As more and more developers and publishers realize the benefits of distributing their products online, more types of digital distribution applications have been created to benefit the cause. At this point in time gamers have their choice of applications like Impulse (a rebranded and revamped Stardock Central), Steam, Gametap, and EA Downloader (which is now simply the EA Store) and then digital distribution websites like Direct2Drive, Greenhouse, and GamersGate.
Among gamers, though, the most oft-used and oft-mentioned means of acquiring new games is Valve's Steam. First released in September of 2003 as little more than a means for Valve to distribute and update their own titles, the application was widely criticized for an extremely high memory footprint and its sluggish performance. Now, though, the service has been continually updated and refined into an industry-recognized method of acquiring and updating Valve's titles along with a huge assortment of third-party games. The most recent major upgrade that the platform received came in the form of user stats, achievements, a community system (complete with friends lists, groups, and event calendars), an in-game overlay which gave users access to all of Steam's features in any game launched from the Steam game list, and a revamped store. Up until the release of Steamworks most of these services were only properly utilized in Valve's own products but, now, developers partnered with Valve can implement the same Steam-specific features in their games as well. Steam Cloud has also been talked about which would give Steam users a sort of virtual storage space for game save files and preferences.
One of the other digital distribution applications that I install whenever I format a computer has always been Stardock Central. Before I ever even thought about working at the company I was a fan of Stardock's games and a couple of the applications that the company produces. Back when the actual game catalog was slim-pickins all I ever did was launch the program, download a game or an update, let the thing install, and then I shut the program down again until I felt like checking for another update a few weeks later -- all of this was around the launch of Galactic Civilizations back in 2003. It wasn't a very pretty program by any means (though it was a far cry from Stardock's very first digital distribution app, Component Manager, back in 1999), but it didn't really have to be.
Earlier this week Stardock launched Impulse which is more than just a pretty face on top of years of knowledge gained from the development of Stardock Central; the best write-up on the program available was published by Brad Wardell on the day of its release. As a game developer, though, I think of Impulse as being an incredibly open and community-accessible distribution platform unlike any other in the industry. We're developing a set of tools called "Impulse Reactor" which we're planning on giving to third-parties so that they can easily access community features and -- since I'm a gamer and a game developer -- game statistics, matchmaking, achievements, friends lists, and all of the other things that users of Xbox Live have been using and relying on for years.
I play a pretty ridiculous amount of games; specifically, I play a pretty ridiculous number of shooters and strategy games. Valve's multiplayer shooters are the best I've played since the days of Quake 3: Rocket Arena. Last year I played in a giant Shacknews Team Fortress 2 tournament (no, really) and, before that, I put a pretty crazy amount of time into Counter-Strike: Source and, for both games, Steam has been absolutely invaluable. I've taken part in tournament games that our team leader threw into the event calendar and had a little message box pop-up to notify me when and where I should go for a match and, after a game, our entire team joined a group chat room to talk about the match and what we needed to do better for the next game, and so on.
But why aren't there any applications which have this kind of integration for real-time strategy games? The amount of time I've sunk into Warcraft 3: The Frozen Throne, Company of Heroes, Supreme Commander, and Sins of a Solar Empire is, quite honestly, embarassing. This same fact is true of Civilization 4 and its expansion packs. Of all of the digital distribution applications that exist for the PC none of them have the kind of Xbox Live statistics, matchmaking, and general game integration for the genres of games I enjoy the most. In conversations that we've had around the office this is the kind of gap that we want Impulse to fill (and, with Impulse Reactor, give other developers the tools to bring the same features to even more oft-forgotten games and genres).
The only thing that comes from overzealous application zealotry and exclusivity is a lack of competition that brings about new features, more content, and more innovations.