Xbox Game Pass vs. Ultimate: What’s the difference?

Xbox Game Pass screen on Xbox Series S running on 4K TV
(Image credit: Miguel Lagoa | Shutterstock)

Xbox Game Pass is one of the best deals in gaming. What’s more: With Microsoft poised to acquire Activision Blizzard, it could get even better in the next year or two. The service costs at least $10 per month, which is admittedly not cheap. But you’ll get what you pay for, with hundreds of downloadable games, including day-one  releases from Microsoft studios.

Before you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass (or write it off forever), just be aware that it comes in three different flavors: Xbox Game Pass, PC Game Pass and Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. The three tiers have more similarities than differences, and deciding which one you want is pretty simple. You just have to ask yourself three questions:

  • Do I want to game on Xbox?
  • Do I want to game on a gaming PC?
  • Do I want to game on mobile devices and non-gaming PCs and play games online?

Once you know the answers, picking a tier is simple. In this piece, we’ll break down the differences and recommend different tiers for individual use-cases.

Xbox Game Pass vs. PC Game Pass vs. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate

Before we dive into the specifics of each Xbox Game Pass subscription tier, please consult the handy chart below for a high-level overview of what each one offers:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
Xbox Game Pass vs. PC Game Pass vs. Xbox Game Pass Ultimate
Row 0 - Cell 0 Xbox Game PassPC Game PassXbox Game Pass Ultimate
PlatformsXbox One, Xbox Series X/SPCPC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, Android, iOS, Web browser
Delivery MethodDownloadDownloadDownload, Streaming
Xbox Live Gold Included? NoN/AYes

Xbox Game Pass for Console

Xbox and Samsung

(Image credit: Future)

To start, let’s talk about Xbox Game Pass (or Xbox Game Pass for Console), arguably the service’s most basic tier. This is Xbox Game Pass as Microsoft initially pitched it back at E3 2017. You pay $10 per month, and in return, you gain access to a library of more than 400 Xbox games. These range from first-party Microsoft fare, such as Halo Infinite and Forza Horizon 5, to indie darlings, such as Hollow Knight and Unpacking. You have to download these games to an Xbox One, Xbox Series S or Xbox Series X console before you play them.

There’s not much else to know here. If you choose to buy one of the Game Pass titles à la carte, you’ll get a 20% discount. These games don’t generally come with DLC, but you’ll get a 10% discount on any add-ons. As with any subscription service, games come and go from Xbox Game Pass frequently, so if you see a game you like, you’ll want to play it sooner rather than later. (Except for games from Microsoft studios; those are there for keeps.)

Similarly, once your subscription runs out, you’ll lose access to the Game Pass library. However, if you purchase a game à la carte, your save files will carry over, so there’s no risk of lost progress.

It should also be noted, to play games online, console Game Pass subscribers will also need a separate subscription to Xbox Live Gold. This feature not only gives access to online gaming, but affords players a handful of free games to keep. For example, 49 titles were given away in 2021, including games such as Little Nightmares, Injustice: Gods Among Us and Darksiders 3. Even if your Xbox Live Gold membership lapses, you get to keep your Games with Gold titles. Granted, many of these titles are also found in the Xbox Game Pass library. Pricing for Xbox Live Gold is as follows: $10 a month, $25 for 3 months and $60 for a full year. Generously, Xbox does not require a Live Gold membership for a handful of free-to-play games such as Fortnite, Roblox and Rocket League. The full list of free-to-play non-Xbox Live Gold games can be found here.  Xbox Live Gold is included with the more expensive Xbox Game Pass Ultimate tier, however.

PC Game Pass

Xbox Game Pass

(Image credit: Microsoft)

PC Game Pass is essentially the same thing as Xbox Game Pass for Console, just on a different system. As the name suggests, PC Game Pass lets you download and play games on Windows 10 and Windows 11 computers. This can be a little tricker than using Game Pass on consoles, as not every game is guaranteed to run on your PC. You’ll still need to meet the minimum requirements — CPU, GPU, hard drive space, and so forth. But if you have a powerful machine, you’ll have access to more than 400 PC games for $10 per month.

The selection is somewhat different than Xbox Game Pass for Console, since the two libraries don’t have exact parity. Most of the Microsoft stuff is still on offer. You’ll also gain access to some beloved Microsoft PC titles, such as Age of Empires IV. There are plenty of indies, from Boyfriend Dungeon to Sable. The third-party lineup is different, but not as different as you might expect — you can still play games such as Octopath Traveler and the majority of the Yakuza series, for example.

The same discount rules apply — 20% off full games, and 10% off DLC. Just be aware that whatever game you buy, you’ll buy through the Microsoft Store rather than Steam or the Epic Games Store. This might limit multiplayer compatibility on certain titles, so it’s worth doing a little research in advance.

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate

xbox game pass ultimate

(Image credit: Xbox)

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate is where Microsoft offers all of the service’s best bells and whistles. While it costs $15 per month rather than $10, Game Pass Ultimate is arguably worth the upsell if you want to game on as many platforms as possible. Not only that, it includes an Xbox Live Gold membership for online gaming and a handful of select titles to fully own.

First and foremost, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate gives you full access to the libraries in both Xbox Game Pass for Console and PC Game Pass. This means you can download and play games on both a gaming PC and a console. In most cases, save data carries over between them.

Here’s where things get interesting. In addition to letting you download games, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate also lets you stream games. At present, Xbox Game Pass supports cloud gaming on Android, iOS, Web browsers and even Xbox consoles themselves. Whether you play downloaded or streamed games, your save data carries over across platforms.

In other words: You could download a game on your Xbox, move over to your gaming PC when your spouse wants the TV, continue your session on your smartphone in bed, then sneak in a quick session on your work laptop the next day.

Xbox Cloud Gaming does have a few caveats. The service is still technically in beta, so connectivity is not perfect. The iOS functionality, in particular, doesn’t work that well, partially because Apple makes you use a browser rather than allowing a dedicated app. Not every game is available to stream, and those that are, are usually not optimized for small screens. Smartphones, in particular, can require additional hardware or convoluted setups, whether you plan to play with a controller or a mount, such as the Razer Kishi.

Generally speaking, though, Xbox Game Pass Ultimate feels like a glimpse into the future of gaming. You can play hundreds of games, on any platform you want, and carry over your progress with minimal frustration. The only question is whether you want to spend $15 per month for the privilege. But if you were already paying $10 a month for Xbox Live Gold to gain access to online gameplay, the added $5 cost for Game Pass Ultimate might be a no-brainer for some.

Which Xbox Game Pass tier should I get?

Xbox Game Pass

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Remember those three questions you asked yourself earlier? If so, you should now have a pretty good idea of which Xbox Game Pass tier to get:

  • Get Xbox Game Pass for Console if you want to download games to an Xbox console and don't care about playing certain games online
  • Get PC Game Pass if you want to download games to a gaming PC
  • Get Xbox Game Pass Ultimate if you want to download games to both an Xbox console and a gaming PC and/or if you want to stream games to Android, iOS, Web browsers and Xbox consoles. Also consider Ultimate if you plan on playing your games online

It’s also worth noting that there’s one circumstance under which you shouldn’t subscribe to Xbox Game Pass, and that’s if you prefer to own games outright. Xbox Game Pass offers a ton of games, but they do come and go regularly, and sooner or later, a game that you love will leave the service while you’re in the middle of it. It’s a frustrating experience, and one that you’ll never encounter if you simply buy games one at a time.

Buying games outright can also be cheaper. At $15 per month, a year’s worth of Xbox Game Pass Ultimate will run you a steep $180. That’s about three big-budget games, or somewhere between nine and 20 indies, to say nothing of mid-budget games that you can often find on sale. It’s worth surveying your gaming habits and doing a little math before you invest in any tier of Game Pass.

Otherwise, Xbox Game Pass is an impressive service that will likely get even better in the next year or two. Granted, it may also get more expensive — no subscription service stays at the same price forever. If that happens, we recommend running the math again, and determining whether you play enough games each month to justify the premium.

Marshall Honorof

Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.