Over on Kotaku, they published an article on how to buy a video game. Just about everything they said in the first few paragraphs, I disagree with. I’ve got a tried and true method of how I buy video games that I’m going to share with you. I know I haven’t posted anything in a while, but I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to do with this blog. Coming up with article content is a lot harder than one might think but that’s neither here nor there.
It feels like a zillion publishers out there – everyone wants a slice of the video game pie. There are millions of dollars to be made if, and that’s a very big if, you can develop a smash hit game. Unfortunately, for the consumer, there is a lot of cruft to sift through as a result. A lot of junk games are made in the hopes that they will be successful without doing important things like usability testing.
First, you have to figure out what genres you are interested in. I personally severely dislike real-time strategy (RTS) and strategy games. Don’t get me wrong, I love strategy where I have to think but RTS games tend to move way too fast and strategy games move too slow and both types are rather repetitive after the first couple missions. An exception to this rule is that I actually loved playing Frozen Synapse. I also don’t play multiplayer games – I’ll play the single player and be done. But these are my preferences and yours will be different. This is the first step though to deciding what sorts of video games you enjoy playing. Nothing is more frustrating than playing games in a genre that you don’t enjoy at all and there’s no point in wasting money on it either.
Once you have figured out what genres you enjoy, it is time to find some new video games. I personally wait for Steam to have deals (we just finished the Steam Summer Sale), Thanksgiving retail to roll around, and the Humble Indie Bundles to have good stuff I’d like to own. I’ve got a backlog of about 100 games to play while I wait. When games go on sale is the time to buy. But usually sales are quick, so you won’t have a lot of time to play demos. This is where scouring the Internet helps. You only need to know two words:
Metacritic and YouTube.
Metacritic takes reviews from various game critics around the Internet and assigns a score from 0 to 100 to their review. Sometimes this score is a bit arbitrary but critics are generally spot on with how good a game is in terms of enjoyment in the specific genre. Hence the reason why you need to figure out what genres you enjoy. I particularly look for games with a critic score above 80. Anything below that is likely not particularly enjoyable to play. Critic scores generally average along with user scores fairly well, which generally confirm that critics are pretty accurate. However, what I also watch out for though are games with a critic score under 70 but a user score much higher than that or vice versa. What this tells me is that critics are potentially clueless and to read carefully what actual users are saying about the game. It may be possible to find a diamond in the rough or a complete dud that has a lot of bought-and-paid-for critics behind it.
But don’t rely solely on Metacritic. There are two phrases to search for on YouTube: “wtf is [name of game]” and “[name of game] gameplay”. These will turn up the “Critical Brit” and random-ish gameplay videos respectively. What to watch out for here are gameplay videos where the reviewer had a direct hand in making the game. (The “Critical Brit” did this once – can you name the game?) The developer of a game knows all of the pitfalls/shortcomings whereas the average gamer will run into configuration and gameplay issues the first few times they play the game. Spotting a developer-made video is pretty obvious though – unnecessary game intro clips, they say they helped develop the game, that the video is of an alpha or beta build, and so on. Don’t discount those video entirely but what you want to find is a video of an obviously average Joe playing the retail game and any difficulties they are encountering – particularly with controls. Nothing is worse than a game with lousy controls whether it be a keyboard, mouse, or console controller. Also be sure to find gameplay footage for the particular platform you are working with (PC vs. XBox can be two totally different experiences).
Where you buy your games is up to you. I prefer wherever I can get the deal with the least installation hassle. Unfortunately, that means Steam is the lowest barrier to entry in most cases. While it is DRM and all that entails, they’ve actually got a really slick system in place for managing video games (unlike Origin, which is a pretty horrific platform). Steam practically owns the market on digital sales – Direct2Drive and Impulse are other platforms worth watching. Digital distribution is good because it can cut out the middleman and you can get deep discounts of up to 90% off retail (that’s how much middleman there is). I’ve picked up games for as little as $1.20 each on Steam. Considering that most games last anywhere from 10 to 30 hours in length, that’s a really good deal on a tight budget. This is why Steam beats every other digital platform out there. But if you want the deals, you have to watch for them. I originally started down the route of reporting deals but decided that wasn’t my cup of tea so I stopped. There are plenty of venues doing this already.
You can decide in advance of what games you want to own, but I prefer waiting for deals to show up and then decide. No point in deciding in advance and then waiting forever for the deals. This approach allows me to be pleasantly surprised when a deal on a game I’ve never heard of arrives on sale. For example, Ys Origins showed up recently on my radar and then the Steam Summer Sale offered it several times and I picked it up. But there was an older Ys I wasn’t expecting that I picked up as well after watching some gameplay footage and looking at Metacritic as described earlier.
That’s my method for buying a video game. What’s yours?