The landscape of PC games is all over the place and it can be hard to determine how to buy a game or if someone should even bother buying it in the first place. From my personal experiences, and to not single out specific stores to use or avoid as people’s opinions on those differ, here’s what I’ve figured out.
Have a Windows PC
In order to play most games, despite the growth of Mac and Linux sectors and the ability for several popular engines to export to those operating systems as well, Windows is still somehow king in the PC market and therefore games are generally made to work best and first on that platform. Even though there have been major efforts to bring Linux more compatibility with Windows games, chances are that to play a lot of things well, a native Windows install would work best, but the gap is closing more than it has before. Macs have a tool to help with dual-booting, though Linux systems can also do so, and existing Windows machines can be made to dual-boot into Linux as well.
Know the specifications
As usual, PC games require some minimum to run well. Smaller games don’t usually require a ton of RAM or storage space and might work with a budget graphics card or even a basic integrated chipset, but moving toward the AAA realm, things get expensive fast. Even the minimum can be a lot to achieve when it needs a fairly recent graphics card, and something along the lines of over 100 GB of storage, just because they want to have a ton of giant textures and uncompressed audio and so on. Computers can usually be upgraded relatively easily (provided certain things such as slots and power are managed well), unless they’re certain Macs that lock away the components like Macbooks, though certain models such as iMacs and the Mac Pro have some options, though regulated.
Know the stores
There are a lot of storefronts for PC games now, but they’re generally mostly online at this point. Even a physical copy in a physical store is likely just to contain a code for claiming the game at a digital storefront. On the occasion that a modern game actually comes on the physical copy itself, that’s typically the simplest approach, provided one has a machine with a physical disc drive, something that’s being skipped on the typical modern “gamer PC” yet is available on a lot of budget family models. Within the digital storefronts, each has its advantages and disadvantages, mainly pertaining to how games can be downloaded and how to play them online or offline. The choice of store is down to the player, as they might have their own personal reasons for picking one over another.
Know the DRM
Digital rights management (DRM) is a long-existing concept that’s changed many times. It generally limits the player’s ability to copy or share games in the interest of reducing piracy. Sometimes it’s more complex or more intrusive than other cases and that might cause scenarios such as the legitimate company behind the game to release hacks that later patch it out, while those hacks might have come from the pirates they were trying to defeat in the first place. In general terms, I believe that the less DRM in place, the better the experience can be for the player, but generally most storefronts use some minimal DRM at least to keep games inside the storefronts. Some storefronts allow downloaded games to skip DRM entirely, which means that the game files can be copied around with no problem, even illegally, but they do this in the interest of making things simple for the players, as well as giving them a contingency in case the store has to close for whatever reason. Others that typically depend on a client being online are more up in the air, and there may be repercussions in the future if something terrible befalls the store and players can’t get to their games without resorting to hacks or patches or downloading a certain copy of the game, which would effectively be piracy. It is something to be aware of but not paranoid about, though if a game is having severe performance issues related to DRM, then chances are it was implemented incorrectly.
Know how it’s being released
While it’s hard to set anything in stone online, games have many release strategies instead of just a single release that remains unchanged. With patching came the concept of being able to change a game entirely after release, and after that the idea of early access came about. Early access is generally paying for an incomplete product in the interest that it might eventually become a full game with the possibility of players having influence in its development. After early access, crowdfunding grew further. Crowdfunding is generally paying for a product in advance, with the promise of the product actually existing in a form eventually. However there are many cases where promises go unfulfilled and this generally diminishes the value of these approaches, even in the face of actual success stories with fulfillment, meaning a return to the single “final” release with possibly patches later. I would generally stick to games that are already fully out and not pre-order anything until an informed decision can be made.
Know what the game actually is
Marketing is generally talking up selling points. Whether those points actually exist in the product is not guaranteed. Reviews should be checked. Not just articles on sites but personal accounts. Each opinion is not a definitive answer, but if patterns emerge then there is probably at least some backing truth to it, if one didn’t just happen to pick a set who were all influenced to say the exact same thing. The genres in question are just a matter of personal taste, someone who doesn’t like a genre but got the game anyway is more likely to dislike it.
Know how to make backups
This goes back to the DRM topic mentioned above somewhat, but knowing how to make backups of downloaded copies is a good idea in general, especially with DRM-free storefronts allowing customers to download with fewer restrictions. Ones with the online client may be trickier to restore after a backup, but it may be possible without hacking all of the files. Some stores with clients may allow making “install archives” which may be effectively compressed disc images for later reinstall, though would still probably require the client to do so. In the face of everything being uncertain, it is a good idea to have “hard copies” somewhere.
At the end of this, one can generally go to a legitimate storefront and buy a game without issues, but the fine print must be read. Some stores just sell keys that activate on certain clients, but can be less than the usual prices on those client storefronts. Knowing what store a key goes to up front can make sure the player has an account there beforehand, or to reconsider if they have anything against that particular one. Of course, this doesn’t cover things such as subscription services or streaming platforms where no game files are actually downloaded, where ownership is even more in question since it’s treated more as a service.