Back in the ‘good old days’, purchasing a game was a simple affair; visit your shop of choice, pick up a boxed copy from the shelf and pay for it. These days, certainly in the PC market, there is the option of buying a boxed copy from a bricks-and-mortar shop or an online retailer; or a digital copy, either standalone or tied to a client application. To further add to the confusion it’s becoming increasingly common for different pre-order bonuses to be exclusive to different retailers.
The biggest player in the digital download market is undoubtedly Steam; with its automatic updating, integrated community features and expansive catalogue of available titles proving extremely popular with customers. However this wasn’t always so - when it first launched Steam drew much criticism for its online authentication requirement, the presence of background processes and the perceived lesser value of being charged the same price-point for a digital product; resulting in many avoiding Steam enabled games. Conversely, there are now portions of the community that will actively boycott games that are not available on Steam - as an example read any of the hyperbole-strewn threads on the Steam forums that sprang up following the announcements that Battlefield 3 and Star Wars: The Old Republic would be absent from Steam, favouring EA’s recently rebranded Origin store.
Electronic Arts is just the latest developer/publisher to launch their own storefront - Steam is operated by Valve Software, creators of the Half-Life series; Impulse was launched by Stardock, and subsequently purchased by US retailer GameStop; and GamersGate was originally owned by Paradox Interactive, to name but a few. Of the examples given above, Origin is the only platform that exclusively distributes first-party titles, although as it has only existed in its current incarnation for a couple of months, there is the potential for this situation to change.
When Origin was announced, there was a backlash on a similar scale to that seen when Steam was launched; enhanced by the long-standing perception of EA being the ‘evil giant’ of the video game industry. However due to the overall shift towards digital distribution, critics pointed towards the duplication of functionality when compared to existing solutions - players with Steam and Origin games would need to manage two separate friends lists and have two clients running in the background.
In addition to the management side, there are the fears that should EA switch focus towards Origin exclusivity (Battlefield 3, whilst absent from Steam, is currently available to pre-order from other digital distributors), it will eliminate competition, allowing EA to increase prices. At the same time, it could be argued that any third-party run store with a near monopoly position in the market, would similarly be able to artificially inflate prices; a claim often leveled at Steam in its current position as market leader.
This puts the market into a no-win situation; consumers are demanding more choice and competition, whilst retaining integration and removing duplication of resources. The only way this could possibly be achieved would be for a single storefront client, capable of managing updates, social interactions and DRM protection, but allowing the customer a choice of retailers at the point of purchase.
Ultimately the only company currently in the position to develop a ‘universal’ API for this theoretical platform, that could be implemented in all (or most) future games, would be if Microsoft created a new extension to the current DirectX architecture - DirectStore if you will. Obviously, such a solution would preclude the current minority of gamers using OS X or Linux; and given the fact that Microsoft’s current implementation of Games for Windows Live is less popular than even Origin, it’s unlikely that even Windows gamers would welcome such a scenario with open arms.
As it stands, unless developers and publishers suddenly develop the ability to work together with the consumer’s interests as the driving force (if history is anything to go by, you’re more likely to be eating dodo for your Christmas dinner), gamers are going to have to retain the customer instincts developed on the traditional high-street; either continue to shop in a single location, accepting that it might not always be the cheapest option, or take the time to shop around for the best bargains, despite the fact that this may entail multiple clients and duplication of effort.