What should I know before buying a game?

Buying a video game is much like buying a DVD or other form of entertainment. However, unlike movies or TV shows, it's more likely that you won't know what to expect with a game. After all, movies and TV shows are available for viewing prior to making a purchase -- you can watch them through a streaming service like Netflix, rent them for an evening from a local rental outlet, or just watch them as they are aired on your favorite TV channels. Games on the other hand frequently require a purchase before you can play them, making your choice more of a commitment.

So here's a handy overview of what you can find out about a game and how to apply this knowledge before you spend money hoping to have good time.

First, review what you know

Deciding to buy a game just because it's there in front of you is a pretty bad idea in a number of ways, so first stop and ask yourself a simple question: what do you already know about the game you're considering?

Are you familiar with other games in the series?
If the game you're considering is a sequel (usually indicated by a number after the title, such as Bejeweled 3), then consider if you've played or are otherwise familiar with the other games in the series. If you liked them, then odds in favor of you liking this one. This is not foolproof, but companies don't usually build on failures.

Have you heard people talking about it?
A good game gets people talking, but so does a bad game. If you don't remember the context, then you might as well have never heard of the game at all. But on the other hand, if people are talking favorably about a game, then it's more likely that it'll be worth the money.

Have you seen or read reviews of this game?
Great! You deserve some kudos for doing a little research before you went shopping! Since you're somewhat informed about the game already, you'll have an easier time with the next step.

Have you watched a Let's Play of this game?
Let's play videos are excellent for finding new games and deciding whether or not you'd like to play them. Watching someone play a game exposes its good and bad qualities very quickly. After all, you're not watching an ad or some marketing spiel. You're watching a real person play the game!

And if it looks like fun, it probably is.

Have you seen advertisements for it?
To be frank, advertisements exist to sell products. They are going to tell you it's the best thing since sliced bread, and use whatever means they can to make the game look enticing. In short, they will do everything in their power to sell the product. Thus, advertisements really shouldn't be considered when deciding about a game.

However, the fact that there are advertisements for the game means that the folks that made it cared enough to spend money promoting it, which is a good sign.

Or is the first time you've heard of this game?
If you've never heard of a game before -- nobody is talking about it, doing Let's plays of it or advertising it -- then you're likely looking at either a very lackluster game or a new one nobody's had the chance to critique yet. In which case, be cautious.

Of course, if you don't typically hang out with gamers or play games yourself, then this might not mean anything.

What information might be available

Now that you've taken stock of what information you already had regarding the game, it's time to consider what information is available to you where you're buying it. Note that this information is usually available in some form regardless of whether you're buying from a brick and mortar store, an online store like Amazon or a service like Steam.

What's the game's rating?
Rating boards exist to check games for age appropriateness and content. In the United States, this is the ESRB (the Entertainment Software Ratings Board). Legally, games are not required to be rated by these bodies, and many games available online are unrated. Even so, most brick and mortar stores in the US refuse to carry unrated games, so this is more of an issue with online shopping.

The ESRB rating can be found on the front side of game's box, in the lower left corner. In addition to the large letter signifying the rating, the little black and white box should have the meaning of the letter written inside it.

Generally speaking, you really only have to watch for T or M ratings. T stands for Teens (ages 13+), and may include some suggestive content, swearing or mild violence. M stands for Mature Audiences (18+) and can get into violent, sexual or otherwise questionable content. Many stores require you to show your driver's license or other proof of age to buy an M rated title, but I've never actually seen this enforced.

Although you'll probably never encounter it in the wild, there is a rating higher than M. It's AO (for Adults Only) and games with this rating are usually outright pornographic or hideously violent. The majority of stores refuse to carry this rating, so don't expect to actually see it.

The ESRB ratings also usually include "content descriptors", which are short phrases that describe the content in the game. Unfortunately, these are on the back of the game's box, and since most stores have the games in locked display cases, you might not be able to get to them without asking a clerk for help.

Online stores provide the ESRB rating somewhere on the game's store page. If one can't be found, the game is probably unrated. Unless you're viewing a website that deals primarily in homebrew or open source titles, that's a warning sign that something isn't right.

If you're shopping online, does the game have reviews?
Online stores, like Amazon or Steam, typically have product reviews on the same page as the product's information. These are often found at the bottom of the page, and can be a useful decision making tool.

Check the negative reviews first: is there something actually problematic that a lot of people complain about?

If the reviews are generally weird or funny (for example, reviews claiming that a game cured their father's/brother's/nephew's/cousin's/former roommate's cancer) then there's probably some major quality issues or the game is simply not one to be taken seriously. Some games are seen as inferior by design, and hardcore gamers will be quick to make fun of them rather than play them seriously. Of course, some games fall into so bad it's good territory, and these also get ridiculous reviews.

No reviews at all may mean the game is too new to have been reviewed, but it also can indicate a game that nobody wants to play.

Does the game offer achievements?
If you're considering buying a game on Steam or similar service, check to see if it offers achievements. If so, check the global leaderboards (there should be a link to them around where it says achievements are available). If there are easy ones to get (such as an achievement for clearing the tutorial level) and few people have earned it, there's probably something bad about the game, such as really frustrating gameplay.

Is the game on sale for a huge discount?
Games go on sale a lot. In most cases this is because it's just time for another sale (eg, Spring Sales, Weekly Sales, Christmas Sales) or the game just updated with some fancy new features.

But, if the discount is particularly high, then it may indicate that the game is selling so poorly that it needs to resort to drastic measures to make a profit. Games that cost less than $2 when on sale are often examples of this. The greater the discount, the bigger the concern: a $15 game selling for $2 is likely to be an albatross, not a deal!

Can you check screenshots or discussions?
These are usually on the back of the box, so doing this at a brick and mortar store is increasingly unlikely. But online you can expect screenshots to be showcased for the world to see.

There are two benefits of checking screenshots. The first advantage is that games with graphic violence or sexual content may flaunt it in their screenshots, as it's used as a selling point. The second advantage is that it helps give an indication of what genre the game falls into. Once you know what genre a game is, you can often predict some details about its content. See What types of games are there? for more information.

On Steam, there's also a "view discussions" link. Be sure to check it, as there are often long threads bemoaning people's current issues with a game if there's a problem.

An important note here: if you need to enter your birthday or otherwise get a warning page before you can view the game's screenshots or discussions, something is seriously wrong and you should probably reconsider your purchase.

Putting it all together

Once you've taken a few moments to go through the steps described above, you'll have gathered a reasonable amount of information about the game you're considering. Among other things, you'll have an idea of what to expect the game to be about, what age group it is marketed for, and what sort of gameplay it features. These things all combine to form an overall picture of the game, and you should use this to guide your verdict.

But, as much as I'd like to say that this is foolproof, it isn't. Games are varied and there's often something that will surprise you, good or bad, about a new game. Thus, buying a game is always a little bit of a gamble.

Lastly, there are two things to always remember above everything else mentioned here. If something about this game makes you uncomfortable or you still have reservations about buying the game, then don't purchase it. Wait until you've made up your mind and feel comfortable with spending the money on it before you buy it. There are always other games that will be just as much fun, and so if you keep looking you'll find something that's entertaining and doesn't make you uncomfortable. Just take your time and keep looking.