In 2006, I purchased a physical copy of the Half-Life Anthology collection. It contained all of the original Half-Life games as well as Team Fortress Classic. Although the box contained a CD-ROM, I had to create a Steam Account in order to run the games on my computer. This was my first experience with a digital distribution platform.
It's been nine years since that initial purchase, and I now have many more games and multiple digital distribution clients sitting on my computer. I have over 200 games on Valve's Steam client, 20 or so games on Electronic Arts' Origin Client and gog.com (who will be launching their Galaxy client sometime this year), 3 games on Blizzard's Battle.Net client, and a few dozen physical CDs of older games sitting around.
The convenience is nice - I don't have to worry about storing and caring for hundreds or thousands of optical discs. If my computer blows up, I can re-download all of my stuff for free. The games and the digital distribution clients keep themselves patched and up to date. All of the clients have their own sets of useful features such as friends lists, matchmaking, and voice chat.
Sadly, the convenience ends there. Each service has their exclusives. You can only get Battlefield 3 on Origin. You can only get Half-Life 2 on Steam. If you want both of those games you're going to be running both of those clients concurrently. The existence (and constant expansion) of social features such friends lists and community groups means that you'll likely want to keep them on all of the time. To add to the frustration, you can sometimes end up in a situation where you are running a digital distribution client within a digital distribution client like some sort of matroshka doll. For example, many Ubisoft titles on Steam or Origin will require you to run both Uplay as well as the digital distribution client you purchased the game on just to play one game.
This is not a problem unique to gaming. There are television shows that are on Hulu but not on Netflix. These streaming services have also been creating their own exclusives (such as Orange is the New Black) or securing deals to stream content exclusively for a fixed period of time.
For years, Steam was the only game in town. Someone at EA got it into their heads to cut out on their own and create the Origin service - an act that upset a lot of gamers (including myself). Blizzard followed suit with the Battle.net client. Ubisoft created UPlay. Trion Worlds created Glyph. What followed was a tangled mess of exclusives, features, prices, and policies.
There was once a time that gamers would not buy a digital game that was not on Steam. After all, it's natural to want to have all of your stuff in one place. There were services that competed with Steam such as Desura (launched in 2009) before the launch of Origin, but they paled in comparison to Steam's catalog size and reach. Even large services supported by multi-billion dollar companies like EA and Ubisoft cannot yet compete against the established behemoth that is Steam.
The alternative of Steam being the only game in town is equally unpalatable. Competition breeds innovation. Steam is great in many ways, but they also fail consumers with notoriously terrible customer support and a practically nonexistent refund policy. (The poor refund policy in particular is being challenged by countries such as Australia where it runs afoul of their consumer protection laws.)
I find myself wondering how many clients I'm going to be running five years from now. All it takes is a large enough company to buy some rackspace and pull their stuff off of the existing marketplaces. How quickly would Activision get people on a hypothetical digital distribution client if it was the only way to get Call of Duty? What if all of the Halo games finally come to PC but are exclusive to the Windows Store? I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop and another big developer or publisher to hold their game hostage to their particular service.
I suppose this is going to be the new normal. I'll want to play some game in the future and find that it requires yet another digital distribution client. I'll sigh to myself and install it.
Hopefully all of these services will continually compete on price and developing new features. That might just make up for my ever-expanding System Tray.
How many digital distribution clients are you running? Does it bother you to have to install a client to play a particular game, or would you prefer that everything were in one place? Let us know in the comments below!