Mar 282011
 
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With PC gaming moving more and more towards digital distribution, the days of going into a store, browsing the PC game shelves for a title worth purchasing and walking out with a box in hand are dwindling fast. Of course, unless you’ve lived under the world’s biggest rock, you know all about Steam, and probably have invested a fair amount of money at their store. You may have even dabbled with Direct2Drive or tried Stardock’s Impulse. However, you may not have tried the relative new comer to the digital download space in Amazon.

Amazon is all about competing with pretty much any company that sells anything. Music, books, movies and now apps, Amazon targets large competitors like Apple and Netflix. They regularly price match Sunday ad deals posted by big box retailers in Target, Walmart and Best Buy. Now, to get their digital download service off the ground, they’ve even resorted to price matching Steam’s weekend and mid-week sales when possible. Since Amazon is really good at selling stuff, there’s no reason to think that Amazon won’t become a significant player in the digital games space, after pretty much winning the crown for the best place to buy retail copies of console games with their generous deals and pre-order credits.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at Amazon’s PC game download service to see if it’s a worthy competitor to the big players already entrenched in the market. The key things that I usually look for in a digital store are pricing, availability, ease of downloads and how flexible the service is in case I ever need to re-download the software and/or retrieve any serial keys.

The pricing aspect we already know won’t be much a problem for Amazon. They have a history of some of the best pricing around. To help with their launch of “core” downloads, they’re offering $15 and $10 credits on many new high-profile titles like Crysis 2, Dragon Age 2, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, Homefront at prices that range from a few dollars to up to $10 off of retail price. There’s also no reason to doubt that Amazon will keep fresh deals coming on various titles throughout the year.  They are still working on building their library of games available, so while it’s a modest list, it contains many new releases.

To test my experience with the service, I recently purchased Crysis 2, as it was the cheapest on Amazon’s store than anywhere else at the time, with other distribution channels still selling it at full retail price less than a week after release. The first thing Amazon asks after you complete your purchase is to install the “Amazon Games and Software Downloader” which is a small 3MB download. It downloaded and installed in under a minute. I’m not normally a fan of external “downloader” programs, but found the Amazon downloader minimally invasive. It didn’t try to side-load any crapware and has a minimal footprint. I found it similar to Direct2Drive’s downloader, but less ugly. Of course, it’s nothing like Steam’s behemoth client, the Amazon downloader is just a downloader, which you could argue is an actual benefit — we don’t need anymore bloated clients. With that installed, my purchase automatically started downloading. It downloads one archive file and once the download is complete, it automatically extracts itself and gives you a folder structure of what you’d expect to be an image of the contents of the retail DVD. You then install the game as you would off a disc, and you’ll be asked to enter any type of serial key expected by the game. This can be retrieved from your Amazon digital library under your account on Amazon.com.

It’s worth noting that no additional DRM is added by Amazon. So in that particular sense, it has a leg up on Steam, which in non-Steamworks games (like Crysis 2) has the publisher’s DRM on top of the omni-present Steam DRM. This is not the case with Amazon. The DRM comes solely from the publisher. Amazon lets you download your game as many times as you need, although any limitations on “activations” on the install is controlled by the publisher and will vary from game to game. One comforting thing listed in Amazon’s help section for game downloads is this bit:

Each game manufacturer has a different policy on how many installations are allowed with each product key. If you run out of installations for the product key you originally purchased from Amazon, please contact Customer Service and we will happily provide you with another key at no additional charge. You can install an unlimited number of times for personal use, however additional copies of the game for friends or family must be purchased separately.

So it seems that Amazon is being very sensible dealing with DRM and as usual with my experience them, does a good job at taking care of their customers, not just throwing them to the wolves with some of the crazy DRM schemes publishers dream up.

After the install and key retrieval, Amazon’s job is done. Their downloader won’t keep your game auto-updated or anything like that. You’ll essentially have a retail copy of the game, so any updates will come directly from the publisher either through a built-in auto-updater in game or manual patches on the publisher’s website. If you’re a Steam junkie and enjoy the in-game chat overlay, you can always manually add a shortcut to the game in your Steam library to give you an unified launching spot of your games and to enable the Steam overlay in non-Steam games, as outlined in our new PC gaming wiki, here.

Overall, I found the Amazon download service to be a simple process with no unusual hoops to jump through. The Amazon downloader is a required prerequisite to downloaded your games from your library, but I found the program to be harmless and lightweight. With unlimited re-downloads and their flexible policy on serial keys, I see no reason not to give their service a shot and take advantage of their usual great pricing.

You can find their “core” downloads at their store front for it here.  Also, any games that have a digital download version will show up on the product page as a separate option listed as “PC Download.”