Last weekend, I decided I was going to buy a couple of games, which I haven't done in a while. I seem to remember a time when your choices consisted of either Steam, or... Steam. Now there seems to be a dizzying array of choices, including:

None of these companies really seem to try very hard to explain why you should buy from them as opposed to some other distributor, so I resorted to trying (and failing) to infer it from the fine print.

Eventually I gave up on doing any actual research and just (a) tried Amazon at random, only to find that they won't sell to Canadians, then (b) tried Steam at random, only to give up after being repeatedly railed by their CAPTCHA, then finally (c) tried D2D at random and actually succeeded in making it all the way to a download.

I have no idea what I actually got myself into. All I know is that I can play my games. I guess that makes me exactly the sort of consumer these companies want. Generally, I like to be a little more well-informed when it comes to purchasing.

When I choose one of these online stores, what am I actually choosing, other than price and availability?

Are these games just commodities, like the loaf of pre-packaged bread I can buy from any supermarket, or is there something about them that actually varies from one retailer to the next? Are there any interesting tidbits I might find in the TOS, or something else that might come back to bite me later - like, maybe, being unable to play my games if I get a new PC or if the company goes belly-up? Can some of them cut off my access one day on a whim and demand a hefty ransom? Anything else that might be useful for me to know?

P.S. I found this question about digital distribution services but it's basically in poll format, doesn't mention a lot of the services listed above, and much of what's in there seems to be (no offense to those who answered) vague statements based on personal opinions. I'm not looking for a list of digital distributors or recommendations, I want to actually understand my options and be able to make an intelligent decision next time I go to buy a game.

  • They can all stop you from accessing your games when the company goes down. This is considered a feature in most games, these days. They are, pretty much, like commodities, with competing retailers selling the same product. You choose for service, which, in the end, is subjective. That makes it a duplicate of the question you yourself mentioned. – user56 Feb 25 '11 at 1:02
  • @Arda There's still differences in the actual services. For example, the level of DRM for Steam versus for other distributors. There are objective differences. – Grace Note Feb 25 '11 at 1:04
  • @Arda: It's certainly not a feature to me. As to the rest - it doesn't seem to be entirely subjective, given that I uncovered at least two objective differences during my blind stumbling - and I'm inclined to doubt that's the whole story. Surely these companies must differentiate themselves somehow, otherwise there would be no reason to compete on the open market? – Aarobot Feb 25 '11 at 1:05
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    @Arda But there's a difference between buying from Steam versus buying from D2D, for example. The license for Steam limits you to one person per purchase. Is this always the case for the others? Not necessarily. That's the kind of difference that one might enjoy being aware of, since it may have an impact. – Grace Note Feb 25 '11 at 1:11
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    And, in the end, if the only major differences are the prices and availability, that is a valid answer, @Arda. – Grace Note Feb 25 '11 at 1:13

Steam has two major advantages:

Steam Sales

(edit: this is less true these days, Amazon, GreenManGaming etc have started to follow in steams footsteps) 75% - 90% off most major titles within 6 - 12 months of release. There is nothing close to the deals steam have, not on online shops, not in bricks-and-mortar shops, not even second-hand.

Valve's reputation

Valve have proven time and time again over the years that they are "the good guys". They make a lot of effort to do right by their customers. So I trust them (more than any of the companies you listed) to not lock me out of my games if they can help it. If Valve ever got sold and decided to cancel Steam forever, they're the company most likely to secretly release a hack or something to keep my games running.

They are also extremely profitable, thanks to their excellent games (I mean the first party titles like HL, L4D and Portal), and to their excellent business model. They are the digital distribution company most likely to stay in business forever.

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    I believe that Valve has specifically mentioned that if the company were to shut down, they'd disable the steam authenticator servers. – Raven Dreamer Feb 25 '11 at 5:40
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    Steam also has the advantage of easily sharing your account across a number of computers, including (to a limited set of games) Macs, something I don't think any of the other competitors can fully match. – MBraedley Feb 25 '11 at 11:51
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    @Raven Dreamer They have mentioned it on the forums, but nothing official/legal so they are not legally required to do so. – Elva Feb 25 '11 at 12:32
  • While I very much appreciate the answer and especially the first paragraph (very useful to know about the sales), I feel compelled to point out that this isn't really answering the same question I asked. I'm really far more interested in the tangible aspects of the purchasing process - licensing, registration, DRM, privacy policies, value-added services, or even notable aspects of the whole customer experience - that sort of thing. Something that I can actually compare side-by-side if I'm looking at a number of different distributors. If they're all the same, then that should be the answer. – Aarobot Feb 25 '11 at 14:50
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    @Raven, Source? – badp Feb 25 '11 at 22:58

Two words: Humble Bundle

Humble Bundle (previously Humble Indie Bundles, site: https://www.humblebundle.com, Wikipedia article: Humble Bundle) is an online digital storefront for games. It offers limited-time bundles of games and now a persistent storefront. Some of the site's most distinguishing features is the site's showcasing of games by new indie developers, its multiplatform support (including Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, and Android platforms), and how the site's offerings support a number of charities (including Child's Play, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, charity: water, the American Red Cross and the Wikimedia Foundation).

The site's most notable feature probably is its Pay-what-you-want pricing for its game bundles. Most bundles have a theme (horror-themed games, strategy games, games from a particular developer, etc.) and offer a small group of games to everybody who purchases the bundle at any price. The bundles usually then include two or three tiers so that all people who pay more than a certain amount get not just the main bundle, but the additional tier rewards for all tiers up to that price point.

After buying the games through Humble Bundle, many games can be downloaded DRM-free some games also include codes to unlock the game in Steam, Uplay, etc. The sites' makers know how much of a problem DRM can be to gamers, even when the game was bought legitimately. As such, Humble Bundle tries to offer games with much less hassle than many other digital distributors.

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