Play Videogames on the Cheap

I promise I will never, ever leave your side, Nintendo Entertainment System.

I promise I will never, ever leave your side, Nintendo Entertainment System.

I recently decided that I won’t be cutting video games from my budget after quitting my job.

The only reason it’s even a debate is video games take a lot of crap from people on many retire-early forums.  Folks approve of reading and gardening, but video games, not so much.

I think that part of the problem that frugal people have with gaming is they think the hobby costs a lot.  While it’s true that it has the potential to take over all of your discretionary income, it certainly doesn’t have to.  There are tons of ways to play great games without spending much, and I’m going to share a few I’ve discovered.

1)  Enjoy What You Have

  • Try to get only one game at a time and play it until you’re sick of it.  It’s more enjoyable to get really into a specific game and master it than to switch between games like a grasshopper. 
  • Be a completionist.  Get all of the secret coins in Mario.  Play the expert level difficulty in that shooting game you love.  
  • Play through a couple of old games a year. Much like watching Star Wars for the tenth time, repeat playthroughs in older top-quality games is awesome fun, usually more enjoyable than your first run.  You notice details you’d never seen on the first time through.  Plus, the nostalgia factor is great.
  • When the urge to play a new game strikes, look through your old games for any you haven’t beaten yet. If you didn’t complete it, why not? Consider trying again instead of getting a new one.

2) Be Super Selective on Game Purchases.

  • Read lots of online reviews before purchasing. Online reviews are, in and of themselves, entertaining and free to read. 
  • Pay particular attention to the number of hours a game lasts. Most reviews will mention how long it takes to beat a game and also have notes on replayability.
  • Enjoy the research.  Part of the fun of getting a game is the anticipation.

3)  Play Last Year’s Games and Systems

  • Or even better, last decade’s games.
  • Prices drop, on average, 60% after two years.  That $60 game is now $25 new.

5)  Buy Used and Avoid Ebay

  • Ebay sucks because of shipping — a $5 game frequently ends up being $10 after you account for delivery.
  • Amazon is sometimes better.   I occasionally buy enough games to get over the “free shipping” threshold (currently at $35). For this amount I expect to be able to get 5-6 games used which are fulfilled by amazon and qualify for free shipping. (Note:  I do not have prime, I think this is a terrible deal and encourages you to waste a lot of money on Amazon purchases which is very anti-frugal).  Yes, getting so many games at once does violate rule 1) above which suggests you only get one game at a time.  But if they’re all games you know you will love, and the price is right, it may be worth it.

6) Set a Yearly Budget

  • I give myself about $100/yr to spend on games which allows me to get one or two a month depending on how expensive they are. If you have to pay for your online gaming service (xbox live, I’m looking at you!) this needs to be part of your budget.  I personally don’t use xbox live because I’d rather have more games, but it’s totally up to you and your gaming priorities.
  • I let myself get a new console every 3 years, with a $99 price limit on it.  This restricts me to older, used consoles.

7) Avoid Rare Games.

  • Work around your want to play them and recognize it for what it is: A want. There are always tons of great games which are more affordable. For example, I will not be buying Dragon Warrior IV on the NES anytime soon ($100). (But I might play it on an emulator… shhhh!)

8)  PC Gamers:  Use Steam’s Wishlist, and browse Humble Bundles

  • If you play games on a computer, chances are good you use Steam for downloads and management.  If there’s a game you want, add it to your Steam Wishlist you’ll be automatically notified when that game goes on sale.    Examples:
    • Picked up Skyrim on Black Friday for 7.99 and that’s given me 60 hours or so.
    •  Borderlands II with all DLC for $7. That game gave me 80 hours, so we’re talking under ten cents an hour for the experience.
    • I really want South Park:  The Stick of Truth, and when I can get it for $15 or less, I’ll spring for it.
  • You can also get some terrific package deals with Humble Bundle.   They club a bunch of cool titles together and ask for a donation, usually 5-10 dollars for a group of five or more games.
  • For retro-pc gamers, check out Good Old Games.  They distribute copies of 80s and 90s games that you can run on your spiffy modern computer, all for free.  They also have stuff you can pay for, but that’s avoided easily enough.  I went through Ultima 4: Quest for the Avatar last summer and had a blast doing it — I never beat it when I was a kid because it was way too difficult for 10-year-old me.

9) Be a Fanboy

  • Limit yourself to one system per hardware generation. Pick Sony or Microsoft.  There are so many great titles on either system that you’ll have no trouble finding awesome stuff to play.

10)  Look for Games in Weird Places

  • Tag sales and flea markets/swap meets sometimes turn up older games at very affordable prices. Just don’t drive too far to get where you’re going or you’ll end up spending too much money travel. Keep in mind it costs an average of 61 cents a mile to drive anywhere once you’ve taken into account vehicle cost and maintenance.

11) Don’t turn into a collector

  • You must resist this urge like Luke resisted the calling of the Dark Side.  Collecting things for the sake of collecting things goes against every frugal/anti consumerism principle in the book.  
  • It’s not worth it.  I should know.  I went through a period with the Dreamcast where I wanted to buy everything released.   I ended up with a pile of shitty games that wasn’t worth anything, and a lot less money in my bank account to save for freedom.   Burning the money would have been more fun.

12) Avoid Downloadable Content.

  • I usually aim for a cost of 50 cents an hour or cheaper for game entertainment.   This means your average 20 hour game shouldn’t cost more than $10.  
  • Your average DLC is $10 and rarely gives you more than a few hours of additional gameplay, making it a terrible value, sometimes $2-3 per hour of gameplay.
  • Summary:  It’s Usually a Crap Deal and you should pass.

13) Check your Local Library.  

  • Last year, in my library’s media section, I was shocked to find XBox, PS3 and Wii games available.  Score!

14) Avoid Gamefly (rentals)

  • Their cheapest package is currently $15/mo for one game at a time.  I feel 200/yr is too much for this hobby.
  • You can’t keep any games. Part of the fun of the gaming hobby is browsing your library and selecting a title to suit your mood.  Contra if you need to blow up aliens, Crazy Taxi for insane driving, Katamari Damacy when you want to go tripping without any hallucinogenics.  Having a single game a month is a total bummer.

The bottom line is that you can be frugal and still play video games.  I’ve been averaging about $100 /yr on games over the past six or seven, and that includes an xbox 360 console purchase.  As long as you make cost-conscious decisions you can play games all year long without much of a hit to your wallet at all.

Addendum:  Unfortunately, most of these rules go out the window if you are getting games for your kids.  Kids typically want a particular game for one reason and one reason only:  Their friends are playing it.  (Think:  Skylanders.)     I suppose you could tell your kids you’re only getting 2 games a year for them and then just pay full price. Since it’s such a low number of games, it’ll still be affordable.

You could also suggest your kids work for their own money to buy games.  That’s what I did when I was younger, anyway.

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11 Responses to Play Videogames on the Cheap

  1. I love this list of strategies to keep game costs down! I haven’t spent anything on games in a while (other than a buck or so whenever the Humble Bundles come out and they happen to have an awesome game). I’m mostly a computer gamer and haven’t gamed much, so older call of duties entertain me a lot.

    Still debating about whether to spend $$ on starcraft II and the zerg expansion. I’m sure I’ll get dozens or hundreds of hours of entertainment, but do I really want to spend the time in that way (even though I’m early retired!).

    • livingafi says:

      Hey there, rootofgood. Thanks for stopping by – I enjoy your blog quite a bit (and congrats on reaching FI for yourself).

      The humble bundles certainly are good. I should edit the post to include them, great call. I got FTL, Mark of the Ninja and a few others last year for the recommended donation of $5, which is incredible. I love FTL.

      Yeah, Starcraft is incredible fun. I think it’s perfectly OK to play games for 1-2 hours a day, particularly if you’re gaming as a substitute for television. The only caveat is that it probably shouldn’t take away from family time or other more important goals like exercise. Strategy games keep your mind sharp. Besides, those zerg aren’t going to defeat themselves.

  2. Hmmm, want to sell your starcraft II games? 🙂

    And you’re a big spender at $5 for the humble bundle. I’ll usually pay the min of a buck or whatever to get the steam keys (most of the time the bundles are crap or maybe 1 decent game). I did score a while back with Eufloria and Oil Rush. Both are awesome.

    Oil Rush was described as “Waterworld without Kevin Costner”. Anything without Kevin Costner has a certain degree of awesomeness to it, but this game really is fun. Strategy based, and very fast paced. They take most of the micromanagement aspects out of the game.

    I’m not sure why gaming gets a bad rap in the FI community. I think it’s fun. It keeps you sharp. Way more interactive than reading a book (which I also enjoy).

    And it’s so extremely cheap if you don’t have to have the latest games or systems. We spend very little (of course we still have an operational 8 bit original Nintendo – Mrs. RoG’s little Tetris machine).

    You are correct, and used a saying I often use. Those zerg aren’t going to defeat themselves!

    If you’re ever up for guest posting (about video games or any topic, really), you’re welcome over at Root of Good!

    • livingafi says:

      Thanks for the tip on Eufloria and Oil Rush – I’ll keep a look out for bundles including those games. Have to disagree on Costner, though — I think anything with Costner is pretty awesome, in a bad-is-good way. His wooden acting makes me laugh every time. Waterworld with a talented actor would be just another crappy movie. With Costner, it’s a masterwork of horrible.

      Re: gaming’s bad reputation: There are actually studies that show playing certain kinds of video games (RTS, puzzle games, RPGs etc) are pretty good for your brain. Even the action games have been shown to make people better drivers. You’ve inspired me to to start sticking up for gaming as a hobby on the forums. There must be no more Mario bashing!

      I’m still in the process of building my blog out but guest posting does interest me, or at least a future-version of me. I appreciate your offer here and I’ll follow up with you offline.


  3. Thegoblinchief says:

    Former hardcore gamer here. For me it was more a question of time. I want to game, read, write, build shit… All of that takes time.

    I dip back in every now and then. Occasionally a bunch of my friends get on DayZ, or I will go on another Skyrim binge (300+ hours), but it doesn’t make me happy in the same way the other activities do. And if that changes, well, I’ve got 50 or more unplayed games sitting in Steam from the absurd sales.

    • livingafi says:

      Yep, I hear it. I have more hobbies than I know what to do with, and I prioritize them based on payoff. Exercise and family time first, every day. Right now blogging is third, followed by guitar and reading. Video games are generally an afterthought — I’ll play them when I’m burnt out on being fully conscious in life and I need some downtime. (I rarely watch TV, so in a sense gaming is my occasional TV substitute.) There have been periods of my life where I’ve gone into video-game binges — usually to escape the dramatic suckitude of work-related thoughts that I was then unable to turn off — but haven’t been that way in a long time. Nowadays I find it difficult to play more than 2 hours at a stretch, and even when I’m very into a game I rarely play for more than 4 hours in a single day. Part of that is discovering that heavy exercise makes the neurotic work-thoughts disappear which allows me to focus on how good life is (and it generally is), so I don’t need the escapism anymore (much).

      They’re still fun as hell though, from time to time, and I can’t imagine just not playing anymore at all. They’re an art form, and anyone who says differently hasn’t played enough games or isn’t giving them a chance.

  4. StockBeard says:

    PS+ Has helped me cut my costs down significantly for gaming. It is technically the only money I spend on gaming these days, and costs me $40 a year (list price is $50 for a yearly subscription, but it’s easy to get it for less during sales)

  5. Ire says:

    Rarely I’m to lazy to comment, but this is amazing!
    Of all ER sites I’ve read, this is the only one discussing about games..
    That’s what I want to do when I am retired anyway..
    Already feel down because I think a retire person never play games in their life again anymore 😉

    • livafi says:

      I’m still playing games, 15 months after flushing my job down the toilet. Probably a dozen and a half hours a week or so, 2hr day average sounds right. Finally beat Dark Souls 2 last week.

      Other people watch a lot of netflix, I play games, it’s fine. 🙂 I think games are more fun than passively absorbing media as your daily dose of entertainment.

  6. neptuned2014 says:

    I’ve built a couple of retro pi systems. Gave one to my little brother who says he plays it more than the brand new games on ps4. Total cost of the emulator and controllers less than $50. Roms are downloaded for free and that’s tons of consoles and classic games for pennies each. Requires a little it know how, but it’s all out there step by step on youtube.

  7. David says:

    In budgeting for video games I find that I have to budget for time more than cost. There are always more good games released each year than I can play, so a time budget of 200-300 hours a year gives plenty of time for games as long as I stay away from action RPGs and other slot-machine simulators like just about any of the mobile RPGs out there.

    I don’t include multiplayer games in my play time since I consider that time with friends.

    I still have trouble keeping my gaming time budget, especially when another version of Civilization comes out…

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