Any good hobby requires investment, through time or money. Gaming requires both.
Games don't have to be an expensive hobby if you don't want them to be. Armed with some simple information, you'll be able to save in no time. Want to pick up AAA releases for $20 to $45 off months before launch, or pick up hundreds of games for the price of two or three retail games, reducing your average cost per game from $60 to something closer to $2 or $3? It's totally possible, and anyone can do it.
Monitor The Sales, Bookmark These Sites
Ah, sales. They have become a daily occurrence in today's gaming world. If you want a game and it's on the market, chances are high you'll find it on sale somewhere soon. That said, based on the sheer number of them, it can be challenging to separate the good deals from bad. Fortunately, some great resources have sprung up over the past few years, each with their own methods of curation.
For community-driven efforts, Cheap Ass Gamer and Reddit both have different styles. CAG does just about everything. Reddit's thread-sorting process mean that the best deals tend to float to the top, through users can sort by newest as well. Even better, these communities are frequented by staff from Amazon, Humble Bundle, and other companies, letting consumers talk to the retailers, get a feel for what's going on, and, in some cases, even get previews of what sales are coming.
But let's say that, instead of current sales, you've got a specific game in mind. Maybe you're wondering if a particular deal is any good, or you just want a head's up on a title's price history. For that, IsThereAnyDeal.com has you covered. For instance, you might see a 50% off sale that looks pretty tempting, but chances are, if you check ITAD, you'll find a 66% or 75% off sale somewhere else.
A great plugin for your browser is Enhanced Steam, a tool so potent, Valve's taken to cribbing some of its improvements for the Steam Store. Among its many invaluable features -- such as highlighting the games and DLC you own, which is especially great for games with lots of DLC -- Enhanced Steam features a price comparison plugin. Sure, that game may be $US29.99 on Steam, but you might find it for $US14.99 elsewhere, and it's all thanks to Enhanced Steam.
Ebay may seem a weird place to pick up games, but Nvidia and AMD frequently give away games with their graphics cards. AMD cards quickly sell to cryptocurrency miners, who often put the game keys up for extra cash. Their prices ebb and flow -- earlier this year, for instance, people were selling AMD keys for about $US15. These keys offered, among other things, Saints Row IV and Thief. At the time, these games were priced around $US40 and $US60, respectively. Savvy consumers could acquire 'em for what broke down to $US7.50 apiece.
Watch Steam Sales, But Spend Carefully
It's impossible to have a discussion about sales without talking about Steam's massive summer, fall and winter sales. Valve was one of the first companies to really push the deep game discount idea, and they have turned it into nothing short of an event.
Perhaps one of the best things to know about the event, however, is that it's not always the most competitive one. Other sales spring up at around the same time, most notably Amazon's and Humble Store's, and often these sales will often outdo Steam by a few dollars. That said, not all games from other stores will end up on Steam. For example, Splinter Cell: Blacklist has had some great deals, but almost always for Uplay only.
Even so, Steam sales are still pretty spectacular. The sheer number of games on sale is immense. Going into them can be disorienting, and the whole process is pretty much designed to encourage impulse purchases. The best practice for Steam sales is to wait for the daily deals or flash sales. A game that's regularly $US20 might become $US10, but if you wait for the daily, it's liable to hit $US5. Better to save $US15 than $US10, no?
While Steam sales are fun, exercising patience rather than buying on impulse will save you money while helping you expand your collection.
Look Out For These Bundles
It's one thing to find a retail game during a sale for $US10 mere months after it launched for $US60. Game bundles, however, can offer you a significantly better games-to-dollars ratio. What started with the Humble Bundle's "pay what you want" approach has quickly expanded into its own style of shopping. While Humble is still far and away the most popular option (and with good reason; it's fantastic), sharp-eyed consumers have quite a few other options to explore.
As bundles go, Bundlestars is fairly straightforward. Pay around $US3 to $US5, obtain a number of Steam games. Indiegala is another popular choice, again, acting much the same way, setting its own minimum and letting people go from there. Indiegala also has a storefront for individual games, rather than bundles, and something called Gala Giveaways, where people trade points they earn buying from the site for a lottery where they win free games. Blink Bundle is a relatively recent entrant to the bundle marketplace, but their bundles have been some of the highest-quality non-Humble bundles, and usually go for around $US5 each. Groupees is another great one -- usually offering multi-tiered bundles that start at $US1 and go to $US4 or $US5. They also occasionally offer build-a-bundle packs, where people can select specific games, rather than purchasing all the games in a bundle.
Other bundle sites exist, of course, like VODO or Indie Royale, but their offerings generally haven't been on par with the above sites. Almost all bundle sites provide Steam-redeemable codes. Many also offer codes for Desura, an indie-gaming marketplace. Games that haven't been released on Steam yet won't have Steam codes, but most bundle sites will add them when the codes do become available. We recently saw this with Wildlife Park 3. It was in a Humble bundle, but the Steam code wasn't added to customer accounts for a few months.
Rarely do these contain games as desirable as Humble's, but it's a great way to check out games that tend not to get the spotlight, add to your Steam collection, or pick up that game that you just aren't sure you want to risk much cash on.
Get Yourself Some Free Money
Alright, so you know where to get games. But what about income? If you, like me, have outstanding medical and educational expenses, chances are you've got other stuff to worry about. If only there were ways to pick up games for free.
Fortunately, there are.
First, and most obvious, are Steam Trading Cards. To the best of my knowledge, anyone around the world can earn them, simply by idling in certain games they own. All you need to do is log in to Steam, hover over your display name, click on "badges," and scroll down the list of games you own that are eligible for badges. Then you run the games -- you can play 'em, wander off and do your own thing, whatever. They will drop into your Steam inventory over time. Once you've got them, check your Steam inventory and sell them. That money will go into your Steam wallet, which can be used to purchase games on the Steam store.
For North Americans, Microsoft's Bing Rewards is pretty cool. Essentially, all you need to do is install the Bing bar in Internet Explorer -- y'know, the browser you never use -- and then run a few searches every day. Doing that gets you Bing points, which you can use to purchase rewards like Gamestop, Amazon, and Xbox Live gift cards.
Then there are surveys. I personally use E-Rewards, which is a reputable invite-only program that earns me around $US100 in Gamestop gift cards every year. I was invited to the program after completing the survey on the back of a Best Buy receipt.Lifehacker has recommended some good survey programs to try, as well.
Finally, there's Playfire, the social network owned by games retailer GreenManGaming, which I think offers the single best way to earn money. Just about every day, they post a list of games to play and achievements to earn on their blog. By completing the goals they post, you can earn credit to the GreenManGaming store. I think I made about $US15 simply from completing a series of achievements in both Wolfenstein: The New Order and Tropico 5.
In addition to Playfire credit, GreenManGaming also offers frequent vouchers -- often around 20%, for purchases on their store. Be warned, it seems as though vouchers and store credit can no longer be applied to the same purchase. Despite this, GreenManGaming is generally the best way to buy video games. Their discounts for preorder games are some of the best out there, and credit is earned by playing games, rather than trading them in. They're fantastic!
Try Some Other Methods
You might have noticed by now that a lot of this info is PC-centric. To put it lightly, if you want to game on a budget, consoles don't have nearly as many options when it comes to saving money in regard to games. I've yet to find, for instance, console game bundles. Likewise, console game sales are rarely as friendly as their PC counterparts.
The only real way to obtain console games at a discount is to buy them used, which isn't advisable, as it often denies developers their well-deserved income. With used games, retailers purchase games back from consumers, then sell them again, pocketing every cent. Developers make nothing from these sales. We customers tend to like saving money on games, particularly if they're games we're not sure we'll like. This means that niche games or new series from small developers have a very hard time selling well. Buying new means developers can make more games. Buying used can drastically reduce developer income and makes it much harder to do so.
Even then, used games on consoles are rarely better deals than new games on the PC. For instance, in 2013, PC gamers could buy a complete Bioshock franchise pack (all three games) for less than a single used copy of Bioshock Infinite.
Different companies like Amazon, GameStop, and Best Buy all offer their reward programs and game credit. Amazon typically offers $US5 or $US10 in credit. Best Buy gets up to $US20 at times. GameStop's PowerUpRewards is the weakest of the three, but you can use your purchases to earn the occasional $US5 or $US10 gift card, which can be used to buy a Steam gift card, where games tend to be less expensive than at GameStop.
Because PC games are almost entirely digital, discounts on physical PC games often happen much earlier in a game's life cycle than they would on a console. During one sale, where Battlefield 4 was still $US40-60 on most platforms, including digital PC marketplaces, the disc-based version was selling for $US20. Many -- but not all -- of these games will include codes that are unlocked on Steam or Origin. Speaking of Origin, they offer their On the House promotion where they give away free games, which has so far included titles like Dead Space, Battlefield 3, and Plants vs Zombies. It's a pretty good deal, compared to the free games you get with paid services like Xbox's Games with Gold and the virtual library rental included with PlayStation Plus. All you need is an Origin account.
It's no secret that there are other ways to obtain games. Key trading -- that is, using keys dropped in Valve games to trade on the market -- is one such way. Another would be purchasing games from a different region through a VPN. Unfortunately, a lot of these methods are questionable at best, and some people can end up trading for a game that doesn't work in their region, or even risk getting their accounts banned and losing access to their entire game collection. Unless you know what you're doing and you know it's legitimate, it's best to steer clear.
Gaming's a wonderful hobby, but when games are selling for $US60 a pop and the economy's pretty weak, it can be challenging to justify buying every new, interesting game that comes along. Sometimes, it's best simply to wait until the game hits a reasonable discount, often three to six months after launch on PC, and a year or two on consoles. By being a smart shopper and using various, low-effort sources to pick up some gaming income, however, you don't have to spend thousands of dollars a year on your hobby.
If you have your own particular strategies for buying games on a budget, let us know in the comments below.
In the first three months of 2014, I purchased 119 games for around $US265. That's $US2.22 per game, in case you were wondering. What games did I get? Among others, I picked up Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag's Digital Deluxe Edition, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Double Fine's Space Base DF-9, some brand new Payday 2 DLC, The Banner Saga, and three the Thief games -- including the one that released during this time period. At retail prices alone, those games combined amounted up to... you guessed it, about $US265. With smart shopping, I managed to snag a further 111 games for about the same price.
GB Burford's childhood discovery that he could modify Microsoft Flight Simulator to allow behaviours the programmers hadn't intended spawned a life-long fascination with video games and their development. Now, he writes about video games and collaborates on small indie projects when he can. His Twitter handle is @ForgetAmnesia.