Or do they... ?
The world of game distribution clients is a cutthroat one. Hmm, ok well, maybe not so much. Ever since game distribution clients became a thing, one juggernaut has been sitting snugly on the top. In fact, you could attribute the rise of game distribution clients to it! Such was(is) its power. But said juggernaut never really had too much competition. Until now? We are of course, talking about Lord Gaben’s almighty Steam.
What is Steam? (*gasp* did you actually just ask that?!)
Steam was officially released back in 2003. But not everything was hunky dory for Steam right off the bat. Gamers were rightfully apprehensive about a digital downloads only platform. Maybe it was poor internet connections, or perhaps they just liked the ‘feel’ of physical copies – they just weren’t too into it. Gamers were even more miffed when you had to associate certain games (even with physical copies) to Steam in order to play them. So you HAD to have a Steam account in some cases. Also, you could only associate the game to one account, so you couldn’t pass the game around to your friends either, unless you were willing to give them your Steam account creds. Now if we know anything about gamers, it’s that they don’t like being forced to do anything.
However, in some ways you could call what Steam did almost prophetic. When the world started shifting towards online only content, one player was already a veteran in the field. As a result a lot of the more popular publishers started selling their games through Steam as well.
While Steam started off as just a digital game distribution client, right now it’s become much more than just that. Other than providing a platform to digitally purchase games, it also allows for multiplayer gaming via the game or Steam’s own servers. Then there’s cloud saving, which basically lets you continue your game anywhere as long as you have access to your Steam account and obviously, an Internet connection. You can now stream and purchase videos on Steam as well. And the platform has baked in a lot of social features as well – we’re talking friends, profile pages, chatting and all that. They’ve even got in-game voice chat. While it was PC only to begin with, Steam has now expanded to OS X and Linux as well.
To give you an idea of just how big Steam is, just in 2015, purchases through Steam (including directly, via Steam keys or indirectly through Steam vendors) totalled to roughly $3.5 billion! That’s a large chunk of the entirety of PC game sales. 15 percent to be exact.
Third party vendors are another added advantage in Steam’s favour for that matter. Websites like Humble Bundle and Bundle Stars often create bundles for games and software that are exclusively from Steam and sell their bundles in the form of redeemable Steam keys. Websites like G2A also trade and deal largely in Steam keys. It’s come to a point where PC gaming and Steam are pretty much synonymous.
So that’s a pretty high bar being set for other distribution clients. Do the contenders have what it takes to dethrone the Steam behemoth? First up we have GOG
gog.com, which initially was only known for good old games i.e. classics, is one of the stronger contenders on this list. It’s run by GOG limited, a subsidiary owned by CD Projekt. Yes, it’s a Polish company. Yes it’s that Polish company. It boasts a large library, including most of the recent AAA titles. Title not there? No worries, the community is constantly updating a weekly wish list consisting of games users would want to purchase from GOG. Another one of GOG’s prime selling points is that all their games are DRM-free. Meaning they do not have copy protection. It basically means that you don’t have to deal with the hassle of having to be online 24×7 in order to check or confirm the integrity of the game each time you try to play it. Once you’ve bought it, you’re free to play it whenever and wherever. Additionally, gog.com uses a feature called ‘Crossplay’ that lets you play games you’ve purchased via GOG to be playable with those who purchased the game via Steam.
Until recently GOG did not have a desktop app, but they do now and it goes by gog.com Galaxy. Functionality wise, Galaxy offers you just about everything that Steam does.
The only major exception when it comes to publishers who sell games on Steam (or any client for that matter), you’ll find, is EA. While a few of EA’s games are on Steam, newer releases can only be digitally purchased through EA’s online distribution client, Origin. Furthermore, Origin maintains a large library of its older and classic EA games. Origin’s ‘On the House’ feature, which as of 2014, allowed to Origin members to claim a free game, is pretty nice. The games on offer however are mostly older classics but you never know what might be the next deal. We’ve picked up Battlefield 3, Dragon Age: Origins and Need for Speed: Most Wanted for free thanks to ‘On the House’.
Origin also has a subscription based service called Origin Access, which immediately gives you access to many of their more recent titles. Much like an Xbox Live or PlayStation Plus subscription. This is something Steam does not offer.
Green Man Gaming
Or GMG, boasts an impressive 5200+ strong library. It’s based in UK but it makes over 90 percent of its income from outside the country. GMG is known for their aggressive style of selling games; there’s constant deals and offers popping up on the site.
GMG is much stricter than the clients we’ve mentioned so far when it comes to refunds. However, it uses a credit system wherein you can trade in games you’ve purchased for credits. You could use these credits to purchase more or other games on the site. GMG recently integrated Playfire into their site; Playfire was a gamers social network.
The Sweden-based GamersGate launched back in 2006. It was originally run by Paradox Interactive as a means to distribute their own games digitally but has since moved on from Paradox to become a full-fledged game distributor. It boasts a pretty big library of games now, over 5000 strong, from the various major video publishers.
GamersGate stands out a bit from other game distribution clients in that it has a website/client hybrid of sorts. It does not require you to install a client in order to download and play games. It uses a program to download the game to your PC and then deletes the program once the game as been installed. While GamersGate itself has no DRM, you might need to have Steam installed in order to play games that use Steam’s DRM. This is true for any game distributor selling Steam game keys.
Like GMG credits, GamersGate uses a virtual currency they call Blue Coins. You can earn these through purchases, reviews, pre-orders, and more.
Finally, for the non-Steam DRM games and other games, GamersGate uses something called unlimited DRM. This basically means they will provide you with unlimited CD-keys for a game you’ve purchased. However, only one will ever be active at a time. Older ones are immediately disabled when you request for a new one.
Purchases made on GamersGate are non-refundable, unless you reside in the EU. Even if you do, it’s a strict refund policy, and you can’t initiate a refund if you’ve started the download.
Itch.io is a treasure trove of DRM-free indie games. It’s easily one of the best markets for indie games out there with a huge library for you to explore.
Another plus since they’re all indie games is the price tag, you’ll find that most titles cost less than $10. However, what’s interesting is that itch has a ‘pay what you want’ system where a lot of the games are free or cost very little and players can opt to pay more to support the developer.
Honestly, itch.io gets a mention only for its huge library of indie games. By huge we mean HUGE. There’s easily over 40,000 games currently being hosted on itch. It does have a client, but it doesn’t offer as much as the others in terms of functionality. It’s basically just an extension to the website, but it’s still a neat way to catalog and store games you’ve bought on the site.
Now called the Blizzard app, this is, (obviously) Blizzard’s game distribution client. It comes with most of the functionality you would expect of a game distribution client.
It’s quite old actually, first launching back in 1996 when Diablo first saw the light of day. The Blizzard app’s library is quite small compared to the other libraries we’ve seen here because they only cater to games made by Blizzard. As of right now the only games on the client are StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Diablo, Overwatch, Heroes of the Storm, and Hearthstone.
However, despite its small library, it’s one of the most used game distribution clients we’ve mentioned so far.
Launched in 2009 alongside the release of Assassin’s Creed II, Uplay is Ubisoft’s digital distribution service. Unlike most of the clients here Uplay works across platforms, i.e, it works on PC, iOS and Android, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360 etc. Uplay is used exclusively for Ubisoft games, much like EA. Again like EA, there are some third-party games as well, but they don’t make use of Uplay’s platform.
Uplay’s primary use was to provide a platform for its gamers to play online.
However, Uplay has been notorious for having not-so-stable servers and the internet is rife with complaints about terrible connectivity *cough* For Honor *cough*.
Subscription based services
|Companies are coming up with more innovative ways to distribute games. One such method is to go the Netflix way. For a fixed amount per month, gamers are given access to a vast library of games which they can install and play at any time. They may not actually own the game in all cases but it’s a great method for those who don’t want to spend too much but game a lot.
Here are a few subscription based game distributors that are doing pretty well and have some great deals:
- Humble Bundle
The Humble Bundle is well known for its great deals and prices. However, did you know they have a subscription service as well? For just 12$ a month, they actually give you games for keeps every month. So you don’t lose access to the game if you stop the subscription. They often give away AAA games as well, so it’s definitely worth it.
Another subscription based service with a decently large library of 570 games as of right now. Utomik allows you to get into the game faster, letting you start gaming even before the game is fully installed.
Jump isn’t out yet but it’s being touted as the ‘Netflix for games’ by the interwebs. Jump will primarily be hosting indie games according to reports but we won’t know more until the client is out a little later this year.
Gameroom brings Facebook’s ‘social network’ and casual games to the PC. Many of the games on Facebook are designed for mobile. You have access to these games through the Gameroom. The platform is open, so developers can develop their own games on it. On the user’s side it pretty much works like PlayStore or AppStore.
We just thought we’d give a nod of sorts to Gameroom. We don’t actually think this has any chance of overthrowing Steam.
Like Gameroom, even Desura is an honorable mention. It’s not in play right now, but when it was running, it was a distribution client primarily for indie games. It worked for Windows, Linux, and OS X and was focused on smaller independent game developers. It had quite a few good features working in its favour like automated updates, various community features (profile, chat), and developer resources. Users could use Desura to distribute mods as well.
Desura has moved hands a lot. It was initially owned by DesuraNET before being sold to Linden Lab. Following that it was purchased by Bad Juju Games but that didn’t work out either. In October of 2016 Desura was purchased by OnePlay, a Danish subscription-based online company. OnePlay says that they plan to bring Desura back but haven’t said anything more.
And the winner is…
As you can see, a lot of these platforms are pretty good. Functionality wise, they come pretty close to Steam – a few of them at least. Though most simply cannot match the features that Steam provides and some even rely on Steam to actually function to the fullest. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to dethrone Steam, but to find a way to coexist with it. In terms of library size, Steam falls behind only itch.io, which is full of browser and smaller HTML based games as well. So it doesn’t count. Bottomline: it doesn’t look like this Behemoth is going down anytime soon.