Insert Coin: Taking a trip to the thrift shop of PC gaming

Will Podlewski, Columnist

Video gaming isn’t cheap. With a torrent of online passes, downloadable content and system peripherals taking a huge bite out of gamers’ wallets, it’s harder than ever to get a decent value when you plunk down your hard-earned cash for the next big thing. But in an industry that seems to care only about “Call of Duty” and “Assassin’s Creed,” it’s easy to forget that some of the best games out there cost little to nothing to enjoy. That’s why every two weeks, I’ll be showing you a great new way to get your video gaming fix for under $20. So get your quarters ready and game on!

Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been a major point of friction between gamers and developers since the beginning of (video game) time, but the struggle has risen to apocalyptic proportions in this current console generation. DRM is a series of methods that game companies use to discourage piracy, from multiplayer online passes for games such as “Battlefield 3” to a constant required Internet connection, as is necessary in the “Assassin’s Creed” series. And though it makes sense from a business perspective, this digital shotgun under the store counter is often much more hassle than it’s worth, forcing gamers to go through screen after screen after screen just to register their games, let alone play them.

It’s not a long shot to say just about no one likes DRM. But why is it then that one little piece of free software called “Steam” is almost universally adored, with more than 25 million unique downloads, when it’s nothing but one giant DRM platform? How about “L.A. Noire” for $4.99?

Part social network, part creative outlet, part GameStop and all DRM, Steam has consistently managed to attract millions of players despite its greasy business pedigree.  And though the social features are nice and the online multiplayer is fully functional (for the most part), it’s the cheap games that keep gamers coming back again and again.

Steam is the thrift shop of the video game world: Games that were the talk of the industry only a few years before are now stocked at drastically reduced prices, from Rockstar’s aforementioned 2011 crime thriller “L.A. Noire” for less than $5, to the massively sprawling 2008 post-apocalyptic RPG “Fallout 3” for less than $20 (I’ve sunk nearly 70 hours into this game and have yet to even scratch the surface). And while Steam does also provide new releases for full price, it’s always a better choice to wait a couple of months or so until the inevitable price drop occurs.

Yes, DRM is pretty much a cancer killing games nowadays. But really, who’s going to complain when you can get “Half-Life 2” for $9.99 or the brutally difficult but perversely charming “Super Meat Boy” for $14.99? Certainly not me — I’ve got a good 30 hours left in “Fallout 3.”