The North American shopping experience has extended far beyond our initial options (get in the car, drive to the store). Now we can purchase almost every conceivable item online, and video games are no exception.
But buying a game online isn’t exclusively about going on Amazon.com and purchasing a game that’s already available at retail. When we talk about “digital games,” what’s being referenced is an entirely new breed of video game; one that’s shaped by titles that are smaller, cheaper, but generally just as much fun as games that can be bought off the shelves of GameStop or Wal-Mart.
Making the distinction between digital games and retail games is easy, as is learning how to navigate the online stores that digital games can be purchased in.
What are digital games? — Typically, a digital game is a title that was designed specifically to be downloaded from an online marketplace. Many (but by no means all) digital games adhere to a set of traits as a result of their unique method of distribution: for instance, digital games are often smaller than games sold at retail, are much cheaper (or free), and have many options for casual fans of gaming.
Digital games are usually cheaper to develop than games that are sold at retail, as the project sizes are smaller, and there is no packaging, printing, or distribution for publishers to deal with. As a result, the digital game development landscape is peppered with independent programmers who enjoy experimenting with new ideas for video games.
Are digital games popular? — Absolutely! But don’t be embarrassed if you feel like you’ve completely missed the train on the digital game trend. It only hit the mainstream a few years ago, and has been growing at breakneck speed ever since. In December 2011, The Economist published a report stating that mobile games alone (games that can be bought and played on certain cell phone models, particularly the iPhone) accounts for “$8 billion of the $56 billion global games market, even though they typically sell at less than a tenth the price of a traditional console game.”
The report also points out that the easy-to-digest prices of digital games (typically 99 cents through $10 USD, though prices vary according to the platform) consistently lands them in an “impulse buy” zone, a coveted spot that games sold at retail have a harder time holding on to.
And The Economist’s report only accounts for games that are sold on mobile phones. The online marketplace for digital games is huge, varied, and growing every day.
Where can I find/buy digital games? — One of the most remarkable things about the current video game industry is that you can find games pretty much everywhere. If you have a web browser and a decent Internet connection, then you can find hundreds of cheap and free games to play at sites like Armor Games and Kongregate.
However, game consoles, mobile devices, tablets, and portable game systems also have very busy online markets. Here are a handful of the most popular stores to date:
App Store — Apple’s App Store is tailored for the distribution of games and applications to Apple’s “iOS” devices, including the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the iPad. Games on the App Store typically run from 99 cents to about $10, but there are lots of freebies, too.
The App Store primarily offers casual fare, but traditional gamers have lots of content to sort through, too, thanks to an increasing number of iOS ports of core games.
Steam — Steam, a PC-based game distribution that’s run by the game company Valve, has been around since the early Aughts. It’s a little different from most of the popular digital platforms, as it distributes downloadable versions of some games that are available at retail, as well as the smaller stuff that tends to dominate other online stores. Steam also has a very active community, and is a favored environment for independent developers.
Wii Shop Channel/Nintendo DSi Shop/Nintendo 3DS eShop — Nintendo oversees three digital platforms. The Wii Shop Channel is accessible through the Wii, and it sells two popular kinds of fare: WiiWare and Virtual Console games. WiiWare consists of original downloadable games, whereas content on the Virtual Console are retro games that previously saw release on different consoles (particularly Nintendo consoles) over the years.
The Nintendo DSiShop and the Nintendo 3DS eShop sells downloadable games and apps. The eShop, accessible only through the Nintendo 3DS, also sells Virtual Console games, specifically games that were released on the Game Boy and Game Boy Advance over the years. Nintendo DSiWare, available on both the Nintendo DSiShop and the eShop, are original, downloadable games.
The PlayStation Network (PSN) — The PlayStation Network is accessible through the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable (PSP). It offers unique digital games, as well as the option to download classics from the original PlayStation (“PSOne”) era.
Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) — Arguably the most popular of the console-based digital marketplaces, Xbox Live Arcade offers a slew of downloadable games from all types of genres, including plenty of retro arcade titles. Its community is also huge, and is the basis for thousands of online multiplayer game sessions.
What do I need to buy digital games? — You’ll need a valid credit card, as digital marketplaces work exclusively through electronic transactions. Some stores will charge you directly for games, whereas others will require you to buy “Points” in different denominations, which then go towards your game purchases.
Many stores sell pre-paid cards for digital marketplaces, which are a good option if you don’t want to use your credit card. Each online store has its own pre-paid card, and most of them can be found at general store and pharmacies as well as game-specific stores like GameStop.
You will also need an internet connection, preferably broadband, and, depending on the store, you may also require a Wi-Fi connection as well.