It wasn't so long ago that industry chinwaggers were pondering whether or not digital games distribution could ever take off. Would there ever be a time when players wanted to buy stuff without leaving their armchair, and have the game piped directly into their console? Or were they too fond of those piles of DVD cases teetering next to the telly? We know the answer now, of course, but it's interesting to note just how quickly this once-fanciful notion has become the accepted norm, now that the major console manufacturers have all put their weight behind it.
Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii all now have established and thriving downloadable game systems in place, but each has taken a slightly different route to realise the concept. With gamers now used to the idea of downloading new titles direct to their console, and with The Big Three all well established in that arena, it seems like a good time to cast a critical eye over how each is faring.
But before we start, a word of explanation. After some deliberation, I decided not to include the PC in this feature, even though services like Steam tread similar ground. However, downloadable games are nothing new on the PC, and the open nature of the platform makes it impossible to quantify in comparative terms. Also, the focus is firmly on each console's downloadable games, both new and retro, not online gaming and whether you should pay Bill Gates to do it.
With Microsoft staking out Wednesday as their Live Arcade update day, and Nintendo grabbing the weekend-starts-here Friday slot for the Virtual Console (and later WiiWare), Sony were somewhat stuck for choice and had to press on with a rather awkward piggy-in-the-middle Thursday-based update schedule.
Microsoft pioneered the promise of delivering new games every week, and the publishing people have barely missed a week since the 360 launched. Admittedly, some weeks it felt like they would have been better off uploading an old boiled sweet that they found behind the sofa rather than some of obvious filler they've slapped online, but that's an argument for another section. They've successfully conditioned 360 owners to see Wednesday as New Live Arcade Game day and when they've got games worth shouting about, as with the recent run of great-to-excellent software in August, the regularity has helped ramp up the anticipation. The one area where Microsoft still seems rather uncertain is its retro Xbox Originals range. Additions to the list are sporadic at best, with no clear schedule or reasoning behind what goes up and when, and there doesn't seem to be much urgency on Microsoft's part to change that state of affairs. For shame.
Nintendo haven't quite managed to master the anticipation thing, mostly because it rarely lets slip what it's planning to upload, leaving gamers to check the Wii Shop and see what the Nintendo Fairy has left under their pillow. Despite the unusually coy approach to promotion, the Friday uploads are a regular fixture for most Wii owners, with only occasional deviations to accommodate minor inconveniences like Christmas. Now that WiiWare has launched, the update alternates between retro games and new stuff. It's a curiously binary way of handling the separate stores - surely there'd be more sustainable interest in a mixture of old and new each week? This is what it tried on 29th August, but from what we can gather this was not the start of a regular dual-upload for both services.
Compared to the clockwork efficiency of its rivals, Sony's efforts to build up momentum for their PlayStation Store have struggled somewhat. The Thursday updates are regular enough, but there's no guarantee that full games will be part of the package, and even after all this time it doesn't look like Sony's in a hurry to compete with the "new games every week" ethos of the competition. This is perhaps understandable where original games are concerned - quality over quantity and all that - but with a vast library of PSone games largely untouched, it seems strange that retro offerings haven't settled into a familiar routine.
Advantage: Xbox 360 and Wii
There are two ways of looking at the variety offered by the three download services. One is to consider the sheer volume of software available. The other is to look at how many different genres and gaming tastes are catered for by the games on offer. In the first instance, the Wii is the clear leader with almost 250 games, spanning eight emulated formats, on the Virtual Console alone.
Of course, this breadth of content isn't always matched by depth, and many weeks have felt like titles were being added to bump up the total for an exciting press release claim rather than because the world was waiting with bated breath to play China Warrior again. Just by virtue of the sheer number of games on the Virtual Console, the Wii has most bases covered when it comes to particular genres. There's an obvious bias towards shoot-'em-ups and scrolling fighting games, but that's just a reflection of the eras being emulated. WiiWare is proving even more eclectic, with role-playing city simulations, point-and-click adventures and more traditional puzzle and platform games already on the service.
Xbox Live Arcade isn't too shabby in the volume department either, with just over 150 games to choose from. For any new console owner, that's certainly a reasonable amount to browse through, even if the numbers were pumped up by too many ill-conceived ports of old arcade games and uninspired puzzlers in the early years of the service. Luckily, even Microsoft thinks there's too much chaff, and has vowed to mercilessly cull the weaker games with hammers. Its insistence on banging the online drum also means that there's a greater ratio of multiplayer titles, and even the lowliest game is required by Microsoft decree to at least feature online leaderboards, so you can see if you're better at Tiqal than !!!5kUllV3nOM!!!.
Sony's relatively slow start in the realm of downloadable gaming means that it's not even close to offering the same bulk, but that may not be a bad thing. The early titles were a mixed bunch, with fairly generic games like Snakeball, Feel Ski and High Velocity Bowling all suggesting a console trying to find its virtual voice. Fast forward to now, and titles like Super Stardust, LocoRoco, echochrome and the PixelJunk series feel much more cohesive and suggest Sony is staking its claim as the home of stylish casual gaming. It's also notable that the PS3 is the first console to start delivering larger games via download, with recent well-received games like Ratchet & Clank: Quest For Booty and Siren: Blood Curse snuggling into the gap between impulse buy downloads and full-priced retail games. The trickle of PSone classics, meanwhile, ensures there's a solid bedrock of the ubiquitous racers, platformers and shooters to be found. There may not be as many titles to scroll through, but the PS3 covers its bases well.
Advantage: Xbox 360 and Wii