The Big Issue: Can digital downloads save PC gaming?

I love the idea of digital downloads. I'm lazy at the best of times, but if it's either raining or cold, or worse still both, chances are that I'm not leaving the house. Digital delivery services like Steam offer a way to get hold of the latest releases without leaving my PC chair, but I'm a little confused as to why we're paying more money for a digital version of a game that we'd get in a nice case with a printed manual if bought from a real store. Are digital download services fluffing their chance of being the saviour of PC gaming?

On one hand these services are very convenient, allowing you to barely move a muscle and get hold of the latest (most anyway) PC releases and a pretty large back catalogue. Steam, the service that has gained the most press, also acts as a hub for all your PC gaming, providing you with auto game updates, friends lists, achievements (for some titles) and stats. It's certainly a decent package, and Valve is at least trying to give PC gamers the kind of service that's been lacking for years.

On the other hand, though, you're paying more money for less product. For some, a case, manual and printed disc might not matter, but for others it's a big deal. Part of any hobby is collecting and there's no fun in collecting a new name on a digital list that can't be put on display. There's just something that clicks in people's heads that makes it a lot easier to spend money on a physical object than a digital one. Getting an object in the post or heading home with a bag full of games is also part of the fun, and something a download progress bar simply can't compete with.

Yet despite these apparent issues that in theory would put many people off from using digital download services, Steam and the like are growing in popularity. The question is if they're going to grow enough to be seen as a viable alternative to traditional retailers or if they're going to remain a rather niche part of PC gaming? Price will surely play a huge part in this.

According to the bank account of a good friend, recent PC release Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War - Soulstorm cost him just shy of £25 through Steam. The very same game can be bought for £18 online or with every game in the Dawn of War collection for £30. To add insult to injury the Steam version of the game is plagued with a show stopping bug that prevents many people from playing the game at all.

With PC gaming constantly having to fight off claims that it's dead (you only have to look at the latest releases shelf in any store or online retailer to see it's not as healthy as many think), digital delivery services could be the key to a sustained life. For it to really work, though, it needs to effectively make retailers obsolete when it comes to buying PC games. Hundreds of titles available at your fingertips for prices that compete favourably with the retailers would give PC gaming a huge advantage over consoles, which are currently still far behind in this area.

At the moment, if faced between paying more for a download or buying from a retailer, I'm always going to buy from a retailer. In the beginning there was talk of downloadable games being made available cheaper as the cost to get the game to retail would be reduced, but currently services like Steam seem designed to make money from lazy purchasers rather than open up the PC as a viable gaming platform again. Just as PC gaming once pinned its hope on in-game advertising and episodic content, it seems digital downloads aren't going to make the platform as enticing as it should be. via videogamer

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