PC Gaming on a budget (Part 1/2)

Some of my blogs have been running a little long and this one was going the same way so I've decided to make this a two-parter. Read on for my tips on how to save money, or even spend no money at all, in your PC gaming life.

While top end gaming PCs to match the XB1 or PS4 can be quite expensive up-front (but totally worth it if you ask me), you can run the majority of games on laptops that are cheaper than these consoles themselves. Chances are you already have one. Another advantage is that the PC is an open platform with competition. Nobody (so far) is charging us a monthly fee to play multiplayer games. On Playstation or Xbox you've to pay to be on Playstation Network or Xbox Live in order to play multiplayer. Admittedly they do now give you a free older game occasionally for being a member, but it's still a "free" game in exchange for your paid subscription, and you don't get much choice as to what that game is.  On the PC we can just play away. 

By the way, forgive me for rarely mentioning Nintendo. I consider it its own thing really, as with many many games you can choose to play them either the PC, Xbox or Playstation. But if you want to play  what Nintendo's got, you need to buy a Nintendo, so comparisons can be less relevant, depending on what you're talking about.

Lastly, in Ireland you have to pay a TV license just to own a TV in the house, which you need for console gaming. Many countries probably have their equivalent licenses too. We recently got our letter that we hadn't paid. We wrote back that we don't have a TV (which is true; just the PC monitor and a laptop) and that was accepted. Happy days!

Of course, console owners of hard-copy games can go down to Game Stop or equivalent and trade in their old games for money off new ones, or even cash. This does reduce the 'real' price of each game for console owners, but considering that a new current-gen game can cost €80 even without the so-common Season Pass they try to squeeze you for, I think that's small compensation when the same games on PC likely cost €60.

The laws for ownership of digital products has a long way to come to catch up with the physical world, but it is happening, and wheels are turning to allow us to "trade in" our own digital copies of games in a similar way. This may never actually happen, though, and if it does it could still be a long way off.

I should get on with the advice, but just to give you some context let me describe my habits and spending. I keep a budget (because I'm that kind of person). I don't keep TO a budget per se, but I find it useful to know what I'm spending on things and to remember if I've paid bills, etc. In keeping my budget I observe that I spend an average of about €45 per month on games. You might guess that that's 1 new AAA game every other month (meaning big expensive releases from big companies that sit on the Top 10 list for months). It isn't. In fact, while I do play plenty of AAA games, I've only paid full price (meaning €60) for one game in the last two years, and that's the PC release of GTA V, which was something I simply couldn't wait any longer for (I hadn't played it on consoles in the 18 months it had been out). I also play at least a few minutes of a game every day, if not a couple of hours. It has become my primary hobby in recent years and I've learned a few money-saving tricks that I'd like to share. Some may be obvious, some may just serve as reminders, and some things will hopefully be new to you.

1. Don't Buy What You Won't Play

This may be obvious, but thinking that you're saving money by buying something in a sale is still wasting money if you never use it. This applies to any products or services, and whether they're on sale or not. Don't buy anything at any price ever if you know you're not likely to use it. 

A staggering 37% of games sold on Steam remain unplayed. Of my own library I think I install and at least play a few minutes of everything I get, so it's probably technically 0% of my own library, though I'll admit I've bought things cheap and then only played a few minutes.

If you're in the middle of an epic RPG like the Witcher 3 or you're about to start The Phantom Pain next week, don't bother picking up anything else until you're sick of them or finished them. You know you're not going to get to play it for weeks, or months! At that stage you'll have forgotten about it or have bought something newer.

2. Take Advantage of Sales, namely, Steam ones

Okay, obvious again, but pair this with  #1 and only buy what you actually wanted in the first place. Don't let fear of missing out rule you. I did a blog a few weeks ago about the damage sales could do to the games industry and the damage they do to our own perceptions of what a game is worth to us. I argued against sales a bit there, but let me be a total hypocrite... no wait, devil's advocate. That sounds way more objective and professional. Let me play devil's advocate now and argue for sales.

While sales may be doing negative things to the industry, they are there to be taken advantage of if you so desire. Steam are the best/worst for sales. If you ever want to buy a game that isn't a new release, and you're prepared to wait a few weeks, then just put the game on your Wishlist in the Steam browser, and check back every few days to see if anything you wanted to get is on sale. Steam have two several-week-long mega sales in the year (Summer and Winter) that, when added together, mean Steam is massively discounting games roughly 10% of the year, and only six months apart. Six months is the longest you need to wait to get something cheap on Steam.

That's ignoring their "Midweek Madness" sale and their "Weekend Deals". Midweek is about Tuesday - Thursday, and Steam's "weekend", I've noticed, starts on Thursday and runs until Monday night (Irish time). So on Thursday you've simultaneously got a mid-week and weekend sale happening. It's ludicrous! There's far less on sale at these times than at seasonal sale time, but if what you're after comes along here then it might be  a good time to pick it up. Again, make use of the wishlist to build a list of games you'd like but can wait for, then check it every now and again, as it shows at a glance whether the price is currently discounted or not. I think it's also meant to email you if your wishlisted game goes on sale, but I rarely get that email, personally.

Found this when I Googled for images of Steam Summer Sale. It'll do!

Found this when I Googled for images of Steam Summer Sale. It'll do!

EA's store (currently named Origin but soon re-branding to something else) also do the occasional sale but given that they pretty much only sell €60+ games to start with, they're probably worth avoiding unless you want something very specific. We'll get back to Origin later, though.

Good Old Games (GOG.com) are a fast-growing alternative to Steam who do plenty of their own sales in order to compete. They have an optional shopping/gaming platform (GOG Galaxy), whereas Steam is required in order to play, though both stores can be viewed in an ordinary browser. GOG also has a wishlist function so make use of that similarly to how I recommended with Steam.

3. The Little Differences

GOG also offer, on some titles, a small amount of store credit back just for buying a game. This isn't unique to GOG but Steam aren't doing it.

What Steam do is tend to give you trading cards for playing their games or buying on Steam. These go into your 'inventory' (it'll flash green to notify you if you get something new in there). Supposedly you use the trading cards to trade and craft badges and increase your Steam user level (as if Steam itself were a game). It's total bullshit, and I say that with the only caveat being that since they don't seem to know what they're doing with it and are always changing the rules, they may some day become worth doing, but for now, just get into your inventory, and put the trading cards up for auction on the Steam store. You can speculate here, as with stocks, but for this level of pennies it's not worth your time. Just look at what the most recent selling price was (usually 8-12 cent) and set your desired price to that or a cent lower, and you're pretty much guaranteed to sell in a few minutes. Do this consistently and you can easily find enough credit it your Steam "wallet" (store credit) to afford one of the cheaper on-sale games without having to drop any cash at all. Free game for the win! I admit, though, it's more hassle than GOG's version of just giving you the store credit.

4. Use Refunds

Steam Refunds are a new development, with you able to return any purchase for any reason within two weeks of purchase, if you've played less than two hours of the game. Outside of these parameters, Steam will consider the refund request also. Info here.

If you do get taken for a sucker during a sale period and know you're not going to play the games, then take advantage of the refund. There's no shame in it! I'll admit I bought a couple of games in the Summer Sale because they were cheap and I'd heard of them, even though I thought they weren't the genres I'd be interested in. Sure enough, after a few minutes of playing them, I realised I didn't like this kind of game, and didn't want to play more. I'd only bought because it was cheap. I returned the games and no more was said. You do only get store credit, and it doesn't appear for a few days, but that's fine by me.

EA (Origin), GOG, and Ubisoft all have returns policies, I believe, though the terms are all different, and Steam's is now the most consumer-friendly. Check them out if you're interested.

Steam don't need your reason, though they ask. Just be within the terms and you're good.

Steam don't need your reason, though they ask. Just be within the terms and you're good.

5. Demos

Okay, so this one is a bit of a shocker to me sometimes. We used to get PC magazines with CDs or DVDs and several free demos to play every month. They used to be common but hardly anybody does demos any more, and it's not just just a death-of-print thing. Demos can be distributed digitally, of course. They're just far less common than they used to be. That said, they do still exist, and some stores categories just for them. They're a great way to try before you buy, or to just play something new and free for a half an hour with no intention of getting the game.

Where to find Steam's Demos. Did you ever see that before? It's been there the whole time! There's enough demos in there to play for months without paying a penny!

Where to find Steam's Demos. Did you ever see that before? It's been there the whole time! There's enough demos in there to play for months without paying a penny!

Granted, most of the demos are ones you'll never have heard of, but there could be some good stuff in there. I have to alert you to The Stanley Parable and The Talos Principle demos, though. Both are major games with free demos, and the content is unique to the demo. You won't find those levels in the real game (Okay I could be wrong about Talos, not having beaten it yet, but I'm pretty sure the demo levels aren't in the main game).

GOG don't seem to offer demos. Origin do but with an extremely narrow selection. There's 8 games at present and 4 of them are football. There's some fun to be had there though.

Click to see all 8 demos!!

Click to see all 8 demos!!

6. Totally Free Games

This one's special. Occasionally you can find entire games, for keeps, for free! They're nearly always old, but there are fantastic older games out there so don't discount this option. Origin typically have one on the go at a time, and it's the same one for a few months. See the picture above. It's the "On The House" option.

I don't believe GOG or Ubisoft (Uplay) have this offer.

Steam's free games are, sadly, lumped into the Free To Play category, which is a different thing that I'll talk about next. To find it, go here:

After clicking "Free To Play", you'll have four new tabs. Choose the "Most Popular" tab to display all 267 results in order of popularity. The other tabs will only give you a few games.

After clicking "Free To Play", you'll have four new tabs. Choose the "Most Popular" tab to display all 267 results in order of popularity. The other tabs will only give you a few games.

Unfortunately, you'll have to really know what you're looking at here in order to get a truly free game. Look at release dates, or even graphics for a clue. Currently, 90s shoot-em-up Shadow Warrior (Classic) can be gotten for free. In this case, there was a remaster done to make the game more palatable which is on sale, but they made the original version free. There are probably a few properly free full games to be found amongst the 267, but I haven't gone down that rabbit hole yet.

(EDIT: I found a great list of the free games here. At a glance, it does include some that are in fact Free To Play (you can spend money) games and not "free games" (full game for free) but it's still narrowed down from 267. Alien Swarm was fun (and includes local/online coop) and Fistful Of Frags has good review scores.)

(EDIT: GOG has also very occasionally offered a free game for a short period of time, but there's no section for it. Just keep an eye out.)

7. Free To Play

Love it or hate it, the free to play model is here to stay. And who do we have to thank? Well you could either say "mobile" or "shareware". I tend to avoid F2P because they tend to be designed a bit like slot machines, and suck you into an endless gameplay loop that will bleed you of time at least, if not time and money. They're never truly free. They're often multiplayer games that don't end. You just keep fighting/competing/warring so that you can stay in the game and keep spending money on optional extras. At least with a single player game you usually pay once, play a story, then put it down. You're not at risk of having your time and money bled away.

You can start the game and make your character for free, and even play a few rounds to see if it's for you. Most of these games though will hold a significant amount of gameplay, or a significant advantage, behind a pay wall. The latter are accused of being "Pay To Win". Avoid these.

That said, these games can be designed very fairly too, and be truly great experiences. One of my all-time favourite games is Planetside 2. You can play all parts of the game for free and paying won't give you any major advantage.

Heroes & Generals I like, concept and gameplay-wise, but everything is very expensive and realistically, unless you have literally thousands of hours, you HAVE to spend money to be able to play as a pilot or tank driver or sniper. You can only play as infantry for free. This can be fun, but it's quite an expensive game if you're going to get into it for real. Even as a pilot, you can rarely use the pilot because many matches won't have had an air force brought into them, so despite my paying €20, I can rarely even play what I paid for. Be wary of this kind of free to play.

Approach with caution, basically. If you've an addictive personality, or are undisciplined with your credit card, then Free To Play is not for you!!

8. Steam Free Weekends

These are great! They don't happen every weekend, but often enough to make it worth logging on on a Thursday night or Friday to see if anything is happening. For example, this weekend (21-24 August 2015) Payday 2 and Zombie Army Trilogy were free to play. That's the full games (multiplayer shooters, one about ultra-shootey bank heists and the other about Nazi Zombies, because we need more zombie games) available to play for about 72 hours (or longer).

Take advantage of these! Payday 2 has been featured on this multiple times. Civilization: Beyond Earth has been on once or twice also. With a game like that, you could actually complete a full campaign in the weekend and feel you've done the game, without having to drop €40+ on it. No matter what's on offer, you might have a lot of fun for free and feel like you're done with it by Monday. Good deal!

If you didn't like it, no great loss, but if you did and want more, the game tends to be discounted at 50-75% off!!

The absolute best-case though is this: An increasingly common promotional tactic for (usually) Early-Access multiplayer games, is to increase their user base by doing a free weekend, but to be more sure of retaining it, they let you keep the full game, just for having installed it on that weekend!

My first post to this blog was on Fractured Space who were doing such a promotion back in May. I now have that game, just because I played it on that weekend. It's still in Early Access (meaning it's not "finished" but you can play it) but when it's officially released, I've got me a full and polished game, and I can still play it whenever I want anyway, I just tend to minimise my exposure to Early Access, lest it spoil me for the real game.

Definitely one of my favourite things on this list!

Definitely one of my favourite things on this list!

I'm going to leave it here for this week, but come back next week for Origin's equivalent of Steam's Free Weekend and much more. I've saved some of the best stuff for last!