There are a lot of video games out there and a lot of ways to buy them. But you don't have bottomless pockets of money and you might be unsure about which games to get, whether you really should download them or go to a store and... is it really necessary to pre-order? And don't these games ever go on sale?
We have some advice...
What to Buy
- Buy good games, of course. But how do you know what's good? Rule #1: trust words over numbers; paragraphs over sentences. Don't read Metacritic to decide what your next gaming purchase will be. Avoid it. Find reviewers/outlets who match your tastes and ask friends/forumgoers for their opinions. May we humbly suggest our lists of our favorite games on each platform?
- Old games are good too! Consider looking for them at GOG.com. It's DRM-Free (meaning your game won't be tethered to a specific machine), cheap, and a lot of those games stand the test of time. Planescape: Torment, for example!
- You know what's also nice? Free games. If you're interested in gaming on a computer, you could play plenty of interesting games for free—legally. There's a ton of free offerings and websites that track these free games, and that can help while you wait for the games that you do want to buy. Some places to poke around in: Free Indie Games, and the TIG database. You're also likely to stumble across some of the bigger free-to-play games like League of Legends and Battlefield Heroes, which have higher production values but also, as with Facebook games, will charge you for extras.
- Bonus suggestion: Check to see who developed the game. Often, you'll be able to easily spot the name of the game's publisher, but try to find out who made the game. It's like distinguishing between who published a book and who actually wrote it—though not always, since some video game publishers own their development studios and are more or less one and the same. The more you know about who created a game, the more effectively you can follow those talented creators to their next project and avoid sequels that they weren't involved in. A good place to start cross-referencing development studios is Wikipedia. Do your homework. And discover who your favorite game creators are.
- Bonus suggestion: Check the rating. They're surprisingly detailed. So if you're worried that maybe the game isn't for you or your kid or the grandma, look at the rating, read the content description and maybe even go the website for the ESRB, the official ratings group for games in America, and read even more in-depth descriptions of a game's content.
Who to Buy From
- Some people will tell you that GameStop, America's top gaming chain, is a cabal of evil or at least kind of annoying. Maybe. It varies from store to store. We can't tell you whether to favor them, Wal-Mart, Target or any other retailer because, in terms of in-store experience, the hassles of being asked to pre-order new games at GameStop might well be off-set by the gas money saved in driving to a GameStop that is closer to your house than, say, a Wal-Mart or Best Buy. We like the idea of supporting indie gaming shops, but prices can be steep there. Ultimately, the decision is really between whether you'll shop at a brick-and-mortar store or start downloading your games, which we'll get into lower down...
- If you're interested in computer games, check out Steam, of course. It's the premiere way to buy computer games (downloaded, of course; very few people buy computer games on disc anymore). Steam's main competitor will likely prove to be the EA-funded Origin service, so check Origin's PC section for a price comparison. (Origin doesn't have a Mac section, so to compare against Steam on that front, check the official Mac App Store.)
- Steam and Origin aren't the only place you can get PC games for cheap. Keep an eye on Amazon and other online retailers, who sometimes have deals that beat Steam's prices at a given moment.
- If you live anywhere outside North America or like importing Asian games, look into PlayAsia.com. It's a really popular site with PAL customers, for example, because it's almost half the price of buying in a retail store. They have compatability charts, so you can see whether a foreign version of a game (say, for the 360) will work on your console. We recommend looking for the Asia edition of 360 games, while you're at it, as those tend to be compatible across more machines.
- If you're not sure about a game, you can buy it used at GameStop and then return it within seven days, so you don't have to worry about committing fully. You're taking advantage of the system of course and essentially renting the game. Hopefully, you can sleep at night.
If the game is for a phone or tablet...
- Before you buy a game on iTunes (or Android or any marketplace for that matter), first, read the best and worst user reviews. The truth is in the middle. Second, make sure you know whether it's for iPhone, iPad, or both before you buy it. In some cases, there are separate apps for each platform and you'll have to buy the same game twice if you want to play on both.
- For critics' picks, consider our Gaming App of the Day as well as the forums over at Touch Arcade.
- If you're buying an iOS or Android game, buy early. Those games often launch on sale before the price goes up.
When To Buy
- You may be pressured to pre-order games. Don't, regardless of the in-game or out-of-game doodads you're offered. (Anything good will eventually be sold after the game's release.) Simply put, don't pre-order major games. While it's true that some stores don't get that many extra copies, the biggest ones do. You won't have trouble finding, say, Black Ops II this fall. Do pre-order more obscure games from smaller publishers like Aksys or XSeed or, better, just order them online. Please be aware that if you do pre-order major games, you'll just be perpetuating a larger problem.
- Look for sales. Consult our friends at Cheap Ass Gamer, who have a trove of details about which outlets are offering the best current game deals.
- Read Kotaku's The Moneysaver—seriously. We frequently feature discounts for new or upcoming video games (NewEgg is great for this).
- If you're considering buying an older game on Steam, do look for it to go on sale. They have lots of sales there, including regular weekend deals, the just-concluding summer sale and a holiday sale near the end of the year.
- Cycle your new games purchases with a group of friends so you all can lend each other games from the collective pool. You might need a spreadsheet to keep things straight but you'll save money.
- If you're buying a disc-based game, try to wait two weeks or even a full month after its release. Many, many games drop in price after two weeks (except for Nintendo games... so don't wait on those).
- This is sports specific, but if you are a career-mode player who relies on fully authentic rosters (minor leaguers in MLB the Show, NCAA Football) wait a couple of weeks before buying. There's no point in starting your favorite mode of play all over again once the editing community gets the full rosters out. Also: Disc-based sports video games sold used in the first week have a good chance of still having their Online Pass activation codes still working.
- If you live in Japan, wait a month after a game hits, then you can pick up pristine copies that are "used" — i.e., copies that people played through as fast as they could and then sold them back to stores at high buy back prices.
New or Used?
- Buy disc-based games new, if you can... because it doesn't just send money back to the people who made them, but isn't that much more expensive than buying them used. Just look for bargains. And if you're not going to do this, you might want to find some other ways to send some money in the direction of the people who make games so they can, you know, keep on making games. (If you must buy a game used, consider buying it on eBay, from an actual person.)
- Buy consoles used, especially this late in a console cycle. If you buy a new Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 you pay full price and have to ship it in for repair. If you buy a used console from a video game retailer you pay less and your warranty is generally handled through the retailer itself. If it breaks, bring it in and get a new one.
- Trade games in. If people will take your games and let you get others for them, do it. It's better for you and the rest of the world for you to play more games. Trading in games helps you do this. You're building your gaming literacy, which will make you a better gamer.
- Better: Instead of trading in your used games, sell them on half.com. You can almost always get more money for your games than you would at most trade-in stores, even with relatively old games. Plus, it's real cash, not just store credit. (Also consider Half.com and Glyde.com for buying used games. They're extremely convenient and have decent listings of slightly-old games for earlier in the current machines' lifespans.)
- Don't be afraid to buy digitally on PC, Mac or 3DS and PlayStation Vita. The folks behind the Steam service and at both Sony and Nintendo (yes, Nintendo!) have been good about letting people transfer their digital purchases to newer systems. This addresses the biggest worry you might have about buying a game for download instead of on a disc or cartridge: the fear of losing access to the game you paid for. When you can hold a game disc, you can feel like the game is yours, that no one will take it away. The closest you can get to that digitally is downloading a game that isn't locked to one machine. Thankfully, games bought through Steam can be redeemed on multiple computers and, so far, Sony and Nintendo have let people transfer digital purchases from their PSP and DS generation of handhelds to the newer Vita and 3DS generations. We don't yet know if digital purchases on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 will transfer to the Xbox and PlayStation consoles that follow, so buyer beware on those.
- The official online stores for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 both offer an increasing amount of full-sized games that were originally sold on discs for download. On PS3, these games often pop up day-and-date with a disc release, for the same price. Unfortunately, as months pass these disc-based download games on 360 and PS3 don't drop in price as swiftly as they do in stores, so be sure to compare the convenience of downloading at home with the prices you can get older games for through other retailer.
Extras You Should Consider
- When buying spare video game controllers, check to make sure you're getting official Microsoft/Sony/Nintendo ones, not some knock-off. It's worth the extra money to get an official controller. That said, boutique controllers, fighting sticks and the like can be worth paying even more. Just don't get some third-rate poser controller. It makes no sense to skimp on the most breakable part of your gaming set-up!
- Never, ever buy HDMI cables from a store, and never let the store's salesperson upsell you to an in-store HDMI cable. Buy them online for a minuscule fraction of their in-store price.
- Don't pay full price for Xbox Live Gold. It's always on sale somewhere.
- PlayStation Plus is worth investigating for PlayStation users. Unlike Xbox Live, it actually gives gamers full-sized free games and discounts to existing games on the PlayStation store. The downside is that the games go away if you cancel the subscription.
- We probably can't stop you from subscribing to the MMO you've been dying to play on day one, but most of these games are going free-to-play, so, really, you might want to wait.
- Consider purchasing through a service like Amazon Prime. If you prefer to order your games online, you don't have to wait patiently for too long. Though as a warning not all of their products have Prime shipping (expedited, free, or some combination of the two) available.
And once you get the game...