Bargain hunting: PC game shopping beyond Steam

By Brenna Hillier, Tuesday, 17 January 2012 08:25 GMT

If you’re ready to make the jump to ultra settings, you should consult this handy-dandy guide to the wonderful world of PC games shopping beyond the Steam catalogue.

While Valve may have popularised, proven, pioneered and arguably dominated digital distribution, there are plenty of alternatives to Steam.

Assuming you’re not keen to leg it down to the local bricks-and-mortar – where, often as not, you’ll be told something isn’t in stock because there’s no market for PC games any more while you gesticulate in wordless rage – most of your PC gaming purchases are likely to be made online. With DRM becoming the norm there are ever fewer advantages to owning a retail copy of a PC game, and several disadvantages (like unreliable mail delivery) to push you towards digital distribution. In fact, downloading PC games has become so much the norm that Steam – the major player – is estimated to command 70% of the whole market.

But while Valve may have popularised, proven, pioneered and arguably dominated digital distribution, there are plenty of alternatives to Steam. It’s worthwhile knowing where to find these services if you’re a high-volume gamer because one or another of them is almost always having some sort of sale – and while keeping multiple clients up to date is a pain, you can’t argue with what amounts to bonus cash-money in return for a bit of fiddling.

Without further ado, then – a small slice of the increasingly crowded digital distribution marketplace.

Amazon

Amazon knows how to adapt. The Seattle-based company started as a book marketplace and has grown to one of the world’s largest online retailers. It’s been aggressively chasing the gaming dollar for several years and as well as regular fire sales on physical stock, its on-demand category is growing in leaps and bounds. Interestingly, while Amazon US won’t ship games and electronics to many countries, it doesn’t seem to have similar restrictions on downloads – except those blocked for legal reasons, like classification or censorship. Sadly, other territorial portals don’t offer a similar service.

Desura

Already behind two important gaming destinations – ModDB and IndieDB – the Desura team have put together a robust offering for those looking for something different. Desura’s conceit is that it doesn’t compete with Steam – it aims to provide alternatives. Steam’s continual absorption of the indie community means you’ll see a lot of doubling up these days, but the discoverability of awesome new indies is much higher on Desura. Interestingly, Desura boasts a Linux client – the favoured OS of many indies – but no OSX support.

Direct2Drive

Direct2Drive used to belong to IGN, but has since been sold to games rental service Gamefly as the latter transitions to the digital distribution age. D2D, as it is fondly known, services both PC and Mac and is soon to introduce a smorgasbord-style subscription service.

GamersGate

Like Direct2Drive, GamersGate is a well-established service, but it has an interesting history, having been developed by the PC enthusiasts at Paradox Interactive. The service was originally intended to address Paradox’s frustrations with retail (buy a Paradox rep a beer and ask about that some time; it’s amazing), and only offered its self-published games. It was sliced off into its own company when the publisher decided to support other company’s products, and now serves as one of Europe’s premiere online distribution services.

Green Man Gaming

If you like to keep your money local, the small smattering of non-US services on the list may interest you. For those in the UK, Green Man Gaming offers a wide catalogue of games with “£” symbols in front of the prices. No need to open a currency converter: what luxury. The site always seems to be throwing some mad sale or other and caters to international buyers, too.

Good Old Games

Another European service, Good Old Games – or, more commonly, GOG – does exactly what it says on the box. Old PC classics are resurrected to run on modern operating systems and offered at basement prices, with technical support on call and a cheerful community to help you readjust to vintage difficulty settings. Its sales are legendary and a good many veteran PC gamers own most of the catalogue, which expands on a regular basis. The service is the brainchild of CD Projekt, a Polish company which is one of Eastern Europe’s most important publishers and distributors, and whose in-house development team is responsible for the Witcher series.

Impulse

If you’re in the digital distribution game to flip the bird to traditional retail, look elsewhere than Impulse. US retail chain GameStop now owns the service, and looks to be one of the few companies with a chance to survive the alarming consumer crunch. If you’re carefree on such matters, Impulse is a solid portal. Original developer Stardock is a software developer which makes games on the side, and has so much on its plate already (like constant reiteration of its ambitious strategy games) that it seemed quite relieved to hand Impulse off to GameStop. Like all Stardock products, Impulse launched with great ambitions and several back-end innovations which resulted in a hot mess, but – again like all Satrdock products – it was lovingly patched into shape and has plenty of loyal adherents now.

Mac App Store

Apple had an indisputable role in getting consumers to accept digital distribution and DRM, so the only surprising thing about the Mac App Store is how long it took to arrive. Obviously, you’ll only find OSX ports, and the year-old service isn’t exactly bristling with triple-A titles as yet, but Apple is slowly amassing a reasonable collection and forging better relationships with port-friendly publishers. Recent arrivals include Lego: Pirates of the Caribbean and Limbo (a good few weeks ahead of its Steam debut, no less), but look for Mafia II, Grand Theft Auto III and Civilization V. Find the App Store icon on your dock, or in your applications folder, to browse.

Origin

EA and Valve are yet to settle the dispute which is keeping games like Battlefield 3 off Steam, so for those unable to give up on a significant slice of the release schedule, Origin has become a necessity. The platform has been opened to other publishers, like THQ and Capcom, meaning once you’ve installed it, you might as well enjoy the regular sales on non-EA content, too. One of the youngest clients on this list, Origin is probably the least-popular, as its hiccups are reminiscent of localised earthquakes and EA customer support is anecdotally unable to cope. Still, it’s almost certain to improve.

Get Games

Get Games was formed by Andy Payne, Mastertronic’s boss and the recent recipient of an OBE. You can sometimes get some eyebrow-raising deals on here, and everything’s converted to local currency; especially handy if you’re shopping in euros. It’s worth doing a check against Steam before you buy. It’s surprising how often Get Games is cheaper, especially on the lower-end stuff. It does Mac content, too.

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