How To Buy Games On A Tight Budget In 2019

Illustration: Elena Scotti, Photos: Shutterstock

Video games are expensive compared to other hobbies—but they don’t have to be! Here’s how to game on a budget.

The most important thing you can do when buying games on a budget is think ahead. I have some friends who insist that buying games and trading them in is the cheapest way to play games. Is that true? Sure, I could go to my local Gamestop, purchase the latest AAA game for $90, play it for a month, and trade it back in for $30, but that just means I’ve essentially rented the game for $60. Is that worthwhile? It might be marginally cheaper than the $2 a day it costs to rent games from Redbox, and it’s more reliable than Gamefly, but it’s still pricey.

The absolute least expensive way to play video games is to be patient. Sure, that big new game might cost $100 at launch, but give it a month or two and you might see stores clearing them out for $80 or even $60. If you’re willing to wait several years, you’re likely to find it for $20 or $15. If you’re lucky, you might not have to be that patient; your local library will have some games to rent. Then there’s Gamefly, which will let you rent a single game at a time for $20 a month.

These are probably cheaper now. (Photo: Paul Sakuma, AP)

None of these are great options. Sure, by waiting, I picked up FROM Software’s Chromehounds last year for less than $4 instead of the $85 it would have been new, but the servers are long dead, and Chromehounds is predominantly a multiplayer game. Few library systems offer video games, so it’s not a reliable resource. Gamefly’s $20 a month is questionably pricey, considering you only get one game at a time and aren’t guaranteed to get the game you want when you want it.

Just because something seems inexpensive doesn’t mean it’s the best way to play new games. We can do a lot better.

Computer Gaming

The best way to play games on a budget is to convert to PC gaming, full time. It always has been the least expensive way, and it likely always will be. Some people argue that a PC costs more than a game console, and it’s true; a solid gaming PC should run you around $2000, which is more than a $500 console. Over the long term, the opportunities to save money on PC gaming is so much greater than any other platform, thanks to frequent sales, bundles, and overall PC gaming costs.

Consider Final Fantasy XV, which cost players $85 at launch. If you wanted all the content Square Enix planned to release for the game, you’d have to shell out $120 for the game and season pass, or $130 for the deluxe edition (which doesn’t include the season pass, but does include some other DLC). PC players can play the Windows Edition, which includes all the DLC content, for just $70. That’s a lot better than spending $130 and not even getting the season pass. As a general rule of thumb, buying games for the PC costs less and includes more.

Computer gaming has a few other advantages as well. Many graphics cards include codes for free copies of big, recent games, and occasionally retailers like Newegg will dump them. Or customers who don’t care about the games will sell the codes for cheap on eBay. Alien: Isolation and Metro: Last Light cost me a dollar. I picked up Thief months before its release for $8. Dirt Rally cost me $7.

Retailers like WinGameStore, Gamersgate, and Cdkeys often sell games for less than you might expect to pay on Steam. Be watchful for illegitimate sites selling stolen keys. You shouldn’t support them as a matter of principle—it harms developers and makes it more difficult for them to make additional games—and developers can cancel those keys, which means that it’s possible to buy a game, discover that it doesn’t work, and have no way of getting your money back. If you haven’t heard of a game reseller before, a quick Google search should help you determine if they’re legitimate or not.

Loyalty Programs

One great way of saving money on games is to participate in loyalty programs. Microsoft Rewards is decent. You can get points for performing various tasks like searching daily with Bing and purchasing items from the Microsoft Store. It’s a nice way to pick up the occasional game or top up on a few months of Xbox Live. Nintendo has a rewards program too, but the rewards aren’t really worth it. Sony doesn’t have a rewards program, but does occasionally email codes to people who have signed up for their emails.

Best Buy, GameStop, and Amazon used to have loyalty programs like Gamer’s Club Unlocked that would either give players some percentage off of new games, or a kickback in the form of a gift card. These days, big box retailers might offer you a $15 gift card for purchasing specific games.

The Humble store. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

For the budget-minded gamer, PC gaming is still the the best, most reliable way to play games inexpensively, and for PC games, there’s nothing better than the Humble store. Not only does it feature frequent sales, it also offers a discount for Humble Monthly subscribers and cash back on Humble store purchases. I recently re-upped my yearly sub for Humble Monthly, which means I got $30 to spend on the Humble store. That $30, combined with a preorder discount, my 10 per cent subscriber discount, and five per cent cash back, meant that I was able to purchase Final Fantasy XII for about $20 when it normally sells for $70, and now I’ve got $3 to spend on my next purchase.

Humble also includes referral codes for the monthly service; refer a friend to Humble Monthly, and you earn $10 in store credit.

Game Streaming

It seems like subscriptions are the business model of the future. Want to stream movies and television digitally? There’s Netflix, Amazon Prime, and a bunch of other services for that. Heck, you could even try Hulu if you were desperate. Video games are a different story.

First, you’ve got the lag issue; in a world where competitive gamers hook their consoles up to computer monitors to get a few-millisecond edge over a television, the lag introduced by game streaming is going to be a barrier to pretty much any kind of real-time gaming. Will the pixel-perfect necessities of Bloodborne feel right to players who are hours away from the nearest data center? Probably not.

If that weren’t enough, you’ve got to consider data caps. I left some streams on overnight a few months ago, and in so doing, blew right through my data cap. Cox, my internet service provider, charged me an extra $100 for doing so. For unlimited data, I have to nearly double my internet bill, adding another $70 a month.

Don’t think about trying to ration your internet traffic. In my experience, Cox doesn’t reliably report how much traffic you’ve used, so there’s no way to be sure other than buying your own router and constantly checking how much traffic you’ve used.

We could get into a whole thing about how internet service providers don’t need to charge you for extra data and how scummy it is, but at the end of the day, right here, right now, if you want to stream games, you’re going to have to pay a pretty premium to do so. Sure, if you buy one $85 game a month, you’re spending $1020 a year on games, but if you’re paying $70 a month for unlimited data and $15 a month for a streaming service, you’re literally paying the exact same amount, except this time, you don’t even own the games you pay for.

Right now, there are two major streaming services available. Nvidia’s GeForce Now service is currently in a free beta, and it, uniquely, lets you play games you already own on other services like Steam and Uplay. This is great because it means you can buy a game on a platform of your choosing at the price you want and play it on any compatible device, rather than paying for a limited subscription. The biggest problem is the price; at $35 for 20 hours of gameplay, GeForce Now is absurdly expensive.

Sony offers a less expensive service, Playstation Now, for $20 a month, but with several caveats. First, you’re only playing PlayStation games, which means your library is dramatically smaller than what GeForce Now offers. You can download some of those games to your local PS4, but you’ll never own them: you have to perform constant online check-ins to make sure you’re still subscribed to the service. With Now, you run into all the traditional issues of a streaming service, but there’s a free trial you can use to test if it’s good enough for you.

Microsoft is introducing a new service, xCloud, in 2019. They claim it will solve some of the technological problems that streaming services face, and their in-home streaming Xbox-to-PC tech seems like a neat proof of concept. But we don’t know anything about what it will cost, what games you can play, or whether it will be tied to existing services. Google is planning a similar service, and Amazon may be next. Ultimately, if you want to game on a budget, I wouldn’t recommend any of these services unless American internet infrastructure changes radically.

Subscription Download Services

Some services let players download games instead of stream them. Right now, for $85 a year, PlayStation 4 gamers who subscribe to PlayStation Plus receive six games a month, selected by Sony. That sounds great, but Plus has several drawbacks. The game quality is rarely that good because Sony tends to release games only once they’ve hit the bargain bin; the not-that-great Knack, for instance, waited almost five years to come to the service. If you cancel Plus, you lose access to the games, so they’re not yours to keep, and it can be hard to remember which games you own and which games you acquired through Plus. Fortunately, if you resubscribe, you regain access to those games.

PlayStation Plus includes two free PS4 games a month. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

Worse still, most of the games you’re getting are for the PS3 and Vita, not the PS4. Some of the PS4 games require you to own a $400-$600 PSVR bundle too. That’s a lot of hardware; if you only have a PS4 console, Plus isn’t a that great of a deal.

Sony will be reducing the number of Plus games available in the near future. Once it stops distributing PS3 and Vita games, Plus subscribers will only receive two free PS4 games per month.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to Plus is the inclusion of additional savings on digital games in the Playstation Store. Let’s say you find a $20 game for 20 per cent off through Plus. This means that it costs $17 instead of $21. If you wanted to make Plus pay for itself, you would have to buy 20 similarly-priced games, which amounts to around $337. Is that worth it? If you have a PS3, a PS4, a Vita, PSVR, and a lot of time on your hands, the free games offered by Plus aren’t that bad, but how many people have and use all four devices regularly? Are two games a month really worth it for people who only own a PS4?

Nintendo has recently entered the fray with Switch Online, a bizarre service that offers an expanding library of Nintendo Entertainment System games that require you to check in online once a week in order to play them. None of these games are even close to recent. Where Microsoft and Sony offer a mix of current and last-gen offerings, the three Switch Online library consists of games from three decades ago. It looks like Nintendo will end the year with 29 NES games included with its system.

Microsoft offers a similar service, Games with Gold, as part of its Xbox Live Gold program. Gold offers four games a month, two for Xbox One and two for Xbox 360, but it’s a dramatically better proposition than Plus. First, the Xbox One has a robust backward compatibility program. Every Xbox 360 game that Microsoft releases with Games With Gold is guaranteed to be backward compatible for the Xbox One. You will always get four games a month, and those four games will always be playable on an Xbox One. Most of the games in the program are games that retailed for $84 on release, so they tend to be bigger, more desirable games than what Plus offers.

Better still, when you get a 360 game through Gold, that game is yours to keep; if you cancel Gold, you don’t lose access to the games, which makes it a much better investment than Playstation Plus. Unfortunately, Xbox One game access is lost if you cancel your subscription, but like Plus, you can regain access to those games when you re-subscribe, so they won’t be lost forever. The Gold-exclusive discounts are usually great, sometimes up to 70 per cent off for big AAA games. Microsoft has a new sale with deep discounts every week.

Nintendo Switch Online lets you play a library of NES games, with games from other platforms coming in the future. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

Xbox Live Gold isn’t the only subscription program available to gamers. There’s EA Access, which gives you access to an impressive library of EA games that you can download and play at any time as well as time-limited trial versions of new EA releases. Because of Microsoft’s great backward compatibility support, subscribers get to play Xbox 360 games like Mass Effect 3 and original Xbox games like Black. This program isn’t available on the PlayStation, but PC Gamers can subscribe to a similar program, Origin Access, on the PC, though some games, like the console exclusive shooter Black, aren’t available. Origin Access has over 160 games, and unlike EA Access, it features a lot of non-EA games, like Tyranny, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Mad Max. Both of these EA subscriptions cost $7 a month or $84 a year, and they offer a 10 per cent discount for any EA games you might want to purchase permanently.

EA has also introduced Origin Premier Access, which costs $20 a month or $140 a year, includes three more games than regular Origin Access, and offers a 10 per cent discount on Origin. It also includes unique content for every new EA game, but that’s probably not worth it. Battlefield V’s Premier Access content is a new outfit and a knife. FIFA 19 lets you pick one top-rated player to add to your team. Madden gives you 50,000 coins. It’s not a compelling deal.

Perhaps the best thing about the Xbox though is the Xbox Game Pass, a program that gives players access to more than 250 games every month, up from just over 100 on launch. It’s pricier than EA Access, at $15 a month, or $180 a year, but with more than quadruple the games from the original Xbox to the Xbox One and a 20 per cent discount for games you want to keep and up to 10 per cent discount on downloadable content for those games, it’s a fantastic deal.

Game Pass costs as much as Netflix and offers a huge library of games and discounts, but the real advantage to subscribing is this: all future Microsoft-published Xbox exclusives will be released, day one, on Game Pass. Want Sea of Thieves? Cool, you could spend $US60 ($84) on it or just play it as part of your game sub. Better yet, if the game is a Play Anywhere title, you can play it on your PC as well as your Xbox.

If you’re a die-hard console gamer, Microsoft is absolutely killing it when it comes to subscription services. But if you want to save money and have a gaming PC, there’s a better deal, and that’s Humble Monthly.

Humble Monthly is a bit different. Like the console subscriptions, Monthly gives you access to discounts, but the discount is only 10%; Monthly subscribers also get cash back on every store purchase, which is pretty cool. What makes Humble Monthly special is the way it handles games.

Humble Monthly gives players Steam keys, which means that you get to keep any of its games forever. Even better, if you get a key for a game you don’t want, you can give it away to your friends or even trade with them for keys you might want. You also get access to the Humble Trove, a collection of DRM-free games that you can download and play at any time without having to use Steam. I mistakenly gave away my Steam key for the enjoyably infuriating Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy, but I can still play it thanks to Humble Trove.

Some people hesitate because paying for a Humble Monthly means going in blind. It works like this: you pay $17, and on the first Friday of the next month, the entire bundle is revealed. The only game title you know about is the early unlock. In January, the early unlock was Civilisation VI, which has never sold for lower than $40 on Steam, and it included two DLCs, which, combined cost another $15. Getting those for $17 instead of $60 is an incredible savings.

Xbox Game Pass is a library of games available for a monthly fee. (Screenshot: Kotaku)

Then, when the rest of the bundle unlocked, players gained access to seven more games, including amazing games like Snake Pass, Owlboy, and Life is Strange. Monthly subs also give players “Humble Originals” every month; these are cool, experimental games that are launched exclusively for Humble, though they often get Steam keys at a later date, which lets you add them to Steam.

Humble Monthly costs more than the competition, but the quality of the games in Humble Bundle is easily the best out there. There’s always at least one or two big-budget games and a few notable indie game. It can be risky, and there have been a couple months where I didn’t like or want many of the games available, but it’s the best subscription plan available. I may cancel my Xbox and PlayStation subs, but I doubt I’ll ever stop being a customer of Humble Monthly.

Let’s say you’re not big into subscription services. What other options are available?

Indie Bundles & Specials Sites

Humble didn’t start out as a monthly subscription. It was the first major indie game bundle site out there. Right now, it works like this: every bundle has three tiers: the dollar tier, with the fewest games, the “beat the average” tier, and the top tier, which offers the most games. Humble bundles usually run two weeks, adding additional games to the “beat the average” tier after the first week.

Humble is still the most reliable, trustworthy bundle site out there, and it routinely offers awesome games for players. Occasionally, it will offer bundles with PlayStation codes, but for the most part, it’s a place for computer games.

Other bundle sites include Fanatical and Groupees. These sites tend to offer smaller bundles for less than Humble, and a lot of it is low-demand stuff, but I’ve found plenty of fun games in the bundles regardless. I used to buy every bundle I came across, but as a more budget-minded gamer, I only buy bundles if they include at least one game I really want. They’re usually $4 - $5, so it’s a great savings on that one game. A lot of these sites are attempting to become stores of their own, offering games for Steam with pretty great discounts. I’ve encountered a few sites over the years that offer single game sales. The best one is probably Chrono.gg, which features a new game every day.

Other Advice

A great way to keep up on these deals is to browse subreddits like /r/gamebundles and /r/gamedeals. Twitter accounts like Wario64 and Cheapass Gamer are great ways to keep an eye out for great deals.

Deals aren’t the only way to save on buying games. I sell Steam trading cards on the marketplace—they’re free, pointless items you get for simply playing games on Steam. To speed up the process, I use a program called Idlemaster, which makes it seem like I’m playing Steam games without me actually having to run them manually.

Fortnite developer Epic has just launched its own new game store. While there aren’t many games on it yet, the store offers a free game every two weeks, starting with Subnautica and Super Meat Boy. These aren’t the newest games, but they are critically acclaimed; Epic has set the bar pretty high. If they can keep this pace up, customers using their store should have 26 games in their library by this time next year.

Steam used to be a great way to get games inexpensively, but sites like Humble Monthly do it better. I wouldn’t recommend participating in Steam sales without using a price tracker like IsThereAnyDeal. Some publishers resort to price hikes right before a Steam sale to make it seem like they’re offering better deals than they are, but Steam is rarely the best place to buy games; it’s so much easier to buy Steam keys on other platforms and unlock them on Steam.

It’s wise to be careful who you spend money with. Valve and Microsoft have generous refund policies; I once bought a game on the wrong card and Microsoft quickly helped me cancel my purchase and offered me a refund. Valve will refund you for games purchased from its store, but most key retailers can’t offer you the same courtesy, because they have no way of recovering the key once you have it. I’ve seen numerous complaints about dealing with Sony for refunds or corrections on charges. In my own experience, Sony refuses to honour refund requests for preorders. Once you give them money, they won’t part with it, and you may be stuck without your cash and the game they haven’t even delivered to you.

The best thing to do is make a list of the games you want, stick to that list as best you can, pick a price point you’re willing to buy the game at and only buy it if it drops below that figure, and only buy a new game when you’ve finished at least one game in your collection. Do you really need to buy a hundred games that you don’t have the time to play? Probably not. If you want to save money with a console, go Xbox and pick up a Game Pass subscription. If you want to play games at their absolute cheapest, convert to PC gaming full-time.


Comments

    Cheap gaming on PS4 and Xbox is a walk in the park. Switch....not so much.

      Cheap gaming on PS4 and Xbox is a walk in the park. Any Nintendo console ever....not so much.

      Fixed it for you

    I’ve always been happy with Greenmangaming. Unless someone has a better alternative?

      isthereanydeal. They list deals per game from all reputable stores including humble bundle, greenman, steam, origin, etc. And even color code them (blue if it matches or beats that particular stores lowest price, or yellow if it matches or beats the cheapest price ever).
      You'd be quite silly to only check one particular store considering this website (and others) checks them all.

    I'd say Xbox gaming is much cheaper than PC.

    Startup cost of $300 vs $2000 you quoted for good pc.

    $60 a year GWG gets 24 Xbone games free to own each year, often great ones like MGS V and BF1. Then just pick and choose games. Multiplayer ones get soonish after release, although I just got overwatch for $30 and it's easy to get a game.

    Fallout 76 was just $29 on Amazon, BFV was $39, I got FFXV total edition for $36 from EB games.

    If you're into sport, the one or two year old games are usually $10-$20 on sale, Microsoft do great sales you can get awesome games that are a few years old for $10-$15.

    Just don't buy AAA titles until they're under $40 and it's super cheap to play.

      Except said PC will outlast the Xbox for generations to come + has an infinite backlog. And a good pc can be gotten for a lot less that 2000.00

      Last edited 08/01/19 4:32 pm

        Ha it's funny you say that, in my experience the opposite is true! I had one gaming PC and it had nothing but problems. Regular PCs never seem to last too long either.

        However my gaming consoles are indestructible, I currently have a PS2, X360 and Xbone set up in my house and all 3 work perfectly. Got a PS1 and Megadrive in storage that I am sure would still work fine too.

        I find a games console is a one off investment that gets you a decade of up to date gaming, whereas games PC are all about tinkering, fixing, not really easy or cheap in my experience.

          Each to their own I guess. My steam account has 700 games on it which will carry with me from upgrade to upgrade. My Switch has 20 games, PS4 20 games. And they'll be sold off when the next iteration comes out (more than likely anyways).

            Also in saying that, I haven't played about 50% of them or played them for 10 minutes and got distracted. So that's more shame to me than anything.

              Haha yeah when I got my Xbone I started mopping up $5-$10 X360 games thinking "I'll play them one day" so had to set my X360 in another room to actually play them!

              This article is all about playing games cheaply, they should just say

              Step 1 - Play games you already own
              Step 2 - That's it! Money saved!

      You can't get any cheaper than free. Quite often with sales on Humble Bundle and GoG they have a free game as a way of getting people onto the website. Also a few other websites have offered free games in the past: Ubisoft: Assassin's Creed 3, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, The Crew, Rayman Origins
      Origin: Red Alert 2, Red Alert 3, Peggle, Zuma's Revenge
      and now Epic: Subnautica, Super Meat Boy, more to come

      Also add to that getting Dirt 3 for free just before it disappeared from Steam

      Most are old games but still quite good.

        True and you wouldn't need a $2000 PC to run those games either.

      Hate to say it but I agree. PC gaming has gotten expensive lately - at least at the mid-range and higher market, and low-end systems aren't particularly great to play on. Buying new release games (especially AAA) is cheaper on consoles, PC digital distribution (especially through Steam) is a joke most of the time unless you can get a region free key.

        Hopefully things like Epic's store might help that situation.

        Lack of purchase options is never good for price, last year alone I bought xbox games brand new from EBay, Microsoft physical store, Microsoft digital store, EB games, JB hifi, Harvey Norman and Target! So much choice it's easy to get a good deal! I rarely pay more than $40 for a game and have lots of AAA titles.

    Video games are cheap as compared to a lot of other hobbies

      Massively so. Particularly when you consider that games like Fortnite and Warframe can be enjoyed in full at no cost other than that of the console. Pretty crazy. I just go Yakuza 0 and Horizon Zero Dawn for $20 each. I expect to enjoy each for at least 20 hours. The value proposition of gaming one to two years in arrears is extremely good.

        Buying a console to play a game makes the game very expensive.

          ?? $400 spread over 6 or 7 years seems like pretty cheap tech to me. Please don't mention the price of the T.V next.....

        Just got Yakuza 0 and The Division for 12.00 all together.

        Humble Bumble Sub for the win.

    Wait for Target to clear out games for $30 or less, cry because you're at work and can't go in-store, cross fingers Amazon match the price.

    should be pretty easy for PC. just open up steam then go to your library and click on all 250+ games you own and realise you've never played 95% of them

    the crushing guilt and resolve to do better will prevent you from buying any new games (until humble bundle offers it on a pay however much you want price)

    Stuck in moderation hell :(

    Last edited 09/01/19 12:13 am

    As of a few months back, I had never played any of the Mass Effect games. I received ME1 as part of a humble bundle at some point, so decided to give it a whirl... and promptly started kicking myself for not playing it sooner.

    Great, I thought! These games are old now, so they should be a few dollars a pop, right? Right!? Wrong. On Origin they are still around $20 a pop, but they come free with Access - which cost me $30 for a year. I checked the vault, and there were at least 6-7 other games in there that I'd been keeping an eye out for in sales but never got around to buying (most notably Titanfall 2, Tyranny and Dragon Age: Inquisition), but what really sealed the deal for me was when I saw it included both of the Crusader games - that alone was worth the price of admission!

    I've bought the Humble Monthly a few times, but I think it's too hit & miss to justify buying it every month - you only get 1 month free if you pay for 12 months upfront, and I'd say at most I'd only be interested in half of the bundles.

      Tyranny is a great game and the Crusader games are not only perfectly playable but still look as good even in 2019

        If there was ever a series that was begging for a remake/remaster/reboot, it would be the Crusader games.

        Also, Gender Wars, because the concept was funny.

    I find the best way to enjoy gaming on the cheap is to look for deals. Wherever they may be. That includes at retail and 2nd hand. For instance Amazon have had heaps of cheap console games recently. Add to that some buying from Cash Converters and other pawn shops, and Facebook marketplace and Gumtree. With some knowledge on game prices, you can buy bulk lots cheap and part them out to flip on ebay or even back on Facebook marketplace and Gumtree. Usually when I do this, i'll keep games and peripherals I want and i'm still able to make money on the bulk lots. Knowledge is power ;)

    Last edited 09/01/19 9:09 am

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