In 2013, during the runup to the launch of the PlayStation 4, Sony released an “instructional” video on how to share PS4 games with friends. The 22-second clip features Shuhei Yoshida, then the president of Sony Interactive Entertainment, handing a PS4 game to Adam Boyes, another Sony exec. At the time, it was a dig at how poorly Microsoft muddled the capabilities (or not) surrounding sharing games on the then-upcoming Xbox One.
Of course, how we play and share video games has changed a lot over the past seven years. More people than ever are buying games digitally, which makes sharing them more complicated than just handing a disc to a friend. You can’t just physically hand your friend a massive, rights-restricted chunk of code. But you can work around this restriction by learning how to deftly manage your “primary” consoles.
For all three major consoles, designating one machine as your primary console allows all other accounts on that machine to play any downloaded games associated with your account. This is most helpful in family or other shared-household situations. Let’s say you have a PS4 in the living room and one of your live-ins (kids, roommates, recently-dumped BFFs) has one in their bedroom. You needn’t buy two digital copies of God of War. You just need to set the console you’re not playing on as your primary console. Anyone playing on that console will be able to pummel the Norse pantheon with their account. When you want to play, you’ll be able to put Baldur in his place by signing in on your non-primary PS4.
Here’s how to set up a primary console on your PS4, Switch, or Xbox One.
Activating a PS4 as your primary PS4 is a painless process. Once you sign into the console, go to the settings, open up the Account Management submenu, and hit the “activate as your primary PlayStation 4” option. When prompted, hit “activate” again, and you’re good to go. To deactivate a console as your primary, just go through that process in reverse. You don’t need to deactivate one PS4 before setting another one as your primary. There are pretty much no limits to futzing with this setting on the console itself.
But let’s say you’re in a situation where you need to deactivate a primary PS4 remotely—maybe your machine is hopelessly busted, or maybe you sold it and forgot to log out, or maybe you logged into a friend’s machine in early March and were then quickly isolated from them by an unprecedented, world-upending pandemic. Whatever the case, you can remotely deactivate a PS4 from Sony’s account management website. Just keep in mind that you can only do this once every six months.
To set up a Switch as your primary console, you have to link a Nintendo Account to a Switch user account. It’s a relatively simple process: Once you’ve created a user account on the Switch, head to the console’s system settings. Find the one you want to link, then select “link Nintendo account.” Follow the prompts to sign in.
Once that’s squared away, head to your account page on the eShop (it’s on the upper-righthand corner of the main page) and scroll down to the bottom of the first submenu. After all the payment options, available funds, and other account information, you should see a “Primary Console” section. Hit the “Register” button and you’re good to go.
If you’ve already set up a primary Switch, this option will be gated off—and unlike primary accounts on the PS4, where you can activate new primary consoles without deactivating old ones, you’ll need to deregister the original primary Switch first. You can do so by visiting your Nintendo Account from a web browser, but only once per year. It’s far easier to deactivate if you have the original Switch in front of you. Just visit that same “Primary Console” section in the eShop. You should see the message “This console is registered as your primary console.” and a tiny “Deregister” button. Hit that twice to clear the runway.
There’s a huge warning to all of this: Once you link a Nintendo Account to a Switch user account, you can’t unbind the two. You can register and register primary machines, but the only way to unpair Nintendo Accounts and Switch user accounts is to delete the Switch user account—and all save data tied to it. Bear that in mind before you pair your Nintendo Account to your Switch user account.
On Xbox One, your primary console is called your “home” console. Changing it is straightforward, but you can only do so five times annually on a rolling basis, with each year starting from the moment you make your first shift. There are some bonus perks, though, chiefly that every person playing on your home Xbox can also make use of your Xbox Live Gold subscription or any games downloaded from Xbox Game Pass, should you be signed up for either service.
To designate a home Xbox, sign into your account and open up the system settings. Open the Personalization submenu, and select “My home Xbox.” Choose the “Make this my home Xbox” option, and you’re good to go. If you’ve already exceeded the pesky five-annual limit, you’ll get a popup telling you when you can shift things again.