Why 110,000 gamers built a community around playing games years after release

There's a comic you might have seen, an xkcd strip where someone plays Half-Life 2 for the first time five years after its release. It's part of his plan to only play games on a five-year delay. Our stick figure friend explains that he saves money, gets to experience the history of video games on his own terms, “and there are no downsides!” Then he shows up a few years later, having just played Portal for the first time and eager to quote it at people who are very sick of hearing about cake. This year he'd just now be hitting the disappointment of Hitman: Absolution and the controversial ending of Mass Effect 3, then sobbing over Telltale's Walking Dead.

As it turns out, there's actually a whole community of gamers dedicated to playing this way, but it's more about how they experience games than eternally playing catch-up with a delayed backlog.

Patient Gamers is a subreddit for people who would rather be fashionably late to the video game party, only at /r/patientgamers they don't follow a five-year lag system. The rule here is that you can post about any game at least six months old. The result is calm discussion about games that aren't new enough to still be magnets for fans and haters, but often aren't old enough yet to be nostalgia trips. It’s refreshing compared to larger subreddits like the meme barrage of /r/gaming, or /r/games, which was created as a discussion-oriented alternative but can still descend into flamewars and hypetrains.

It all started five years ago, appropriately enough, when Redditor Jetmax25 posted a thread labelled “Being Poor Sucks” to /r/gaming. What he posted was a Slowpoke meme with the words, “I JUST BOUGHT FALLOUT NEW VEGAS. ANYBODY WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT?”

Enough people empathized with the feeling of playing a game a couple of years behind the times and not having anyone to chat about it with that commenters registered /r/patientgamers on the spot, and Jetmax25 became one of its mods. Since then, it's grown to more than 111,000 subscribers.

On the front page of /r/patientgamers right now people are talking about Sleeping Dogs, BioShock, Saints Row 2, and Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor. All of them are games released in the period blogger and musician Nicholas Currie, aka Momus, calls the anxious interval: the period between the exciting present and the memorable past, the uncanny valley of cultural analysis where things aren't new enough to be relevant or old enough to be retro and are much less likely to be seriously discussed. But at /r/patientgamers that doesn't hold anyone back.

One of the mods, Myrandall, explains that he initially became a patient gamer simply because his hardware wasn't up to snuff when it came to new releases, but then realized there were other advantages. “I started looking for games on sale with lower system requirements and found I still thoroughly enjoyed them. When I did finally get a hardware upgrade I realised I could either buy Far Cry 4 for $60, or Far Cry 3 Deluxe Edition for just $10 on sale and probably enjoy it just as much.”

A regular poster to the subreddit, frosty_byter, says there's more to it than being thrifty. “You do save money, but more importantly, you get a complete, refined experience. There's no need to download multiple patches during the first month, you don't encounter game-crashing bugs, you can read reviews and go in knowing what to expect.”

There are other advantages as well. Games are more likely to be DLC-complete, thoroughly patched, and even modded. Some of the most interesting posts have been about games that received a lot of both patching and modding, and what it’s like to play them today. Here’s a guide to Vampire: The Masquerade — Bloodlines taking into account fan patches and mods as well as years of experience getting the most out of a game that was flawed at launch, and here’s a guide to the entire Half-Life series, including its expansions, sequels, and mods. 

On /r/patientgamers players can still have a conversation, even after the cycle of hype and spin have died down.

As well as older games simply having more stuff, it feels like you can allow yourself more time to play them. After the initial burst of discussion has died down it's easier to play at your own pace without worrying you'll be spoiled by someone on Twitter if you don't keep up with the fast pace of play and discussion right after a game's launch. “I picked up the complete edition of Dragon Age: Inquisition recently, and I think picking this up so late, after playing all the other games I wanted, allowed me to take my time with it and really enjoy it,” says frozen_byter. 

“I can see why many people who bought it on release and tried to rush through grew tired of it, and were then whisked away by Witcher 3 releasing months later. Inquisition is very much a game you have to take your time with, and a bit slower in story and pacing than others. But it's a magical experience, if you ever wanted to be a high fantasy king managing his kingdoms, or Gandalf, going around recruiting the members of the Fellowship.”

There's obviously a counterpoint to that as well. Being part of the initial rush of exploration with a new game is a thrill of its own. A significant part of why I enjoyed Skyrim so much is that I played it brand new and shared in discoveries that not many other people had seen, that hadn't been given their own wiki pages or documented by YouTubers. I felt like part of a conversation, and the conversation you have over coffee about the movie you just went to see is half the point of going to the cinema.

On /r/patientgamers players can still have that conversation, even after the cycle of hype and spin have died down. One of my favorite posts came from a conversation about the 15-year-old RPG Morrowind, in which CaspianX2 imagined what it would be like to be an NPC in that game, living next door to the [player character] who wears dead people’s clothes and goes shopping the way you do in RPGs: “He’s currently involved in some complex series of trades with the shopkeeper where he drops an ornate weapon on the counter, takes all of the shopkeeper’s gold, uses it to buy some of the shop’s wares, and then drops another weapon or piece of armor on the counter to start the process over again.” 

As Myrandall says, “I love that you can start a thread on any older title in this subreddit and there will always be multiple people interested in discussing it. Try something similar on /r/gaming or /r/games and all you get is a few downvotes for daring to bring up something that isn't a new release or a retro game.”

That's backed up by Jetmax25. “The biggest drawback on waiting on a game is you lose the shared experience aspect of that. In that regard I don't recommend PatientGaming to kids in middle school. Reddit would always be full of posts talking about the latest game, but by the time I wanted to chime in it was over. /r/PatientGamers is a great way to share what most people have already moved on from.”

It's a friendly place too, especially by the standards of Reddit. I've only seen somebody use the word “cuck” there once. “There's no competition, just a sharing of enjoyment,” Jetmax25 says. Very little has needed to be banned by the friendly mods, except for posting the xkcd comic strip that sums it up.

“Back when /r/patientgamers was still in its infancy the comic was probably posted once a month,” Myrandall says. “When I became a mod one of the first things I did was introduce a rule to ban it. The ban is tongue-in-cheek, of course, since the rule itself links to the comic and it is therefore probably seen more than if it was just a regular post. In my opinion it perfectly describes our subreddit.”

If you do head to /r/patientgamers you should know that one other topic is unofficially banned, as Jetmax25 tells me, for the same reason. Don't ask if you should play Mass Effect. Believe it or not, that's already come up, once or twice.