Through digital distribution, consumers can purchase games over the internet and then download said games directly to their computers, game consoles, handheld devices, or phones. Most digital distribution systems track a user's past purchases via account systems, requiring the user to log-in to purchase titles and access previous purchases, however some offer direct download systems. Once a new and uncertain delivery method for video games, digital distribution quickly grew in popularity in the late-2000s and early-2010s, eventually becoming the primary distribution method for the majority of video games.
The system has gained popularity among consumers for a number of reasons, typically related to the potential hassle of managing physical media. The most oft-cited of these benefits relates to the ease of buying a digital game compared to buying one from a brick-and-mortar store, although the hassle of swapping game discs is also commonly referenced as a benefit of digital distribution. These concerns were increased around the eighth console generation, as quickly increasing video game storage requirements meant that even physical games tended to require data to be installed to a device's hard drive anyways, further cementing digital distribution as the primary distribution method for games.
Digital distribution systems have also been met with a number of criticisms, however, typically relating to concerns of video game ownership and preservation. The vast majority of digital distribution services state that users aren't actually purchasing the games in their library, but rather purchase entitlements or licenses, allowing access solely to the user purchasing and allowing the store owners to revoke access at any time, such as through a distribution service shutting down. As well, the lack of physical media in digital distribution prevents users from re-selling their games as well as making games much more difficult to obtain should they ever be removed from sale. This also impedes video game preservation efforts, as many games now exist only through digital distribution, making them harder to obtain and preserve should a digital storefront ever shut down.
Digital Distribution Services
A wide variety of digital distribution services offering video games exist or have existed throughout time, dating as far back as the Satellaview. However, Steam is often cited as the first significant example of digital distribution, due to it quickly becoming one of the largest video game storefronts available within a few years of its 2004 launch.
Below are a variety of currently active digital distribution storefronts:
Defunct Digital Distribution Services
As time has progressed, many digital distribution storefronts have decided or been forced to close. This can be due to company bankruptcy, changing business strategies, or a service simply being tied to an outdated console.