By Charles P. Jefferies
Installing games from a CD is old-school. These days it is all about digital game download services. We reviewed five examples over the last month and today we recognize some of the best.
Game Download Services
The following game download services are participating in this review:
Though all of the services provide digital entertainment for the consumer, not all of them serve the same market. For example, “Good Old Games” sells what their name implies; most games are five to 10 years old and under $10. WildTangent sells simpler Flash-like games with an arcade-like micropayment system. Steam, Impulse, and Direct2Drive share the most in common and sell similar games, including the latest $50 M-rated titles.
The guide is separated into two categories: hardcore gaming and casual gaming. No single service is best for either type of gamer. Each category has a definition and lists the competing services and categories over which they were rated.
For the Hardcore Gamer
Hardcore gamers view gaming as entertainment but also a way to connect with others and compete. They seek the latest titles with online multiplayer support.
Rating categories: program interface (ease of use/game management), game purchases (game selection/online store/download and installation), social networking (service support/comprehensiveness), and miscellaneous features.
Competing services: Steam, Impulse, Direct2Drive
First Place: Steam
The program interface is easy to navigate and game management is well-organized. Steam’s online store is fully integrated into the program (as in, there is no need to go outside the program to make a purchase). The store has the biggest selection of the latest gaming titles out of the services we reviewed. Most publishers are represented and Steam is the exclusive distribution channel for Valve, its own game studio.
Social networking support is extensive. Steam has a very popular “Friends” service, where users have their own detailed profile pages that include gaming-centric information like achievements they earned in games and a list of games they own. It is easy to manage friends and invite them to games.
A noteworthy advantage of Steam is its in-game overlay, which allows users to access their friends list and a web browser by pressing Shift+Tab.
It is worth mentioning that Steam has updated its interface since we reviewed it; it now has a much more modern look and feel.
Second Place: Impulse
Impulse is a fully-featured game download service that is not too far behind Steam in feature support. Its store is just as well-integrated and arguably has better navigation. Additionally, I really like the Windows Explorer-esque interface.
The ease of purchasing, downloading and installing games on Impulse is about as seamless as Steam. Steam has a better selection of the latest titles than Impulse, however each has its own mutually exclusive titles. Game selection is a key criteria for deciding between these two services.
Impulse’s social networking support is the weakest part of the service compared to Steam (though still better than Direct2Drive). Its following is not nearly as large though and gamers looking for social networking are better off with Steam.
All gaming services are free to download, so try them out before deciding where to buy games.
For the Casual Gamer
Casual gamers are people that view gaming more as a way to pass time as opposed to being an integral part of their lives. They often shop for simple, lower-priced games ($20 or less) that do not require a whole lot of time to learn.
Rating categories: game purchases (game selection/online store/download and installation), program interface (ease of use)
Competing services: Impulse, Good Old Games, WildTangent
First Place: Good Old Games
The purchasing process is easy and download speeds are good. It has a large selection of classic titles as well as a few from recent years; all are optimized to run on the latest versions of Windows. All of the games are under $10.
Good Old Games does not offer social networking services other than its user forum, though given how saturated the social networking market is, the last thing we need is another service.
Overall I find GoG to be an ideal match for the casual gamer since it offers games at low prices with no strings or proprietary programs attached.
Second Place: Impulse
GoG overall is a more simplistic service; it offers game downloads and not much else. On the contrary, Impulse offers the same service, but also some social networking and additional media features.
Further, GoG offers more lower-priced games. Impulse sells some of the latest titles and many more simplistic games; GoG specializes in sub-$10 games that are not the latest and greatest but nevertheless provide good entertainment.
Again, depending on the type of gamer, Impulse and GoG are both good choices.
Third Place: WildTangent
Instead of buying games users purchase WildCoins, which serve the same purpose that quarters do in a conventional arcade. Rather than purchasing the game outright, users spend a certain number of coins to play for a session. The setup works well for this type of gaming. Prices can vary greatly per coin depending on what service is purchased, so do the math and figure out whether it is worth the price.
This is a recommendable service if you are the type of gamer that likes Flash games and are willing to pay for them. However, beware of the subscriptions since they are basically like cell phone contracts.
Steam is the best overall service for hardcore gamers. It has millions of users and offers the widest selection of the latest titles. The social networking aspect is well-done and overall the service is seamless in its digital content delivery.
Good Old Games is my top choice for casual gaming; it has a no-frills approach with a large variety of available games for $10 or less. It does not offer social networking features or other extras – though they are hardly desired by the casual gaming crowd anyway.
I split hairs giving Impulse second place in the casual gaming category because it offers a different variety of games than GoG and even sells some of the latest titles.
Overall, I did not find myself saying “I would never use this” while reviewing any of the game download services. All of the game download services we reviewed have their pros and cons, though some get it right more than others. The choice among the services boils down to the type of gamer and what kind of games they want to play.