Free for All: Getting the most bang for your virtual buck this season

Gift Cards screenshot
So the 'rents finally came through for you this year, skipping the toaster or pair of socks and giving you gift cards for your favorite MMOs? Brilliant! Now, what do you do with all of that virtual cash? Not so fast! If you blow through that pile of pixelated dough, you're sure to regret it later. Not to worry, though; I've taken the trouble to list several methods for not only getting the most out of your internet bucks but keeping the waves of impulsive goodness washing over you for some time after.

How did I do it? Well, research really. I spent the last several years playing MMOs and spending money in cash shops. I've made plenty of buying decisions that I regretted later, so let my sufferings serve as example for you.

Ultimate Game Card offers screenshot
The first thing you should be careful about is using that shiny new card of yours for refilling a subscription that already has time left on it. While I always encourage players to put money into their favorite game in the hopes that it builds confidence in the developers (and the investors), paying for time on a sub before that sub runs out can be a no-no. For example, every time I get a new RuneScape subscription card, I check when my current membership runs out and then set a reminder on my calendar. That way I can wait until the last minute to plunk those bucks down.

Why all this waiting? The answer is simple: You want to get a deal any time you can manage one. In fact, the theme for today's column is have patience. Different publishers might run a special that says if a player uses a certain card, say from a certain store like Wal-Mart, the card will come with something extra like a cool sword. Keep that in mind. Of course if it gets down to the last 30 seconds of your current subscription before you scratch off that little gray strip on the back, you're waiting too long. Be patient, but don't be paranoid that you might miss something literally at the last minute.

Mabinogi gift shop screenshot
The patience theme continues when we are discussing a more likely gift. Your relatives have no idea what you play, what it is called, or how to play it, but they know you like some sort of game. The guy at the store tells them to get an all-in-one card, like the Ultimate Game Card. This is a great situation simply because you have more games to choose from, but be careful before burning through all of that dough. As with a subscription, you'll want to wait until you absolutely have no choice to use that money. You're waiting for sales, discounts, or last minute virtual stock clearances.

Be weary of brand-new items in the shop, as well. That awesome new mount will call to you, this I promise, but it's very possible that the same mount will be half off once the next set comes out. Do your research and make sure that you know the last date possible if the item is time-limited. You might ask customer service if the item will be removed from the shop altogether, change prices, or just pushed out of the spotlight by a new item. One of the easiest ways to get virtual shopper's cash is to offer him something super-awesome and tacking on a "limited offer" or special price on it. The shop will likely keep the item around after the introductory sale and just tempt you with a new one.

Habbo Hotel cash shop screenshot
This might seem like an odd tip, but it's a time-tested one. If you love a good appearance item, then you want to look cool, or at least look as if you know how to match colors. The problem is that we often fall in love with a seasonal look only to want a new seasonal look. I tend to pick out a cool piece of appearance clothing and use it for a long, long time. I typically skip holiday sets but will go for a smaller item like a wreath helmet or a heart backpack. Holiday items will be wore once a year, but you'll never wear that old holiday item again, leaving you wishing for more bank space for all of the old holiday bits that you don't have the heart to get rid of.

If you're going to go for a look, try to have a reason for each piece. Make each piece a part of your character's story or find a way to make it mean something. If not, you'll easily spend all of your dough on every new piece of seasonal clothing. Don't get me wrong; I'm perfectly happy if you'd like to get a new outfit every week, but I tend to be a bit more frugal. When I buy my appearance armor, I'll use it for a long time, and I accentuate the holidays only with timeless bits that can be stored easily.

Station Cash cards
I will close out this article with an emphasis on the theme. Having patience and resisting the urge to splurge is the same as it is in real life. Sure, impulse buys rush endorphins into your brain, but as in real life, you don't want ever to regret a purchase. If you get a deck of these cards over the holidays and find yourself drooling at the overflow of cash into your character's wallet, I urge you to set some aside for a later date. Yes, yes, I know... more waiting. Where's the fun in that?

As many of you know, I tend to play a lot of different games. One of the best feelings is to return to a game I haven't played in some time to find money still waiting to be spent in the cash shop. I didn't spend all of my credits in Wakfu, in a recent example, and was able to spread my purchases out over a few months. I snagged some deals and fed myself a slow trickle of purchasing pleasure without allowing my senses to be dulled, all because I decided to spend only some of my money back then.

While I would love to see all of my readers gain the ability to spend wads of cash in their favorite game, I know that for many of us a virtual shopping spree is about as common as a real life one. It's just smarter to be patient with our money, watch for deals, and keep a little tucked away for a rainy day.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.