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An overview of digital distribution
Over the past two years, as I’ve become savvy in buying PC games through digital distribution, I’ve come up with a brilliant excuse to buy cheap games: Subway’s $5 footlong. Steam and other Web sites sell their digital wares at such ludicrously low prices that I’ve stooped to comparing the prices of games to the legendary Subway deal. Just last weekend, I wanted to buy the “Freedom Force” pack for two of my friends at $2 a pop. “Jeepers,” I thought, “that’s a no-brainer– it’s not even 10 inches of a $5 footlong. Sold!” The week before that, it was all three “Company of Heroes” titles for two and a half $5 footlongs, and so on. Now I’m poor. And hungry.
Starvation-fueled ramblings aside, the fact is that PC gaming is going through a transition from the dying retail market—boxes and discs—to digital distribution, which means buying games online, then downloading them straight to your computer. Digital distribution has seen phenomenal growth in recent years, and for good reason. Purchasing and downloading a game is no more than a few clicks away, and the lack of physical media eliminates the need to worry about digging up lost discs or serial keys. And the deals, oh Lawd, the deals. Because digital distribution services do not sell physical products, they usually charge less for software, leading to incredible deals on titles both new and old. If you can get past the idea of buying a game without a disc—an admittedly difficult barrier—there are plenty of reasons to embrace digital distribution as the future of PC gaming.
But not many people know that digital distribution exists, and even those who do are sometimes confused by the various services available. It doesn’t help that each service is different in terms of selection, pricing, DRM (digital rights management), etc., which is why I’ve taken the liberty of writing this handy overview of various online digital distribution services. Happy PC gaming.
Direct2Drive: The old coot
Owned by the faceless entertainment conglomerate known only as IGN, Direct2Drive (D2D) is one of the older digital distribution services, hailing from the year 2004. The old-fashioned D2D does not use a client, which makes installing games a bit of a hassle compared to Steam and Impulse. After buying a game, the user navigates to the account page to download the game in the form of a .zip archive. The user must then extract the archive and manually install the game, and, after that, activate it with a provided activation key. The game may still need its own serial key besides the activation key to access multiplayer or other features.
D2D is a bit ambiguous on the number of activations each title has, and its support section only says that games have a “limit to the number of simultaneous activation to protect the product,” and that additional activations may be requested through customer service. Moreover, no client means no automatic updates, so some customers will be forced to browse D2D’s patches section and manually update their games. It’s almost more confusing than it sounds.
The service’s largest drawback is, ironically enough, its saving grace. Once they are installed and activated, games can be played offline. Even better, the massive .zip files downloaded and used to install games can be burned onto a disc, allowing users to back up their D2D-bought games on physical media, though they still must be activated online upon install. It’s rudimentary in more than a few ways, but Direct2Drive is worth a look for its decent catalogue and occasionally tempting sales.
Steam: The prophesied messiah
Despite a notoriously buggy launch, Steam has since been become the service of choice for the majority of PC gamers. It controls more than 70 percent of the market, if reports are to be believed. The service, now boasting more than 25 million accounts, has spearheaded the shift to digital distribution with its huge selection, slick community features and Subway-priced deals.
The way Steam works is simple enough. A user first creates a free Steam account and buys a game, then installs the Steam client program. Upon logging into their accounts, users pick a game to download from the list of purchased games, which can be played as soon as downloading finishes. Provided there is no third-party DRM, each game can be installed and reinstalled any number of times, which is a necessity in the scheme of digital distribution. Because all purchased games are tied to the account, users can install and log into Steam on another computer and install the games there. Add in features like an in-game overlay, a server browser and cloud-synced save files, and Steam has my vote for the most robust service available.
But Steam’s convenience and features come with an unmistakably large asterisk: The user must be online and running the client to play Steam-bought games. The menu offers an “offline mode,” but it’s unreliable at best. Laptop users in particular should be wary of Steam first needing to phone home to play games. For a number of people, myself included, a permanent and stable Internet connection is not an issue, but I have several friends who shy away from Steam’s need for online connectivity.
Impulse: The scrappy newcomer
Impulse, launched in 2008, is the digital distribution service run by Stardock, maker of random Windows productivity software. It’s a client-based service similar to Steam, with installation and account-tied games working the same way. But Impulse and Steam differ greatly in their approach to DRM. The Impulse client, following installation of a game, is no longer required at all, meaning Impulse games can be played without an Internet connection.
I used this to my advantage when I gave my suitemate my Impulse account information so that he could install the Impulse-exclusive game “Sins of a Solar Empire.” Because the client does not need to be running, he and I could both play “Sins” at the same time, ushering in hours of complaining about how our capital ships took hours just to cross a gravity well.
Despite its lenient DRM—which I prefer– Impulse is held back by a relatively small catalogue, and its less-than-exciting sales do it no favors. I’d like a reason to buy more games from Impulse, but right now its infrastructure is miles behind Steam’s. Here’s to hoping that Stardock garners more publishers and, more importantly, hires a marketing team unafraid to pull the trigger on crazy sales.
Good Old Games: The untouched virgin
Good Old Games (GOG) is digitally distributed purity. Purer than pure. So pure it makes a grown man cry. GOG has the best DRM model of all: a promise of “100% DRM free” for every single title. That translates to no client, no Internet activation, unlimited downloads, unlimited reinstalls and unlimited concurrent installs. Backing up your game onto a disc means it will remain playable for years, even if the service implodes. Good Old Games provides a special sense of ownership that other digital distribution services simply can’t touch.
Yet for all its convenience, the service remains obscure due to its small and esoteric catalogue, because Good Old Games specializes in selling classic PC games from the ’90s, each one lovingly tweaked to run on modern operating systems. The selection is clearly targeted at gamers who still have fond memories of installing games using a dozen floppies or buying a new-fangled CD drive just to play “Myst.” Naturally, the “Myst” series, “Duke Nukem 3D,” the “Fallout” series and various relics of the age all make appearances. It helps that the services prices games accordingly at $6 or $10.
But the catalogue still has gaping holes—Infinity Engine RPGs and Lucasfilm Games adventure titles come to mind. Good Old Games is also slow to expand their selection, likely due to the difficulty of convincing publishers to sell their games without DRM. Even if it manages to offer all the classics of the ’90s, GOG’s catalogue will never expand beyond niche appeal, especially in this age of shallow blockbusters.