games largely share the same features across all platforms, but each company is looking for gamers to make an investment in their console. At $20, the pay-to-play cost of Switch Online doesn’t seem so bad.
However, in terms of basic offerings, the Nintendo Switch Online service lags behind Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus, particularly with its lack of voice chat, basic game invitation service, and poor cloud save support.