Help me get back into computer games!
December 26, 2012 2:42 AM   Subscribe

Computer games advice please! I want to get back into playing computer games after a long hiatus (since the mid 90s!!) so I need your advice. If I buy game CDs on Ebay/Amazon or the like, how do I tell if they are legit or bootleg copies? I want to stay away from shady business! Why are sites like Steam and Good Old Games so cheap? Are they scams? What does a subscription service actually mean?
posted by EatMyHat to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry, will let the experts weigh in, but thought I'd let you know that Steam is legit.
posted by titanium_geek at 3:23 AM on December 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Good Old Games is perfectly legit as well. It is cheap because it sells, well, old games. (Think DOS times and games like Master of Orion, Ultima series, Space Quest etc.)
posted by avysk at 3:27 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Both Steam & GOG are totally legit.

The big advantage of using Steam etc is that your games generally get patched / updated without any effort on your part & you can always re-install the games in the future. Downsides are the extra layer of DRM & the (extremely small) possibility that Valve will decide that you're a filthy pirate and disable your account at which point you lose access to all your games. The latter is spectacularly unlikely but is why I only ever buy games on Steam in the sales.

Dive in!

Also, Rockpapershotgun and maybe Polygon for reviews & game criticism from a more mature POV.
posted by pharm at 3:37 AM on December 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Steam and Good Old Games are most certainly legit.

The low prices are because Steam has a winter sale going on now and GOG sells older games (hence the name). Actually, it seems most game shops have sales going on, including Amazon, Green Man Gaming, GamersGate, and GetGamesGo. (Speaking of cheap games, I usually check out Cheap Ass Gamer and the GameDeals subreddit to pick up games for cheap.)

The way Steam works is that the games are tied to your account. So when you log in to Steam elsewhere or get a new computer or whatever, you can download all your games. It's also DRM though, so you can't give it away once it's tied to your account and you can only be logged in through one computer at a time. That said, a lot of people like Steam because of the community aspect (see what your friends are playing), the achievements, the automatic updating, and because it's convenient to have all your games in one place. In fact, even if you buy from another retailer, a game might still activate on Steam. (It depends on the game. Some games require Steam. Some games offer a Steam version and a no-DRM version.) Other subscription services may vary.

Not sure about buying CDs. Most people buy from a digital distributor these days. I named a few above. It makes things a lot easier assuming you have a fast enough internet connection.
posted by aloysius on the mixing boards at 3:44 AM on December 26, 2012

Steam and GOG are cheap because digital distribution is inexpensive. GOG tends to sell older games ("Good old Games" was the original name of the site), and Steam tends to carry a fairly comprehensive range of titles.

Adding to pharm's suggestions (both of which are very good): Gamers with Jobs.
posted by ellF at 3:46 AM on December 26, 2012

Ebay is generally legit, and Amazon is almost always legit - you usually have to go looking for it to find a seller breaking the rules. And if you know what the genuine product looks like (cover art, packaging etc), you're doubly protected - while intuitively it would be easy to enough to forge the packaging, as happens with some pirate versions of Windows for example, the piracy for this kind of thing that I've seen seems to fall into three categories - low rent (a DVD of the product that is obviously not legit, minimal or no packaging, very cheap), or combo bonanza (a DVD that touts how many pirate games it contains and is the greatest piece of piracy since the British coined the euphemism "buccaneer"), or high quality professional productions that have their own packaging - it looks like an entirely legitimate product, but does not look like the packaging of the specific product. Anecdotally, I haven't really run into pirate games that you would mistake for legitimate copies if you knew what a legit copy looked like.

The thing to watch out for when buying used games is that some games are designed with features that only the first user gets to access, or serial numbers that can get disabled if they've been abused. These are mostly only a concern if the game involves online elements. (Or if you're buying REALLY old games, a legit copy with a missing manual or codewheel might cause a problem with its anti-piracy tests). A quick google will reveal if there is anything to watch out for in used copies.
posted by anonymisc at 3:56 AM on December 26, 2012

What does a subscription service actually mean?

This question might need more context, if I'm wrong in my guess that you're talking about MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online ) games and MMO-RPG.
In these games, there is a persistent virtual world running 24/7 on a server somewhere, and playing the game means controlling your character in that world, doing stuff on that server, alongside all the others who are in that world, playing. When you stop playing, your character sleeps as the world continues like in Real Life - all those thousands of other players are still in there doing stuff.
A subscription is the monthly fee to be able to access the world (server). Stop paying it, and you can look at your character on your computer, but they're effectively in stasis because if you want to put them back in the world and do stuff with them, you'll need to pay for another month. Like an ISP bill :)
posted by anonymisc at 4:11 AM on December 26, 2012

Buy games from Steam. Their sales can be so cheap because they've proved to publishers that they can essentially recover money from people who would otherwise pirate the games by offering steep discounts from time to time. Normally the games are full price, though.
posted by empath at 4:14 AM on December 26, 2012

@anonymisc I was confused about how it could be a subscription service if I only buy one game (especially as I'm interested in older single-player games to purchase individually)?
Do I only need to subscribe to play the multiplayer games like the ones you described?
posted by EatMyHat at 4:22 AM on December 26, 2012

@pharm: What's an extra layer of DRM?
posted by EatMyHat at 4:26 AM on December 26, 2012

Do I only need to subscribe to play the multiplayer games like the ones you described?

posted by empath at 4:33 AM on December 26, 2012

With Steam, you have one account and when you login to steam, you can download and install the same game on multiple machines. There is no subscription; you pay and download per game. Subscriptions only become relevant if you get tired of single-player games and want to play stuff with other people online.

Here is the Wikipedia for Steam. It is worth reading but to be honest, I don't know what half that stuff is. I just buy (and this license) and download my games from Steam. After the initial account setup hoopla, It's very fast and very convenient. I am very glad to be past the days where dropping a $60 game CD meant you had flushed $60 down the toilet.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:45 AM on December 26, 2012

With regards to why Steam is cheap (at times), Valve routines messes with prices to try to find sweet spots of profit. It's not surprising that they have an economist working for them.
posted by plinth at 4:55 AM on December 26, 2012

EatMyHat: DRM = Digital Rights Management. ie, code that checks whether you have a legitimate copy and are entitled to run the program in question, or whether you are in fact a filthy, filthy pirate.

DRM has a bad, bad history in PC gaming, but Steam's DRM is probably some the of the least obnoxious around. Some games on Steam (usually from the big games publishers like EA) will include their own DRM on top of the Steam DRM, which can be annoying although I've yet to run into any real problems personally.

Steam is technically a *subscription* service, even for single-player single up front purchase games: Valve can pull your entire Steam account if you break the user agreement in various egregious ways. This really isn't something that happens though: Valve has some of the best customer service around & actually seems to care about doing the right thing; we're talking lightning strike territory in risk terms. You don't have to keep paying for your games in order to keep your Steam account live, so long as Valve stays in business your Steam games will remain available to you (and given their income, I really don't see them going out of business...)

(Some games do require an ongoing subscription payment, mainly MMOs, but standard single player games don't)
posted by pharm at 4:59 AM on December 26, 2012

With regard to MMOs, most require a subscription, but not all. Guild Wars 2 for example, gives you full access without a subscription but sells items in-game for cash. So you can play for free but paying additional money makes it easier to get gear. MMOs without a subscription fee are often called free-to-play. In general the best way to find out more is to check the website for the game in question.
posted by pombe at 6:02 AM on December 26, 2012

Just for clarification, Steam and GOG accounts are free. The games you buy on them aren't free, but they're almost universally one-time purchases. The only games that involve subscriptions tend to be MMOs. Some of these are available on Steam, but that's the dramatic exception to the rule.
posted by valkyryn at 6:57 AM on December 26, 2012

You don't have to pay monthly fees to Steam and GOG to access games you have paid for, as others have said that is for MMO's like World of Warcraft. I am still only buy music in CD format as the idea of buying music online etc seems weirdly ethereal to me and yet and I still prefer using Steam to buy games as they make it so easy and the prices are so good, especially right now when they have their amazing sales on.

The site is totally legit and while it can take a little bit to get used to using, once you're up and running you can have the game icons on your desk top and steam basically running in the background and you will barely even know it's there. Oh and if you worry about having to use the internet all the time with Steam you can enter offline mode too.
posted by wwax at 8:47 AM on December 26, 2012

Steam and GOG are so cheap for a number of reasons. In GOG's case, most of those are old games which the publishers never conceived of still making money with this far out; they are mostly the kind of thing that you used to be able to pick up as abandonware. They could never get shelf space for retail now (so electronic delivery is the only option to the publisher), and are all in competition for a limited market of people who want 'classics' (the demand is limited and vendors are transparently bidding on price). The marginal cost of electronic delivery is almost zero, so they're willing to go quite low.

As mentioned above, they play with distribution channels and occasional sales so that someone who thinks "Fallout 2 is worth $2 to me, but not $4" will be able to pay $2 some day, but the person with an itch willing to pay $4 this week will mostly get stuck for $4. Similarly, there are plenty of games with a huge discount that are only a year or two old because the people willing to shell out $60 have by and large done so; selling now to the people willing to pay $30 is free money for the publisher. They also use bundling smartly to make the appearance of a great deal. It's a little more complicated than that, since consumers believing that $30 is right around the corner might just wait, so they try to make it unpredictable.

Just so you don't get the wrong impression, lots of multiplayer games are not pay-as-you-go subscriptions. Some MeFi favourites like Left for Dead 2 and Boarderlands 2 you pay for up front. Some other great games are now in the Free-to-Play category. Notably, Team Fortress 2 is free to download and play online. The publisher literally makes money selling digital hats and other stylish accessories for your character (you aren't obligated to buy any).
posted by a robot made out of meat at 9:55 AM on December 26, 2012

Electronic Arts (EA) does not have a great reputation as a game publisher, and they have a Steam-like service called "Origin" that they require you, the Windows gamer, to install with their games. Some of these games require you to be online at least when you start the game, and sometimes (rare and roundly criticized) online all the time when you play, even if you're playing single-player.

That said, I use Origin for the Battlefield games and it does have advantages-- patches, updates, and DLC are a breeze to acquire. You can shop through Origin as well; it's still no Steam by a long shot, but it's growing.

By the way, after that long away from games, DLC, "Downloadable content," might be new to you. DLC is how gaming companies offer continuing value for their aging games-- DLC is usually paid content, but not always. And the trend of companies offering DLC is an excellent one, by fairly universal acclaim.

Steam is something I love, especially their holiday sales; I don't use the social aspect much (friends and communities) but it's a great platform for organizing your games; even non-steam games can be launched through it. It works differently in "offline mode" which is what I use on my laptop most times, where no connection is needed, but there's no cloud update. For the vast majority of steam games, your achievements, stats, sometimes even savegames are stored locally as well as in the steam cloud (ahem) when Steam is in Online mode. If there's a conflict, it'll ask you and give you the dates of the most recent entries in both cloud and local data, so you can decide which is probably accurate.

I have no experience with GOG, but have literally never heard a complaint about them online. Steam has had some issues with hacked accounts, but get yourself a proper bulletproof password for Steam and keep it safe. Oh, and Steam lets you run Steam and your games on as many PCs as you want-- log in somewhere and it logs out elsewhere, so you can play your games wherever you want, just not in more than one place at once.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:24 PM on December 26, 2012

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