Whatever happened to the aisles and aisles of computer games you used to see at big-box electronics and specialty stores? Sure, stores still stock a large number of games for consoles like Xbox and Playstation, but Windows and Mac users are lucky to find more than a single shelf. That’s not because everybody is too busy playing Candy Crush on their phones—computer gaming is still a $25 billion industry. So, where are all the games?
The computer games business has moved online, and in a hurry. Digital delivery straight to your computer is the new normal, both for brand-new, top-tier games and the classics of yesteryear, and there are plenty of places to buy. Don’t be overwhelmed by the choices—let our guide point you to three of the best Web stores for computer gaming.
- Wide range of titles
- Special features like Greenlight and Early Access games
- Windows, Mac, and Linux all supported
Steam is the heavy hitter in online game stores. It’s packed with choices and unique features like Steam Greenlight, which lets you vote for up-and-coming games to be added to the store. New, hit games like Watch_Dogs as well as quirky cult hits such as Kerbal Space Program anchor the selection, and there are plenty of classics as well. Publishers often offer “Early Access” titles on Steam, letting you take part in the gameplay even while the title is still under development.
Steam will be releasing its own stand-alone game console soon, but in the meantime they offer Big Picture mode, making it easier to select, buy, and play games on a PC attached directly to a TV. Windows, Mac, and even Linux users will all find plenty of games to buy and enjoy.
So what’s the catch? Steam uses a form of copy protection called digital rights management (DRM). They’ve made improvements over the years to make it less obtrusive, but you still need to run a special Steam program in order to download and update your games. And, in some cases, you need to be online to play games at all, even if the game has no Internet component. That’s no problem at home, but it can be a pain while traveling.
Steam doesn’t absolutely require you to be online all the time, but it can be finicky. The service offers a helpful how-to article describing the process. The good news is that Steam’s special client program can help you back up saved games and transfer them between computers.
- Extensive library of classic titles
- Download once, play anywhere
- Frequent specials and flash sales
GOG originally stood for “Good Old Games”, back when it was a service focused on bringing popular but out-of-print games to modern computers. But GOG now has a wide variety of new games to go with the classics of the 80s, 90s, and 2000s, and the site’s large weekend promos, numerous flash sales and even the occasional limited-time game giveaway mean you’ll want to visit often.
Unlike Steam, GOG has a customer-friendly DRM-free policy. You can download a game once and install it on any of your computers, no questions asked and no hoops to jump through. You also don’t need to be online to play any of your GOG games, once you download and install. (Unless, of course, that game has an online multiplayer mode.)
This customer-friendly policy does have a drawback, however. Some game publishers insist on copy protection and as a result don’t list their products on GOG, particularly newer titles. So although GOG does welcome brand-new games to the catalog every month, you may need to shop elsewhere for some of the blockbuster titles. You also don’t get the kind of extra assistance Steam offers updating your games or migrating save files around, although the recently announced GOG Galaxy service may help.
GOG mainly stocks Windows games, although a growing number are playable on Mac as well. There’s no official Linux support—even for games which can be found on other stores in Linux versions. Hardcore Linux experts know how to get around those limitations, but if you’re just dabbling in Linux, you’ll need to shop elsewhere.
- Bundles of interesting games, stand-alone purchases too
- Unique name-your-own-price scheme
- Android phone and tablet users get in on the fun
Although competitors like Steam and GOG offer frequent promos and collections, Humble Bundle‘s are truly unique. For a limited time, the site offers a collection of games, and you get to name the price!
What’s more, you get to decide how the proceeds are distributed, split between the developers of the games, the Humble Bundle service, and a charity selected by the store. Usually the charity is themed to the bundle—for instance, a recent bundle highlighted the works of Ukrainian game studio Frogwares, and the Ukrainian Red Cross Society was the designated charity.
You can give all of the money to the charity, split it 50/50 between the developers and the charity and leave the Humble Bundle folks out in the cold, or mix and match any way your conscience guides you.
Before you start counting all the money you’ll save by paying a penny for every game offered by the site, there are a few catches. Most bundles now require a minimum buy-in of $1, and you get more (and newer) games by paying more. It’s still a better deal than you would get buying the games individually. Just keep in mind that some bundles require $20 or more in order to unlock all of the titles, which means you can still end up spending real money on the site.
Some of the Humble games are obscure indie gems, but they feature big-budget hits as well. Of the three stores it’s the only one which offers Android games, although not every bundle has mobile apps. There is also a free-standing store with unbundled games at regular pricing if the week’s bundle doesn’t appeal to you.
Note that some Humble purchases will be fulfilled by Steam. Why use Humble at all if you also need Steam? Because Humble’s unique pricing model means you can often pick up games for far less than Steam would ever sell them directly.