Instant Gratification

Online exclusives, free trials, and instant access make game downloads the smart way to play

Bionic Commando: Rearmed

Ah, irony. A couple months ago we were celebrating breakthroughs in hyper-realistic video games. Now paying $60 seems extravagant for a single blockbuster title. But what about enjoying 10 downloadable alternatives for the same price? Faster connections, increasingly intuitive interfaces and ballooning value-priced software catalogues haven't just made digital game purchasing fiscally wise. They've also rendered it addictively simple.

With 16 million users, online PC game vendor Steam is no longer a clearinghouse for obscure indie outings and bargain-bin castoffs. It's also become the simplest way to snag major debuts like Grand Theft Auto IV and FEAR 2: Project Origin the same day they hit shelves. Rival site Impulse additionally offers high-profile exclusives such as Demigod. Adventure, simulation, and turn-based strategy titles further abound at GamersGate, also the sole home for many obscure European imports.

For console owners, shopping's even simpler. Online storefronts Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Nintendo's WiiWare and Virtual Console put new software just a couple button presses away. Using credit cards or prepaid codes, users can retrieve innovative originals (LostWinds, , Braid), old-school favorites (Metroid, Punch-Out!!) or dazzling download-only remakes (Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix) in mere minutes.

But the real significance here isn't these services' increasingly high-quality selection and cost-conscious prices. (Classics and impulse buys sell for $1-$5, with new software averaging $5-15, and even $50 full-price releases often offer bonuses like a second game free.)

Rather, it's the sudden uptick in convenience. No more nail-biting drives to GameStop, praying they've got the latest sci-fi epic in stock, and goodbye relentless Best Buy sales clerks. Now, when the urge to splurge strikes, you have two equally compelling options. Preorder and download at midnight on release day, or sample free demos and purchase must-see adventures by flicking a thumb. Capcom's NES revamp Bionic Commando: Rearmed, which sold 130,000 copies its first week, proves that downloads are a good deal for game developers too. While savvy gamers now refuse to spend as much money chasing after single hit titles, they'll gladly shell out double for the promise of instant gratification.

Get Rich Playing Games (getrichgaming.com) author and TV/radio host Scott Steinberg has covered technology for 300+ outlets from CNN to Rolling Stone. For more of his insights, visit scottsteinberg.com.