There’s a lot to love about digital gaming, like being able to shop for and download games instantly from my couch. I don’t miss hunting for discs or the irritating whir as they spin in the drive. But sharing digital games is a mess. It’s confusing and needlessly complicated.
It’s not unusual to find my entire household playing video games. The four of us are lucky enough to have a large Steam library, an Ultimate Game Pass subscription, and a stack of PlayStation games. But achieving collective gaming joy requires careful negotiation, since claiming a console or game service can lock everyone else out. All the major gaming platforms lack straightforward family gaming plans.
One at a Time
Take my Steam library, for example. I spent years building up a formidable collection of PC games on Steam. I imagined the whole family would be able to enjoy those titles, but it turns out you are restricted to one player at a time.
While this is also an issue with physical discs, I don’t mind that I have to buy two copies if my wife and I want to play Rimworld at the same time. That's how discs work. But it seems ridiculous that we can’t play two different games from my digital library at the same time. I can circumvent this to an extent by starting a game on one machine, cutting the internet connection (provided it has an offline mode), and then logging in to Steam on a different computer, but this is a loophole, and technically against the guidelines.
To add insult to injury, Steam teases a Family Sharing feature. Theoretically, it allows you to share your game collection with family members with separate Steam accounts. So, can you share a library and play simultaneously? According to its FAQ, no: “A shared library may only be played by one user at a time, including the owner and even if they want to play different games.” How does that make sense?
It’s not just Steam and PC gaming. Game subscription services on consoles are even more confusing. Good luck if you’re a parent who doesn’t game. Trying to work out what you actually need for your kids to enjoy gaming in a multi-console household feels impossible.
I managed to buy a PS5, freeing up our PS4 for what we hoped would be simultaneous gaming. My PS Plus subscription creates separate profiles for each family member, but we found that playing on one console bumps the person on the other one. Turns out, you can play a PS5 game on the PS5 and a PS4 game on the PS4 simultaneously, but not a PS4 game on both. Naturally, there’s a workaround: You need to set both consoles as primary, install the games you want, and then create and log into a second PlayStation Network account on your PS4. There’s no way to share like this with two PS4s or two PS5s, though.
The Ultimate Game Pass for Xbox and PC is a phenomenal deal, and we have no issues playing on the Xbox and PC at the same time, but Microsoft doesn’t make things easy either. I appreciate being able to play on different machines—even while playing the same game cooperatively—but you do have to jump through hoops, designate your “Home” console, and set up Family Sharing. And there are still insurmountable limitations for EA Play titles or xCloud gaming.
Nintendo is the only one to offer an explicit Family Membership, but all it does is allow up to eight Nintendo Accounts to use the Nintendo Switch Online membership service. It doesn’t have anything to do with sharing games. If you want to play games on multiple Switches simultaneously, you must use workarounds. You can start a game on one and go into Airplane mode, then start it on another. Or you can play the game with a secondary profile created on your main Switch, then log in to a second Switch with your main profile (the one that bought the game).
It’s way too easy to fall down a headache-inducing rabbit hole of conflicting advice, inconsistent rules, and weird workarounds. Even when there is a way for you to get simultaneous access, the process to set it up is invariably downright confusing and must be cobbled together from posts written by other gamers. The complete lack of clear instructions from the big game companies is infuriating, and they are far too slow to clarify limits and exceptions.
All I want is a game library that’s accessible for all four family members. I want us to be able to play different games simultaneously on different consoles and computers, online or offline. I want to play these same games cooperatively—locally or online—with separate cloud save games to sync progress for each of us.
Game developers and publishers have to earn a living, but there’s no way most families can afford to buy multiple copies of the same game or sign up for multiple monthly subscriptions. I’m willing to pay a bit more for a family plan than I would for a single account or subscription, like I do for Spotify’s family offering at $17 per month versus the standard $10 per month for the individual account, but that option is not available for games.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. This tweet asking for a family game pass even got a reply from Xbox head Phil Spencer, who said, “It's something we'd like to do.” But that was more than a year ago. For the sake of my sanity, my Saturday afternoons, and domestic peace, someone please give us a proper family gaming plan.
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