You’ve all heard about it at one point or another: Digital Distribution. You know, that thing gamers and power users have been talking about for a while. When someone says they bought something off of Steam, you know they’re not talking about kettles or trains – they’re talking about games.
Digital distribution was long seen as the bastard child of the gaming industry. On the one hand the idea was good: buying games online allowed publishers to be more flexible in their advertising and even distribution of games (no more consignment stock to worry about) and they could cut out a great deal of extra fees that usually make purchasing titles from Musica or BT Games so expensive. On the other hand, the service required a decent internet connection and a credit card; 56k users beware! You were sometimes apt to sit in front of your computer for hours while Steam in its original form decided whether or not to update Half-Life 2 for you. In addition, like the music labels who have suffered under the tremendous popularity of the Apple iPod eventually discovered, online services like Steam tend to eat into regular sales that brick-and-mortar shops like Musica, Game and CNA enjoyed in the years before.
These days, things are much better sorted. If you’re aware of the issue game publishers and developers now have with second-hand sales, then you’ll see why big boys like EA rush to get their Origin service out the gate and into the wild. In order to get more of your money they embraced digital sales and DLC, even going so far, as in EA’s case with the Call of Duty series, to block users from using specific DLC packs that would have been free had you bought the game new – you have to pay for those now. Part and parcel of why Battlefield 3 enjoys such enormous success is because the popular map packs, extra guns and special personalization items are only available to buy online through Origin or free as a bundle with the game (new, of course).
World of Tanks enjoys a healthy revenue from the sale of specialized tanks, guns and other weapons. Warcraft creates entire economies around mining gold inside the game world. Valve makes hats for Team Fortress 2 to keep things fresh and Gears of War 3 urges players to put down some money for decent map packs, weapon load-outs and retro lancers (Vreeeeeeem!) for a chance to win and improve your skill online.
While I don’t agree with many practices by the publishers in the industry (and I’m as vocal as anyone about the high retail price of AAA titles) I’m not going to debate semantics or ethics here. I’ll certainly pick that topic up at a later date, but for now I’ll walk you through the better online services available, and the perks each one brings. There are drawbacks, but the services themselves are useful and any gamer with a decent internet connection would be well off to try one or all of them.
Created by Valve, Steam is an online store that sells games for the company and acts as a middleman for other publishers who wish to use the service. There is a huge variety of titles available and even some free ones as well. The service is well-known for their weekend and knock-down sales, sometimes selling titles like Portal 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and DiRT3 for as low as $9.99. There are great free games on the service and I recommend people pick up Team Fortress 2, Trackmania, Super MNC and Fallen Earth. Those of you who have not experienced Half-Life, I recommend you pick up the complete pack for $40.
Purchase-wise, you have two options: Buy for Myself; and Purchase as a Gift. Gifts can be given to any Steam player on your friends list, and is the perfect option for underage gamers whose parents have credit cards, but would like a separate account. As far as payment is concerned, there is an array of options to choose from, PayPal and Mastercard included.
Drawbacks? I’d have to say the biggest one is limited internet connectivity in South Africa. Steam has to be logged in every two months to make sure all licenses and payments are up to date, otherwise your games won’t launch. You also have to have uncapped ADSL – anything else is a killer for your bank account and bandwidth. Otherwise, its no longer the underdog, and Steam has a large player base and a vibrant, active community – just a few months ago 13,000 players pushed Half-Life 2 back into the #1 most played game spot that weekend to protest about a lack of Half-Life 3 info.
If you do buy a game on Steam or that’s compatible with the service, however, you can activate it on the account and re-download that game at any time. You can even have all your games loaded on two computers, provided they’re both used by you and that there’s only one PC logged in at a time. Unlike Origin, which I’ll discuss later, Steam provides a built-in backup service for all your games for when you need to free up space or reformat your drive.
Steam also has official support for both the Windows and Mac platforms, but with a limited amount of games boasting Mac OSX compatibility. Valve has also launched a Steam overlay for certain PS3 games like The Orange Box and Portal 2 and will eventually launch a proper side-loading client for both the PS3 and Xbox 360. In the works already is also a Linux port of the Steam client and Source engine, ready to bring joy and tears to Linux gamers around the world when it launches (hopefully) later this year.
Continue reading on Part Two of this overview.