By InGame reporter
NBC News
updated 12/11/2008 6:50:03 AM ET 2008-12-11T11:50:03

Recessions stink for a lot of reasons. But today we’re going to discuss reason No. 124 why an economic meltdown is, like, a major killjoy.

Reason No. 124: A bad economy could mean less money to spend on games.

As someone who cobbles together a living playing video games, I don’t want to suggest that games are completely superfluous during hard times. In fact, many have argued that video games are something the dejected masses will turn to when the going gets tough .

But as much as I love video games, even I have to admit that when the cash flow starts to dry up, the smart move in the game of life is to cut back on the fun and games in favor of spending that money on stuff like food and clothes and medical insurance.

At the very least, if times are tight (or you’re worried you may soon feel the squeeze) you probably want to think very carefully about how you spend the money you’ve set aside for video games. With that in mind, here are a few strategies for making your gaming dollar go as far as it can ... and a look at some of the games that give you the biggest bang for your hard-earned buck.

Tip No. 1: Go back in time
This year has ushered in a bumper crop of great games. Problem is, buying the latest and greatest hits is going to cost you.

Say goodbye to $60 if you want “Gears of War 2” or “Resistance 2” and, cha-ching, that’ll be $90 for “Wii Fit.”

When you’re a dollar (or two) short, it’s a good time to start looking to the past. That is, consider picking up some of the stellar games you didn’t get around to playing in years gone by. Good titles from as recently as last year can be had at deep discounts.

For example, one of the biggest values from last year is “ The Orange Box .” Not only is this a compilation of five excellent games (including the critically acclaimed “Portal”), it’s now on sale for half of what it originally cost — $15 to $30, depending on your game machine. When it launched in October last year, it cost $50 to $60.

Tip No. 2: Go indie
Video games made by small, independently operated companies — comprised sometimes of no more than a single person or a team of two — are some of the most intriguing and inspiring games you’ll find out there. And best of all, they frequently cost a fraction of what a mainstream title will run you.

Image: "Braid"
Number None
"Braid," one of the great games of 2008, can be downloaded through Xbox Live for just $15.
That’s because indie game developers are making their games with skeleton crews and on minimalist budgets. And, frequently, they’re cutting out the costs of creating a disc and selling it at retail and, instead, delivering games directly to your machine of choice via the Web.

Xbox 360 owners can buy not only a great indie game but one of the great games of 2008 for a mere $15. It’s called “ Braid ,” and it can be downloaded through Xbox Live. Meanwhile, PS3 owners will not regret spending $10 on the beautiful platforming game “ PixelJunk Eden .” And one of the must-play Wii games of the year is also an indie game. It’s called “ World of Goo ,” and you can download it to your Wii for $15 through Nintendo’s WiiWare service, or for $20 you can download it directly to your PC/Mac.

(For more suggestions, check out our list of the Top 5 indie games .)

Tip No. 3: Go big
If you do want to spend your cash on the latest and greatest games from the biggest, best-known game makers, a good way to get mega gaming for the money is to purchase the most epic game you can get your mitts on.

Image: "Fallout 3"
Bethesda Softworks
Searching for a good gaming value? Try the action RPG game "Fallout 3." With an epic world to explore and a multitude of quests to keep you busy, it provides more than 50 hours of gameplay for the price of $60.
How about a sand-box style game that allows you to explore every nook and cranny of a vast digital world for hours on end? How about a role-playing game with a myriad of side-quests to keep you entertained for weeks, if not months?

My fellow game reviewer Scott Taves tells me he’s logged 50 hours and counting on the epic action role-playing game “ Fallout 3 .” The game costs $60, so that’s $1.20 per hour of play. Not bad.

If you missed last year’s “ Mass Effect ,” you now can get one enormous game for the discount price of $25. It clocks in with some 60 hours of play — costing you a mere 42 cents an hour. And yet another epic game sure to keep you occupied for a long time to come is the evolution simulation game “ Spore ,” which plays much like five games in one and costs $50.

While you’re at it, don’t just go big … go massive. That is massively multiplayer online. Bad pun aside, “World of Warcraft” players will tell you that you get a vast amount of gameplay for the money here in this alternate world of orcs and elves. Yes, you have to pay both the price of the game plus a monthly subscription, but if you’re looking to log lots of hours, play time is, literally, limitless.

Tip No. 4: Go with the group
Some of the games that provide the most mileage for your money are games made to play with friends. Games with a strong multiplayer component (either for local play or for online play) are frequently the kind of game you can revisit over and over again with your pals, finding yourself in different scenarios every time.

It’s a game. It’s an opportunity to socialize. It’s a lot of value in one package.

For example, games reviewer Blake Snow recommends the “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” games. Yes, “Rock Band 2” and “ Guitar Hero World Tour ” can run you anywhere from $50 to $190 — depending on whether you need to buy the plastic instrument peripherals — and that’s a hefty investment. But these games have the ability to entertain an entire room full of people for hours, nay days, weeks, months, on end. And that’s not just the four people pretending to be rock stars, but all the people sitting around watching and laughing at them as well.

Furthermore, once you’ve dropped that chunk of change on these games, you can keep them fresh by downloading new songs to play.

Which brings me to another suggestion from Taves …

Tip No. 5: Expand, expand, expand
Don't forget to update aging games with downloadable content. Items like new songs, new maps and various add-ons and expansions can significantly lengthen the lifespan of a game you’ve invested in and can cost as little as a few dollars to download.

Tip No. 6: Go casual
Jay Bibby, founder of the game review site Jayisgames.com, believes that one of the keys to game value is replayability.

“These are games that have a reward structure such that they’ll keep you wanting to try them just one more time,” Bibby says. “Those types of games are great because it's an investment, in that you’ve got something that you can keep coming back to.”

At Jayisgames, Bibby and a team of reviewers sift through the multitude of casual games offered online and recommend only the best of the best. He believes casual games are a great buy for the budget-conscious gamer because a) they’re almost always $20 or less, b) you can almost always try them before you buy them, and c) many of them are highly replayable.

As an example, he recommends the new “ Bejeweled Twist ” match-three puzzle game ($20) as one with loads of replay value. He also recommends the village simulation games “My Tribe” and “Virtual Villagers” ($20) as games that will keep players coming back for more.

Tip No. 7: Go free
But what Bibby is especially excited about are the free games. Yes, free.

Since 2004, Jayisgames.com has been keeping close tabs on Flash games — free games playable in your Web browser.

“Talk about an industry that has exploded. It’s just amazing,” Bibby says, pointing out that the relatively inexpensive and relatively easy-to-use Flash program has made it so almost anyone can make a game and post it on the Internet. “It has put the power in the hands of the people and, as a result, we’re seeing some of the coolest, most innovative games come out of the Flash industry.”

Of course, with the masses busy making Flash games, it can make for a lot of games to sift through. And so for those who don’t have a penny to spare on the pastime they love (and even for those who do), check out this list of great Flash titles to get you started.

After all, you might just find that the best games in life are free.

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