We explain the pros and cons of all your options.
In 2020, industry estimates put worldwide gaming revenue at $159 billion – four times that of the movie industry. Mobile gaming alone was estimated to make $77.2 billion.
Game consoles are becoming more powerful and expensive, with the latest and most advanced games regularly selling for well over $100. Mobile games can be fun but some are near-impossible to finish without you parting with cash for “in-app purchases”.
Don’t let that put you off. For the vast majority, gaming is a great form of entertainment.
Mobile games tend to be simple and fast – the type you play while waiting for friends or commuting on the bus.
But mobile gaming isn’t just simple puzzle or arcade games, such as Candy Crush or Temple Run. Over the past few years, phones and tablets have improved enough to be able to run incredibly complex 3D games, including online multiplayer games.
Your phone: The more powerful your phone’s processor, the more likely games will play smoothly. If you have an older phone or budget model, some newer games may not run at all. Check your phone has the game’s minimum hardware and operating system requirements before buying.
Apple Arcade: This subscription service ($8.99/month) gives Apple users access to a collection of exclusive games they can play on any Apple device. The games are all ad-free full titles with no in-app purchases or other add-ons and are generally of high quality.
Free games: Be wary with “free” games – they often contain other ways developers can make their money. These can be as simple as embedded advertising or as complex as including levels that are too complicated to complete unless you purchase additional extras or boosts. Check the in-app purchases list in the App Store before you download the game to see if it sells bundles of “gems” or “power ups”.
Online games: Some games are clear that you need to be online to play, others less so. Usually these are free games that require an internet connection to download large “update” files every time you open the game. Unless you’re careful with your data settings, this could result in large phone bills. It also means the game is unplayable in flight mode.
There are three big players in consoles: Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo.
All of their consoles need a lot of set-up – you can’t take one straight out of the box and start playing. Allow a few hours to unbox a console, connect it to your network, set up a user account and download the latest operating system. If buying games online, you’ll need to wait for them to download before playing. Even using game discs and cards doesn’t always give instant gratification, as you’ll often need to wait for the latest updates to download before you can play.
All consoles have exclusive games. For example, you can’t play Mario on PlayStation or Xbox. Keep this in mind if there are any particular games you want to play.
The Sony PlayStation 5 (PS5) and Microsoft Xbox Series X are the latest generation of consoles and can output 8K resolution with amazingly detailed graphics. However, it will still be a year or so before game developers catch up with the hardware and really show what the consoles can do.
The immediate improvement you get from this latest generation is shorter loading times. We tried Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla on both the older-generation Xbox One X and Series X, and Watch Dogs: Legion on the older Sony PS4 and PS5. While there was some improvement in the graphics on the new consoles, the load times were noticeably faster. Transitions between games and the menu were smoother. The Xbox Series X also saves where you left off in multiple games, allowing you to take a break and pick up where you paused (previously it would only save one game).
Latest-generation model: PlayStation 5 (PS5) – $820
Sony’s PlayStation is the most popular console worldwide and has a large range of exclusive games. The PS5 is like a 1950s Cadillac, in that it’s huge and powerful with long white fins that don’t seem to serve a purpose.
Set-up: This is done in conjunction with the PlayStation app on your phone. It’s fastest if you already have a PlayStation account. If you’re bringing data across from a PS4, it’s easiest to either connect the two via an ethernet cable or forgo the transfer entirely and re-download your games from the PlayStation store, rather than try to do it over your home WiFi.
PlayStation Plus: You need a PlayStation Plus subscription ($14/month) if you want to play online games. It also comes with 200GB online storage (for saving your progress in games), three games each month and discounts on other titles.
Controller: The PlayStation controller has been redesigned for the PS5. It’s larger and chunkier than previous versions. It also gives you greater feedback through force-sensitive triggers and contextual sounds. Its vibration feedback is subtler than the simple buzzer previous models had. There’s only one controller included with the console, so if you want to play local multiplayer you’ll need to buy another one ($125). While PS4 controllers work with the PS5, they can only be used to play PS4 games.
Remote Play: Sony’s remote play apps allow you to play your PlayStation on your laptop (Mac or PC) or phone (Apple or Android) connected to your network, so you aren’t tied to the TV. You need a strong network connection (Sony recommends 12Mbps for the best experience, and a minimum of 5Mbps). Setting up remote play takes a little time, but after that playing is simple.
Size: The PS5 is a large unit that may not fit in the same space as any current console system you have. It can be set-up vertically or horizontally fairly easily. Wherever you find space for it, the large white fins mean it won’t be a subtle addition to your room.
Latest-generation model: Xbox Series X – $799
While it’s second to Sony in worldwide sales, the Xbox is no slouch. It’s a good game system with a decent number of exclusive titles.
Set-up: This is done mostly through the Xbox app on your phone. It helps to have a Microsoft account before starting. You can continue the set-up while the Xbox downloads and updates in the background.
Xbox Live Gold: You will need an Xbox Live Gold subscription ($13/month) if you want to play online games. It comes with two games each month and discounts on further titles.
Xbox Game Pass: Game Pass is a subscription service ($13/month) that gives you access to a huge regularly updated database of games. Titles range from old Xbox 360 games to recent releases. All Microsoft’s exclusives are available on Game Pass on the day they’re released. Game Pass Ultimate is an extended version ($20/month) that also includes games from EA Access, with popular titles such as FIFA and Madden. Game Pass Ultimate includes Xbox Live Gold ($13/month by itself), making it great value for money.
Still big: Where Sony went with an overtly ostentatious design, the Xbox Series X is a simple black box. However, it’s still a big unit, and finding a space for it might not be easy.
Controllers: The Series X only comes with one controller, so if you want to play local multiplayer you’ll need to buy an extra ($88). However, it is fully compatible with most Xbox One controllers and gaming accessories, so you can use hardware you already have.
Latest-generation model: Switch – $549
Nintendo doesn’t make powerhouse consoles with impressive stats and mind-blowing graphics, its game systems are unique, inventive and fun to play. It has a huge range of exclusives, including Mario, Zelda and Pokémon.
The best part is, unlike the hefty PlayStation and Xbox consoles, the Switch is small and intended to be portable.
Set-up: This is done on the console and you’ll need a Nintendo account.
Portability: The Switch is made to be mobile. It’s lightweight and looks a little like a tablet with gaming controllers attached to it. The battery won’t last all day, but it’ll last long enough to play a few games while you’re out and about.
TV connection: The charging stand can be connected to your TV via an HDMI cable, allowing you to play on a larger screen. For a portable console the Switch plays very well on a large TV, but don’t expect the graphics, 8K resolution and overall visual experience you’ll get from the PS5 or Series X.
Go online: To get the best from the Switch you’ll need a Nintendo Switch Online membership ($6.55/month, $13.15/quarter or $32.95/year). This lets you save game data to the cloud and join online multiplayer games. You also get access to a few exclusive online multiplayer games such as Tetris 99 and a catalogue of old NES and SNES titles.
Multiplayer: The controllers detach and can be used separately. This means you can have two players playing on one console and, if you have two consoles, four players can play a single game.
Family fun: Nintendo’s exclusive games are much more family friendly than other game systems.
Bluetooth: It’s a little odd for a portable system but the Switch doesn’t have Bluetooth, so you can’t connect wireless headphones. It does have a wired headphone jack though.
Each game system has its own digital game store. Mobile devices access games through Apple and Android App stores.
Accessing any of these digital stores requires an account and a credit card, though some can also be used with gift vouchers (handy when buying gifts for kids).
Refunds: There are lots of problems that can plague game releases. Sometimes glitches can render a game unplayable. In this case you can get a refund.
However, it’s not always easy to get a refund from a digital store, so before you purchase a game make sure to read the refund policy.
All stores are required to follow the Fair Trading Act and the Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA), though some may make you fight for it. If you’re struggling to get a refund and are a Consumer NZ member, our advisers can help.
Pre-orders: Taking pre-orders has become the norm in the gaming industry, for both hardware and software.
Pre-ordering is like paying to join a queue, so when the product becomes available you (virtually) step up and get yours. Sometimes you pay the full amount upfront, sometimes a deposit.
Under the CGA you can cancel the order if the retailer “is not able to deliver your order within a reasonable time of the estimated delivery time”. However, what constitutes a “reasonable time” to wait after you’ve paid for the order isn’t specified.
Some retailers claim they can reject your cancellation if the delay is because “suppliers are unable to supply goods”. We disagree and say that this goes against the CGA, and that a reasonable wait shouldn’t be longer than two weeks in most circumstances.
While digital stores are commonplace for games, there’s an argument to be made for owning a physical copy.
You will always own a physical copy (unless you lose the disc or card) and the publisher can’t remove it from your library. Plus, when you’ve completed it (or run out of patience with it), you can loan it to your friends or sell it.