September 25th, 2009

The Choices by by Flickr user Zrin ZebestChoices breed indecision, therefore preventing indecision requires identifying and eliminating our choices. This is our boon, our burden, and our charge as PC gamers. We mull over choices such as which video card, which mouse, how many cores, and how many watts. Digital distribution’s increasing popularity has, despite its merits, introduced the choice of where do I buy? The default choice, for most of us, is Steam. We would be justified, but competition is important for an industry to thrive. We must not surrender our opportunity to choose, and we must not surrender to complacency. To consumers and businesses, complacency is a common enemy. As consumers we should act out of self-interest, but we should be mindful of when supporting competition is in our interest. We must do more than merely acknowledge competition — when it’s deserving, and when it’s to our advantage, we must also support it.

I’ve invested a lot of money in my Steam library, and it would be convenient if Steam were all I ever had to use. Still, there are times when I would benefit from choosing an alternative service. For example, there was recently a special on Impulse where pre-purchasing Red Faction: Guerrilla for $39.99 would get me Red Faction and Red Faction II for free, but I didn’t buy it because I suspected it would also come to Steam. And it did, several weeks later. Waiting made sense to me at the time, but I was being irrational — I knew better. I knew Red Faction wouldn’t have Steam Achievements; I knew it would be the same price either way; I knew my download and install would have been fast and automatic; and I knew that I wouldn’t have needed CD keys. Playing an Impulse game doesn’t even require the client to be running — I can’t say the same about Steam. Moreover, the Steam Community game overlay works in Impulse games if they’re added to the My Games list. In retrospect, I should have bought Red Faction from Impulse. Why didn’t I? Because of complacency; I’ve used Steam exclusively for so long that, even when it would be to my advantage, I don’t buy elsewhere.

Disclosure.GamersGate also offered the Red Faction: Guerrilla special, but compared to Steam and Impulse, it’s an inferior service. I liken buying games from GamersGate to buying games at retail: I have to deal with CD keys, game installation isn’t automatic, and games almost always have copy protection — but I make an exception when the price is right. When I can buy a physical copy of Mirror’s Edge from Amazon for $7.80 with free shipping, or a digital copy of King’s Bounty: The Legend from GamersGate for $9.99, I can justify the inconvenience. No amount of savings, however, are worth some inconveniences.

I have a bias against Direct 2 Drive to begin with, as it’s a property of News Corporation. I’m further disconcerted by the conflict of interest created by its affiliation with IGN Entertainment. Despite its prominence, I’ve avoided the service for years; it shouldn’t surprise me that I regret spending $5 on The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena during Direct 2 Drive’s 5 year anniversary sale. The game works, that’s not my problem. My problem is that I was forced to buy it under an assumption: I couldn’t find any information on Riddick’s web page about copy protection. I knew there had to be some, but I couldn’t find it. I still can’t. Direct 2 Drive is similar to GamersGate as far as the process of buying, downloading, and installing games, but GamersGate wins because it is candid about a game’s copy protection. It was only once I had downloaded and extracted Riddick’s 7GB of setup files that I spotted TAGES executable among them. How would someone who isn’t savvy ever know to look? After this experience, I can’t abide using Direct 2 Drive.

My library at Good Old GamesBut I can always abide using unique services such as Good Old Games (GOG) and GameTap. These are two services whose business models take them out of direct competition with those I’ve discussed previously. Good Old Games is a specialty service where every game is old or classic, and costs $5.99 or $9.99. GOG games have no copy protection and are guaranteed to be compatible with Windows XP and Vista, and they often come with extras such as guides, soundtracks, and wallpapers. Meanwhile, for $9.99 per month (33% off if paid annually), my GameTap subscription gets me unlimited access to over 1000 games from all genres, and from many platforms including Genesis (Sonic, Shining Force), Neo Geo (Metal Slug, King of Fighters), Dreamcast (Chu Chu Rocket), Sega Saturn (Panzer Dragoon), and of course PC. My subscription also affords me sub-accounts for my friends and family; up to two of us can play simultaneously. While extensive, the freshness of GameTap’s library is left to the mercy of publishers; games are typically about two years old before they’re added. Another caveat is that 64-bit OS compatibility isn’t guaranteed, but that should be changing soon. Still, I believe GameTap’s value is incontrovertible, and I have nothing negative to say about GOG.

Indeed, as PC gamers, we have an embarrassment of choices, but we should not be frustrated with them or take them for granted. Instead, we should revel in them — we should experiment, and we should strive to be conscientious consumers with the hope that our industry will take note and better itself.

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