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Rules of the game, rewritten

Rules of the game, rewritten
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First Published: Mon, Mar 31 2008. 02 12 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Mar 31 2008. 02 12 AM IST
Hardly a day passes when someone doesn’t breathlessly tells us that downloading movies will be the next big thing. It seems to follow that because downloading music is extremely popular and has nearly killed the CD format, the steady march of technology will spell doom for DVDs.
There are still sceptics, to be sure, and the best evidence that discs might just be around for a long time can be found lying around the video game machines. Gamers are a tech-savvy group, and many of them are, by nature, early adopters of new technology.
But, game downloading services have been around for years and are only just beginning to make a dent in sales of packaged game software.
According to the NPD Group, a consulting firm that collects sales data on consumer purchases such as games, about 86% of video games were bought on discs in the last three months, with the remaining 14% making it to computers or game consoles as downloads.
Unlike the movie studios, the game makers have generally not tried to limit downloading services. The game service Steam, from Valve Software, let gamers buy and download BioShock, one of the most eagerly awaited games last year, in advance of its arrival in stores, so that the game would be ready to play the moment the release date arrived.
But, unlike PC game makers, video console game makers still do not offer popular titles as downloads. Games such as Halo 3 and Oblivion haven’t been available in that format. There is little incentive to download a game rather than buy a tangible disc. It is rarely cheaper to download. Downloadable versions of best-selling PC games like Unreal Tournament III and BioShock cost the same as the discs.
For people who like playing video games, downloading won’t be the main way to procure games. But online delivery is becoming very handy for players who want to build quickly on the experience they had in a favourite game such as the shooter Halo 3 or the role-playing adventure Oblivion. It will also be useful for those who want to relive an experience of a favourite game played a generation ago, such as Pac-Man or King’s Quest.
Here are a few ways to get the most out of downloads.
PC gaming
The leading downloadable PC game distributors are Valve Software and GameTap. Both offer full-size games to download to a gamer’s hard drive. GameTap also offers smaller titles meant to appeal to a broader audience than the hard-core gamers Valve’s line-up serves. Valve charges per game, with big-hit titles such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and BioShock, priced at $49.95. GameTap offers two all-you-can-download subscription options, $9.95 a month or $59.95 a year, for access to its library of nearly 1,000 titles. About 50 titles are free to anyone who registers with the site. GameTap also allows people who are not subscribers to download games at prices closer to those of the retail editions.
While GameTap recently began offering Mac games, Valve is strictly for Windows users.
Both services provide system requirements and recommended specifications for any given game so you do not download a game your computer cannot run.
My download from GameTap of Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Anniversary, a 1.1 gigabyte Windows game that was available in stores and on GameTap the same day, took about 45 minutes to complete over my cable broadband connection.
I downloaded from Valve the highly-acclaimed thinking man’s first-person shooter, Half-Life 2 ($19.95 on Valve, and $19.99 at a nearby Target store), in about half an hour despite its relatively compact 900 megabytes.
Both games played exactly as they would if I had installed them from discs. But those pieces of plastic can be reassuring. If the computer is damaged, the discs would be handy to reinstall on a repaired or new computer.
However, a similar safety net can come with downloaded games. A GameTap subscription allows games to be downloaded again anytime, and up to two computers in a household can run the games at the same time. Valve and other smaller download services such as GameStop, IGN and EB Games grant buyers activation codes that can be used on one or more machine.
The downloaded game can also be deactivated on one PC and then reactivated on another. If a Valve game bites the dust because of a crash, the registered owner can download again and reinstall the title. Both services offer online forums for discussing games and swapping tips, though Valve goes further by offering a feature for meeting game-playing friends that also tracks statistics and helps to schedule group events.
Many hard-core PC gamers eagerly seek free modifications, or “mods”, of popular games. Mods are created by dedicated players and programmers, usually with no connection to the company that created the game. The software adds new content such as weapons, characters, scenarios and multiplayer maps. Mods have been written for some of the most popular PC games, including Half-Life 2, Gears of War, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Unreal Tournament. Gamers say that some of the best sites for downloading mods are Fileplanet.com, Gamespot.com, Gamespy.com, Fileshack.com and Filefront.com.
Game consoles
The makers of the game consoles, such as Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii, want you to buy discs for new releases, even though all the machines have built-in hard drives and Internet connections, as in a PC. But they do encourage gamers to download old games. Microsoft’s Xbox Live Marketplace for Xbox 360 gamers offers more than 100 “arcade” titles such as Uno, Ms. Pac-Man and Frogger, as well as add-on content for the latest titles such as the Halo 3: Heroic Map Pack and new songs for the music game Rock Band. The company also sells several Xbox Classics, the titles that ran on the 360’s predecessor, the original Xbox. Unfortunately, to buy any of them, Microsoft forces gamers to use an annoying points system that converts $1 to 80 points.
Sony’s PlayStation Store for the PlayStation 3 takes players down a similar retro game memory lane. It sells games that played on the original PlayStation. Several of the titles can be played on either the PlayStation 3 console or downloaded from the PS3 to Sony’s PlayStation Portable hand-held game device and played on that.
The biggest retro download store belongs to Nintendo, the maker of the Wii. Its Virtual Console feature offers downloadable games created for the original Nintendo Entertainment System as well as the subsequent Super Nintendo and Nintendo 64 consoles. Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers and Pac-Man can be found there.
The store also sells games that were first released for Nintendo competitors such as the TurboGrafx, the Neo Geo and the Sega Genesis.
Nintendo recently announced that it would soon offer DS demos to be downloaded to the hand-helds’ main memory and playable until the device is powered off, at which point they disappear.
But, don't expect the old-fashioned game discs to disappear so easily.
©2008/The New York Times
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First Published: Mon, Mar 31 2008. 02 12 AM IST