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Last week I had some harsh things to say about Origin, EA’s new digital distribution marketplace. In particular, I dinged them for their small catalog and high prices. Then this week it was announced that Origin was expanding their catalog. Now, this was probably a move that’s been in the works for months, but I’m going to take credit for it anyway because I need the self-esteem boost.

In the earlier column, I might have left you with the impression that this is a two-horse race between Origin and Steam. It’s not. There are a lot of other players in this game. Steam so dominates the public mindshare that a lot of the other players don’t always get the attention they deserve. So here are some of the other digital download services, along with my thoughts on their approach to the service.

Disclosure: I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of the entire field. I might have missed some. For example, I’ve never used Direct2Drive. Nothing against them, I just haven’t experienced their service before.

Steam

What can you say about the industry front-runner? They’ve experienced exponential growth for seven years straight. Lots of features. Huge userbase. Cross-platform. (Mac and PC.) Low prices. Massive catalog.

They are bigger than everyone else in the market combined. In fact, if the rest of the market combined, and then you doubled them in size, they would still be smaller than Steam. That’s how far ahead these guys are.

In a business with this much network effect, this is a very hard thing to overcome.

Good Old Games

Good Old Games is mostly concerned with retro games and not really competing in the AAA market. However, their low prices and “no DRM whatsoever” policy are downright heroic in this day and age.

I see them as curators of our rich history of PC gaming. If not for these guys, a lot of these games would be lost to the gaming public.

Gamers Gate

Gamers Gate is an interesting alternative to the client-driven services like Steam. There’s no program running in the background, no logging in to play your game. You don’t get the player matchmaking and in-game overlay, but you also don’t have some extra program sucking up memory and CPU cycles. You don’t have to “log in” to get access to your games, and you can install them wherever you like. You just download your game and install it, with no added DRM.

Gamers Gate seems like a great pace for people who want digital titles, but resent the mandatory client and DRM that Steam brings to the table. They have a fat catalog full of both AAA and indie titles. Their pricing is competitive. (And given their habit of pricing stuff at $X.95 instead of $X.99, their games are often four cents cheaper than Steam, for what that’s worth.)

I honestly can’t explain why Gamers Gate doesn’t get more attention.

Impulse / GameStop

This service is in a state of flux, business-wise. It was created by Stardock, a developer near and dear to my heart. Early in 2011 they sold Impulse to Gamestop.

From the stories I’ve read, it sounds like Stardock was a lot better at building technology than brokering international distribution deals with big publishers. They had a great service but didn’t have the weight to fill it with titles. GameStop is pretty much all weight, with no real skill at building software. So this move made sense for both of them.

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Impulse / GameStop continued

What we have is a platform that went from the hands of an offbeat indie developer of strategy games to the hands of a monolithic brick-and-mortar juggernaut. I’ll give GameStop credit for seeing the writing on the wall with regards to retail. I’m also grateful they didn’t go off on their own and try to build something themselves.

I booted up Impulse (now re-branded “GameStop”) after a long hiatus and found it just as I’d left it. It’s as good as it ever was, but now with a bigger name working to fill the shelves. Probably the biggest challenge it has to overcome is the GameStop brand itself. They made a lot of money on used games over the last five or six years, but angered a lot of gamers and developers in the process. Right or wrong, they were viewed as a parasite, and that’s not something you want associated with your brand name.

Games for Windows LIVE + Marketplace

Can you believe that GFWL is almost five years old? In all that time, Microsoft has never managed to elevate this platform above “atrocious”. Do I need to bring this up again? Or this? Or how about this?

If you want something more recent, I could point out the insane system the service still uses for games like Arkham City, which encrypts your save files. If you change computers or rename your gamer tag then your old saves will not work – thus putting DRM on your save files and effectively sabotaging cloud saves.

I could dedicate an entire column to cataloging the comprehensive failures of GFWL. Every single aspect of the system is horrible and infuriating. GFWL is a plague on PC gaming. It doesn’t need to improve, it needs to die. And then Microsoft needs to apologize to everyone inconvenienced by it.

Origin

I said pretty much everything there is to say about Origin last week, but I do need to issue a small correction / clarification:

As other users pointed out to me, you can activate your Steam copies of Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 on Origin. I tried it myself, and it worked.

This is exactly the kind of thing Origin should be advertising to people. Figure out what games and serial numbers work, and then let gamers know that they probably already have the makings of a halfway decent Origin library, without needing to buy anything first. Yesterday they didn’t care about Origin, but tomorrow they could feel invested in it because they have a little collection going.

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Digital distribution is a billion-dollar business, and it’s going to get bigger. The retail market will never die completely, but as more of the business moves online it becomes increasingly important for us to have a good selection of places to shop.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, DM of the Rings, and Stolen Pixels. He’s still pretty fond of owning physical copies of games.

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