Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription is about as close to “Netflix for games” as you can get. And just like Netflix, there are ways to get the most bang for your buck. Here are some tips for wringing everything you can out of a Game Pass subscription.
Consider ponying up for Ultimate
Like many other media subscriptions, Game Pass is available in multiple tiers. The standard tier is $10 a month, which grants you access to the Game Pass library and not much else. The PC version is also $10, though it includes access to EA Play, mega-publisher Electronic Arts’ own subscription service.
For $15 a month you can get Xbox Game Pass Ultimate, which gives you access to both the console and PC Game Pass as well as the EA Play library. You also get a subscription to Xbox Live Gold, Microsoft’s online service, which itself offers four extra games per month via the Games with Gold program. Ultimate members can also access the Xbox Cloud Gaming beta, which enables remote play on devices with compatible controllers—currently, iOS and Android devices, and even smart TVs like the Samsung Smart 2022 monitor. Game Pass Ultimate also sometimes adds first-party expansions at no extra cost, an additional perk not available to subscribers of the standard Game Pass tier.
It’s clear that Microsoft wants to funnel subscribers into the higher price point. For the time being, pending a serious spike in the sticker price, the math works out to justify the leap—in most cases. Switching from the base-level to Ultimate is worth it if...
You plan on paying full price for three “tentpole” Xbox games in a calendar year
You plan on picking up both the console and PC Game Pass subscriptions
You plan on subscribing to at least two of the following: Game Pass, Xbox Live Gold, or EA Play
The $15 monthly price can be daunting, particularly in an era of subscription fatigue, but there are a few methods for alleviating the cost. For starters, your first three months currently cost just a dollar (total), though once that lapses, Microsoft automatically charges your card for a monthly renewal at the full rate. If this higher rate leads you to decide to cancel Game Pass, the process is fairly painless—canceling won’t delete your save data for any games you’ve played with the service. You can pick up any game exactly where you left off by buying the game, either physically or digitally, or resubscribing to Game Pass.
Digital retailers will sometimes offer three-month, six-month, or one-year cards for Ultimate that add up to less than the total cost. You can also convert codes for Microsoft’s other subscriptions into months of Ultimate, which can cut down the cost a bit. When you sign up for Ultimate, any prepaid months you have of Xbox Live Gold, Xbox Game Pass, or EA Play can be converted into a maximum of 36 Ultimate months (!), currently at a 1:1 rate. That means that you could buy three years of Xbox Live Gold offer with a discounted $60 one-year card, join Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for $1, and receive Xbox Game Pass Ultimate for just $181 instead of the usual three-year cost, which is around $500 depending on what offers you use.
Finally, consider finding a PC-playing friend—one you trust—and splitting the cost. Surely, you and your friend can hammer out a fair split, and you can both play games at the same time with the same account, so long as you’re not trying to play, say, Halo multiplayer.
Sure, play the hits...
For many people, the main draw of Game Pass is that you can play huge games without having to hit up GameStop or hand over more money to the Bezos empire. First-party games from Xbox Game Studios, like Forza Horizon 5 and The Outer Worlds, and the rare third-party blockbuster like Outriders land on the service on day one. If you want to play all of the biggest Xbox games (and then some) at launch without dishing out $60 a pop, Game Pass is the way to do it. Big third-party games—like Assassin’s Creed Origins and Rainbow Six Siege—cycle in and out of the library all the time, too.
Many of Microsoft’s first-party games have been optimized for the Xbox Series X and S, allowing for faster load speeds, higher framerates, and sharper resolutions. And those with compatible displays can avail themselves of 120fps modes for games like Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Gears 5, and Halo: The Master Chief Collection. Game Pass is as good an excuse as any to replay old games, or to check them out for the first time.
...but don’t sleep on the indie gems
As good as Game Pass is for scoring access to big games, it’s even better for discovering smaller ones. For every Forza or Halo or third-party blockbuster, there’s an under-the-radar gem at which you otherwise wouldn’t have looked at twice. The following, if you missed them, are at least worth checking out:
Most of the best games on Game Pass are relatively small—a handful of gigabytes, at most, and usually under 1GB—so even folks with strict data caps can download them with little repercussion. If you’re only skimming the surface and playing the biggest hits, you’re missing out on a whole lot of terrific games.
Filter the libraries
Seeing as there are hundreds of games in the library, scrolling through alphabetically can be tedious. But you can narrow it down with some helpful filters. All you have to do is access Game Pass via “My Games and Apps,” rather than the standard Game Pass dashboard icon. In “My Games and Apps,” if you scroll to “full library,” you should see two tiles: one for Xbox Game Pass and one for EA Play. You can also take advantage of the Xbox website’s robust categorization options, which lumps EA Play titles in with the rest of the Game Pass collection and includes a helpful “play day one” bracket.
On the top row of the Game Pass app, you should see an icon that looks like an inverted high-school science class funnel. Clicking on that allows you to filter by genre (platformer, shooter, role-playing, and so on), by console (Xbox and Xbox 360 games, Xbox One games, or next-gen “optimized” games), and multiplayer capabilities (online, local, co-op, or competitive). If you simply want to use Game Pass to check out all of the games revamped with next-gen upgrades, you can do that. If you’d prefer to see which puzzle games offer local co-op, you can do that, too. Viewing the library through all these filter options allows for robust categorization options that may help you decide if a subscription is right for you and your gaming interests.
In some cases, Game Pass allows you to preload high-profile upcoming games, letting you get time-consuming downloads out of the way now rather than on launch day.
Get some rechargeable AA batteries
Xbox controllers still use AA batteries, so this is never a bad idea.
Updated: 6/10/22, 2:45 p.m. ET: Originally published on December 29, 2020, this article has been expanded and made current with new information.