How to find cheap (or free!) PC games
Gaming is an expensive hobby. Maybe not as expensive as, say, yacht racing or big game hunting, but add up the cost of a console or gaming PC, some decent peripherals, and an infinite supply of $60 games and you're looking at quite an investment.
But who buys games for $60 these days? Not you, that's for sure. Do a little digging and you can find deals so good, you'd be downright foolish not to spend that $10 on that five-game bundle. Whoever told you PC gaming is prohibitively expensive is a liar. In fact, I've saved so much on PC games versus their console counterparts that I've more than paid off the cost difference between my gaming PC hardware and the cost of a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
Here's how you can tap into the dirt-cheap gaming goodness, too.
I'll let you in on a little secret: I'm lazy. I let others do my work for me.
Case in point: I get all my hot tips on game sales from the Game Deals subreddit. I'm sure you know what Reddit is (after all, it's "the front page of the Internet") but if not, it's a crowd-sourced news aggregator. Communities are split up by topic, and there happens to be one dedicated exclusively to game deals.
I check /r/gamedeals every single morning around 10:30 PST. Why? Because that's right after Steam's new deals go up every day, and typically around the time Humble Bundles—which offer multiple games at a pay-what-you-want price—start also. (More on Humble Bundles later.)
But /r/gamedeals gathers up everything, from all the major PC game stores: Steam, Humble, Amazon, GOG.com, GetGames, GamersGate, GreenManGaming, and a bunch of others. Furthermore, every retailer listed on /r/gamedeals is a guaranteed reputable seller. That means no shady scam sites offering to sell you games real cheap, only to take your money and run. You can trust that every deal you see on /r/gamedeals is legitimate.
You can also filter /r/gamedeals by site, or have it show only deals of a specific type of game—"console," for instance, or "worldwide" if you're outside of the United States and are sick of clicking on region-specific deals.
And as if that weren't enough, the community is incredibly helpful when it comes to recommendations. See a great sale on a game you've never heard of? Hit up the /r/gamedeals comment section for that particular sale. Many community members will chip in impromptu reviews of the games on sale, while others might alert you to a better deal on the same game happening over on a different site.
For the skeptics
Knowing where to buy doesn't always help you know when to buy, though. Getting the best deal possible means knowing when there's a sale coming up and whether you can wait that long. You wouldn't buy chocolate for yourself the day before Valentine's day when you know you'll get it for half-off two days later, after all.
For games, your safest bets are late June/early July and December. That's typically when the major sites have their all-encompassing sales—one for the summer and one for the holidays. Or, rather, that's when Steam has its massive summer and holiday sales, and then that prompts every other retailer to have a competing sale.
That's great news for you. The past few Steam sales, for instance, Amazon has been pricing certain games even lower in order to compete, or offering special goodies for purchases—like five dollars off another game in the future.
There are also a myriad of smaller sales dotted throughout the year. These are less predictable, and again, I recommend checking /r/gamedeals most days. But Steam usually hits most big American holidays in addition to the blockbuster Summer and Holiday Sales—Easter/Spring, Halloween, and Thanksgiving. These sales typically aren't as lengthy nor as extensive as the two tentpole sales, but they're big enough to pay attention to especially if you've been holding off on new releases.
Unlike Steam, most other retailers are less predictable. Amazon, for example, has previously held enormous sales in January and May—not standard sale times.
Do your homework
If you see a deal and it looks good, check to make sure it is! There are a number of sites out there—Google "track historic sale prices for games"—that will let you know if it's actually a good deal or just masquerading as one. Older games often sell at discounted prices year-round, but stores sometimes pull out the ol' MSRP to make that standard price seem cheap in order to entice you into buying a game. The Enhanced Steam browser add-on displays historic prices on Steam's website itself, and it'll even identify how much you'll really save in a bundle, highlight games in your Steam wishlist, and more.
Console users? Sorry, but you're out of luck. You might see more deals now that Sony and Microsoft are increasingly focused on digital distribution, but that shift hasn't happened yet. Right now your only real option is to hope for a one-off sale on Amazon or wait for the blitz of sales during Black Friday/Cyber Monday.
Don't be arrogant
How could we discuss cheap games without mentioning Humble?
The Humble Bundles started back in 2010. The first allowed consumers to pay what they wanted for Penumbra: Overture, Gish, Aquaria, Lugaru HD, and World of Goo. Since then there have been 11 main bundles, selling everything from Papo & Yo to Mark of the Ninja and Psychonauts. Any popular independent game is probably going to hit a Humble Bundle at some point. The big Humble Bundles are huge events and entirely unpredictable.
But there are so many bundles offered through Humble nowadays, it'd be hard to miss because you're checking the site every week—or at least you should be.
Humble now runs a new semi-large bundle every two weeks and then a smaller, niche bundle weekly. Typically these are pay what you want for one or two games, and then pay more than a certain dollar amount for a collection of more recent or better-known titles. Humble recently introduced a more traditional store as well, where you can find a deeper selection of mostly indie games, sometimes at moderate-to-steep discounts.
Of course, Humble's success spawned imitators. There are plenty of other game bundle sites out there—Indie Royale, for instance. Humble is still the king of them all, though—the best games at the best prices.
There are countless other options out there if you don't want to troll Reddit or Humble, of course. Sites like Steam Database, Steam Game Sales, and CheapShark identify PC games on sale, with the latter two including non-Steam deals. All have a variety of filtering options. And EA's Origin gaming service recently rolled out a new "On the House" initiative, which sporadically gives games away for the low, low price of free. The first game Origin gave away was horror classic Dead Space. Microsoft and Sony have similar deals when you subscribe to PlayStation Plus and Xbox Live Gold—free games monthly, though with Sony's service you'll have to stay subscribed to maintain access to accrued titles.
A poor man's toolbox
The Internet has made deal hunting easy—maybe too easy, if you're not good at keeping a lid on your wallet. Eventually you'll likely end up like me, with an enormous backlog of games you've never gotten around to playing. (And probably never will, for that matter.)
Just remember, a good sale doesn't mean you have to buy a game, especially if you know you won't get around to it for a while. By the time I actually played Far Cry 3 I could have bought the game for fifteen dollars cheaper than I actually did when I bought it on sale near the game's launch.
At the end of the day, you have to decide for yourself if it's worth waiting to save five dollars. If it's the doldrums of summer and the next sale isn't until Halloween? That's a long time to hold off on a purchase just to save a few dollars. If it's June 15 and you know Steam's Summer Sale is probably a few weeks away at most, maybe you should consider waiting.
Be smart. Buy games you want to play, and buy them when you want to play them. Just make sure when you do buy, you use these tips to get the best deal possible. And then make sure to tell your console-using friends how cheap your PC games are—maybe you'll convert them to PC gaming too. The more the merrier!