Video Games and Frugality

wiiAs an owner of a Wii and a Nintendo DS, as well as a fairly frugal person, one of my biggest challenges is to figure out how to maximize my dollar – and my time – with a video game system. To this end, I use a wide array of tactics. These tactics also work if you’re buying video games for others as well, so keep them in mind if you’re a parent or a grandparent buying games.

My goal is to reduce the cost of the system and the games to a dollar per hour. This means that over the lifetime of the system, the total dollar cost of the system and all of the games is less than the number of hours that I’ve played with it.

Let’s look at my Nintendo DS, for instance. The system itself cost $129, and I own six games which cost me an average of $20: Advance Wars DS, Brain Age, Tetris DS, Planet Puzzle League, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Mario Kart DS, and Picross DS. Thus, the total cost here is $269. In order to get the value out of this system that I want, I would have to invest 269 hours in playing these games. Now, I’ve owned my DS for quite a while and I play it quite a bit while traveling, in waiting rooms, perking up my mind with puzzles, and so on, but has it added up to a total of 269 hours? I’m not sure, but I feel like I’m close enough to that number to be unsure about it.

The only way to get to that “dollar per hour” rate is to seek games that you can play over and over again. For me, that’s puzzle games and rhythm games, and that’s almost every video game that I own. I like games that are quick to pick up and offer a lot of replay value – a huge number of puzzles or a lot of songs to play.

For example, I was able to find how much time I’d sunk into my most played game of all, Advance Wars DS. It was a close companion of mine on many, many trips and many, many office visits. All told, the game reports that I’ve played it for a total of 105 hours. That’s replay value – for an original cost of $20, that’s quite a bargain, actually. Much of the value of owning the DS itself comes from this one game. On the Wii, the most played game of all is Guitar Hero III, which my wife and I both play regularly in the evenings and which has been played at countless social events at our house by a huge variety of people.

The aspect of video game ownership that makes it expensive are the “lemons” – games with very little replay value. Sadly, most games fall into this category – they don’t offer much repetitive gameplay, making them very expensive for the enjoyment and time that you get out of them. Almost all “crossover” games – ones that are tied in to a movie or other media brand – fall into this category, for starters.

The best way to find highly replayable games and to avoid lemons is to do the research. The best way to do this is to look at a wide variety of online video game reviews. Visit Metacritic and read a wide range of reviews. Although the reviewers talk a lot about graphics and such, one of the real consistent “make or break” factors is replay value – does this game have enough interest to keep people coming back for more? Gaming store advice is usually solid – they have no reason to point you in a bad direction and the people working there usually have a good grasp on what the “best” games are in most genres.

The biggest key, though, is knowing what you like (or what the person you’re buying for likes). The only way to find that out is to pay attention. If you enjoy doing puzzles in the newspaper, you’ll probably enjoy the surfeit of puzzle games for the DS. If you like playing strategic board games like chess and such, games like Advance Wars would be right up your alley. If you constantly find yourself drumming your fingers in time to music you hear, try out a rhythm game like Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero (or try learning your own instrument, though that’s a very long slog).

Buying used is one good way to reduce the cost… Many game shops have a large used game selection, usually at a pretty good discount below the new price. Usually, the games are there because someone strapped for cash liquidated their video game collection. These games have been pre-tested to make sure that they work and they usually have a return policy, so if you do get a faulty game, you can often return it.

… but the best way is to buy old. My Nintendo Wii plays GameCube games. I can find most of the top GameCube games for just a few dollars by looking around. Similarly, my DS plays Game Boy Advance games where the same rule applies. Gaming reviews often refer back to the “cream of the crop” from earlier generations, so if you read a review of an exciting game and find that there’s a predecessor out there, try seeking that one out first. I found the original Advance Wars (for the Game Boy Advance) for just a couple dollars and played that one to death before getting the newer one for the DS.

If you think you’ve truly played a game to death, don’t be afraid to trade it. Since I’ve defeated all of the cases in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, I’m considering trading it in to get a discount on the next game in the series, reducing the cost of that game. Since I picked up the original for just $15 and played it for 15 or so hours, I feel like I got a good deal out of it and I’m eager to play through more cases (it’s a detective/courtroom drama game), and by trading in the original and getting the next one, the cost of the next one in the series is reduced, improving the value.

What are my “best buys”? In terms of value for my dollar, I feel that the Nintendo DS is the best bargain out there. It has a huge library of titles (since it can play older Game Boy Advance ones as well, the total count is several hundred) with a lot of gems in there. I’ve played the following games for at least 40 hours each for the DS: Advance Wars DS (perhaps my single most-played game of all time), Brain Age (because it includes a ton of sudoku puzzles, which I often do in the morning to limber up my brain), Picross DS (another puzzle game that I use in the mornings to limber up), and Planet Puzzle League (perhaps the easiest pick-up-and-play-for-three-minutes game ever made). Those four games, plus the DS, cost me less than $200 total, and I’ve gotten at least 200 hours of play out of the set – it’s entertained me on flights, in the doctor’s office, at the DMV, in the mornings when I’m trying to get my thinking cap on, and so on.