This article was first published on June 23rd, 2016. It has been revised and updated to suit the most recent Steam Sales as Black Friday 2018 approaches.
When these massive sales first started years ago, I remember the shock on my friend's faces. Could they really sell games for this cheap? Could I really search through a catalog, and find a dozen games for under fifty bucks? It seemed insane; a glitch gone horribly right for us as consumers. Everyone started seeing red as Valve started seeing green, and suddenly we had more games than what we knew what to do with.
The Steam sale is a brilliant tactic by Valve; a figurative flood of sales and deals that doesn’t let up for days, meant to drown our willpower in a flood of flashy options. There are simply so many possibilities to get games for cheap that when you finally hit the buy button, you can’t think of a reason not to fill your cart with other limited time offers.
We know what the rush of a limited sale can do to your budget. To help prepare, we’ve come up with a small list of ideas and tips to maybe help you take a breath, focus, and purchase what you really want to get…not just dozens of games you’ll never play.
#1 - Set Yourself A Budget
This is a key way to make sure you don’t overspend, for a few reasons. Giving yourself a hard limit on how much you can purchase keeps you from spending over what you want to spend, but it will also make you double-check every purchase you make up until that limit. Let’s say you give yourself a limit of 70 dollars, and you find a sale for a game you hadn’t been expecting to buy that looks really good… for 30 dollars. Do you want to give nearly half of your budget to a game you weren’t originally looking for?
For myself, I’m setting a limit of $150, partially because I want to buy some audio and visual software that I know gets steep price cuts during sales. I've set my budget based on what I was looking for, and on what I can afford: I’ll have enough to get what I ‘need’, while still giving me enough space to browse for some new indie games to enjoy.
#2 – Make a Wishlist Before You Start Buying
One reason the Steam sale is so insidious is because there’s simply so many options. There’s even a personalized queue of games that you can click through, based on your previous purchases and related tag words. Sure, you might have a particular game in mind that you are waiting to get during the sale, but if you look at ‘related games’ at the bottom of the store page... down the rabbit hole you go.
Here’s the trick: make a wishlist before you start purchasing games during the sale, and stick to it. It limits your options to a particular list, so it’s more manageable to keep track of. Even better? Make a massive wishlist, and slowly carve away at it over time. I had a whopping 70 items in my wishlist back in 2016; now I have only 22. As I bought games from sales, I realized that some of the games I had wishlisted I always skipped over, even at a 40% discount. That's how I knew they would just be impulse buys I never played, and removed them over time.
Remember everyone: many games look great at first glance...
Make a giant wishlist that shoots for the stars, and use that as a map to the budget you want to keep. As you keep it from sale to sale, you'll start realizing where you want to really spend your money.
#3 – Don’t Go After The New AAA Titles
This tip might not be for everyone, and that’s okay: some people use the steam sale just to get a decent deal on the new big blockbusters, and get out. This list isn’t really for those people to begin with, because those gamers already know exactly what they are looking for, and aren’t going to be as susceptible to falling into the purchasing loop that others can. If you are someone who browses and window-shops (like me), then it’s important not to waste your budget on one massive purchase. Yes, the newest Battlefield or Fallout game might get a solid 20% off, but a new game isn’t typically going to have the same steep price cuts that older games might. Twenty percent off a sixty dollar game is going to take up more of your budget than most other purchases during the sale.
#4 – Don't Buy On The First Day!
This tip is related to #2, but it bears repeating. If you don't have one already, use the first day of the sale to go wild making that wishlist. Anything that MIGHT catch your eye, add to that list, so you have all your favorites in one place. Then, sleep on it.
This chart is now outdated by modern Steam sales, but the basics still apply - wait a few days so you don't impulse buy all at once!
The sale goes on for days, which means you can avoid falling into the scarcity trap; its not like if you don't buy the game in the first few hours, it's going to vanish. Letting yourself have a day to think through all of your hopeful purchases can do a lot to help you sort out what you really want, and what just looked good at first blush. Use that time to look at multiple reviews, or just compare the different games in your wishlist: do you really need 8 open world survival games?
#5 – Be Aware Of DLC…But Be Careful Of It!
Downloadable Content is both a blessing and a curse, and so it goes with the Steam sale. I’ve come to find that during the sale, I can rush back to my old favorite games, and buy expansions for half off. It’s a way to make some of my favorite games new again, and rather than expand my library, I have a reason to play things I know I enjoy. Games like Endless Legend or Dungeon of the Endless are known for putting out solid small expansions, or maybe you’ve been waiting for an excuse to finally get a full expansion for X-Com 2 or The Witcher. Now might be the time to take a look not only through new games, but your old ones.
Be careful though, as DLC can add up against your wallet unexpectedly. The add-ons for a game will often have the same percentage discount as the base game; there might also be game bundles which already have content you own in them, and so getting those bundles might not be as large a discount as you might think. Use the Steam sale as a way to breathe life back into your old games, but as always, keep track of your budget, and take a few extra seconds to think before you buy.
By this point, I think half the fun of the Steam sales is how much the internet freaks out over them.
There you have it: our tips for braving the massive deluge that is the Steam sale. We wish you luck, and we wish that you find what you are looking for, while also keeping your wallet (almost) full.
Do you have your own tips or tricks to survive the Steam sale? Do you have a horror story of previous sales, or a favorite Steam sale meme? Let us know! Check out our Facebook or Twitter for new articles and reviews, and we’ll do our best to keep you up to date on what good games are out there to buy in the upcoming days.