Download games online: fresh air not required

It's wet. You're queueing in the rain for the bus to get down to the retail store and pick up a video game to keep you amused for the weekend.

What's wrong with this picture? It ain't necessarily so. Computers connected to the Internet can bring the gaming world to your desktop. Thanks to various download options, there's no reason why you can't access computer games without venturing outside.

There are several ways to get access to online gaming content, depending on whether you're a console player or a PC gamer. Microsoft has signed millions to its XBox Live network, an online gaming community accessed through the XBox games console.

"XBox Live is the largest social network in the living room," says Craig Flannagan, Xbox Live and all access gaming marketing manager for the company. Around 12 million users send each other three million messages across the network each day, and the firm has served almost five billion game sessions across the service since it launched.

In addition to playing each other on the network, XBox Live users can download XBox Live Originals -- complete games like Halo, and many of the games from the original version of the XBox.

"You can also download free, playable demos (of the latest games) so that consumers can try before they buy," says Flannagan, although buying those new games online doesn't seem to be an option, presumably because Microsoft doesn't want to cannibalize its retail channel.

Players with the PlayStation 3 can join the PlayStation Network, which also provides access to downloadable demos and around 70 downloadable games, covering everything from bowling through to poker.

Nintendo launched a competing download service in May for its Wii console. Called Wii Ware, it is available through the Wii Shop channel (one of several different services available when Wii owners connect their console to the Internet).

Wii Ware is designed to offer software developers a cheap and low-risk way to sell downloadable games online. It follows up an existing service called Virtual Console, that published old console games online, enabling players to take a trip down memory lane.

The Wii Ware service is likely to match another category of game download from XBox Live, called XBox Live Arcade. Players who don't have time for more involved games can choose from a range of casual game genres including retro, puzzle, and board games.

"For casual games, the norm tends to be older, between 30 and 50, and also tends to be skewed toward females," says Jamie Berger, senior vice president of consumer products and technology for IGN Entertainment. IGN operates Direct2Drive, which sells downloadable games to video gamers. He would like to be in that market, but right now is settling for the more traditional younger male user, who prefers more involved, extended games.

Like Microsoft, Direct2Drive only sells the games online (rather than renting them for use over a certain time period).

The company, which also sells online 'cheat sheet' strategy guides for many games, sells a range of newer and older titles for download.

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