How to save on video games safely

The dangers of pirated games, activation codes on gray-market sites, and ready-made accounts in official stores.

Why you shouldn't buy game activation keys and ready-made accounts

Modern AAA games can be quite expensive, so not everyone can afford to buy them at full price — and some gamers believe that entertainment has no right to cost that much. But people still want to play, so some look for other options, including ones that flirt with illegality. Beware if you are one of them, for unpleasant surprises may lurk around the corner.

Pirate versions

A common way to get a game on the cheap is to download a pirated version. It’s not legal or ethical, of course, but let’s be honest, that doesn’t stop everyone. However, free games can come with a high price: Scammers distribute malware, often disguised as game cracks and activators, and their traps can be hard to evade.

Rogue activation codes

Another way, at first glance perfectly legal, to save money on games is to buy an activation key in an unofficial store. Prices there are usually lower than they are on official sites, attracting penny-pinching gamers like bees to honey.

However, the gray market can be shady; hence the name. Alongside honest sellers who buy keys in bulk and sell them at a discount, a fair few scammers inhabit that world. And distinguishing them isn’t easy.

Keys for sale might have been stolen or intended only for journalists. Such keys tend to get revoked by publishers, whereupon either the key will not work at all or the game will vanish from your account. It’s possible that after a lengthy back-and-forth you’ll be able to prove that you bought the key in good faith, without knowing about its dubious origin, but is saving a few bucks really worth the hassle?

Anyway, the main point of paying for games is to support the developers so that they can maintain multiplayer servers and create new games and sequels. If you buy a stolen key, the money goes straight to the thieves and the developer gets nothing.

What’s more, developers and publishers have to spend a lot of resources investigating such cases and dealing with affected customers and compensation claims. As a result, some independent studios have actually told gamers to download a pirated copy rather than hand over money to gray-market sellers.

Ready-made accounts

It’s not hard to find a juicy offer to buy a ready-made account teeming with games on a platform like Steam or Origin. Compared to the price of each individual game, such accounts can be real bargains. The sellers explain their generosity by saying, for example, that they’ve quit gaming and want to recoup at least some of their outlays.

What could possibly go wrong? A lot. First, the seller might be a bald-faced scammer who’ll take your money and skedaddle, leaving you with no account and a hole in your pocket. The real downside is that you’ll have nowhere to turn for redress: Gaming platforms explicitly prohibit the transfer of accounts, making the purchase illegal.

Second, the account might turn out to be stolen. The real owner could want it back sooner or later (which is logical), in which case you’ll lose the money you paid to the criminals. Again, if the initial purchase went against the rules of the platform, complaining is futile.

Third, even if the account actually exists and belongs to the seller, and even if the seller actually hands it over to you, you still have no guarantee of a smooth ride. The seller might, having received the money, request the account’s restoration, claiming that you stole it.

Fourth, gaming platforms take a dim view of such shadow trading. On detecting the transfer of the account, the system might simply block it “until the circumstances are clarified.” And the circumstances might be that you’ll never get that account.

Ultimately, account transfers are prohibited by gaming platforms, so if a transaction goes sideways, you won’t be in the right. That’s why buying a secondhand account for a gaming platform is perhaps the riskiest way to skimp on games. It’s better not to mess around with this option.

Games in official stores

If you want to save money and aren’t a risk-taker, then use legal methods (which is what we recommend anyway), which include keeping an eye out for sales and special offers, and downloading inexpensive or free games from official sites.

You could also wait for games to lose their novelty. A couple of years after release, games can see 80%–90% price reductions, so having a little patience could save you a lot of cash.

In any case, it’s always important to remain vigilant; even Steam is not immune to malware. In 2018, for example, scammers uploaded a miner disguised as a simple platformer.

In addition, cybercriminals sometimes create fake game pages, either by setting up a separate site or on Steam itself. If you accidentally land on a fake page, you risk getting infected and losing your account, so be sure to check everything carefully.

How to save on games, risk-free

To avoid trouble when searching for discounted games:

  • Buy games only on official sites, and wait for the sales — they take place fairly often, so you won’t be sitting on your hands for long.
  • Don’t buy the first thing that pops up. Yes, even during Steam’s summer sale, before forking out the dough for a little-known title, at least read some reviews of it. If something is fishy, people will probably figure it out.
  • Use a reliable security solution that won’t let a suspicious program onto your computer, no matter how pretty it looks.