From discs to cartridges, most gamers are used to putting a physical data storage device into their gaming console in order to play a game. But more and more, publishers are making their games available as digital downloads that you can purchase on the console via the Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network or Nintendo eShop.
On the Web, there are even more ways to get downloadable games for your computer and other game consoles. From the most obscure indie games to the biggest gaming blockbusters, here are a few places to buy and download games from the Web.
Steam game downloads
Steam, the best-known online video game store, originally only offered games by Valve Corporation, but the store quickly expanded to other publishers. Now, alongside their console releases, most of the biggest and most-hyped games release on Steam for PC and sometimes for Mac and Linux, and soon for the upcoming Steam OS.
MORE: 10 Steam Games Under $10
Steam is perhaps best known for its unparalleled selection of indie games, many of which it vets through a crowdsourced voting process called Steam Greenlight.
With its huge selection and frequent sales, Steam is probably the best one-stop place to purchase downloadable games. But Steam is just one place to find computer games on the Web.
Humble Bundle games
The Humble Bundle began as a special one-time sale that let people pay whatever they wanted — as little as 1 cent — for a set group of indie games. With a few exceptions, the games are free of digital rights management (DRM), meaning consumers have more complete ownership over the games they purchase. However, if users paid above the average price that others contributed, they would also receive two extra games. Buyers could also decide how to split their money between the game developers, the Humble Bundle company itself and charity.
Humble Bundle has grown in popularity and offerings over the years; now it offers weekly sales on all types of games, from indies to mobile games to console titles, still with a pay-what-you-want model that adds extra rewards when consumers pay above the average.
In November 2013, Humble Bundle launched the Humble Store, where games will be permanently available for purchase. The store's current offerings are all games that have been featured in previous Humble Bundles, but representatives say it will soon add new content. Ten percent of the store's profits also go to charity. Meanwhile, the Humble Bundle weekly offers continue to roll out.
GOG, short for "good old games," is an online store that opened in 2010 as a place to buy old-school games such as "Baldur's Gate," "Fallout Tactics" and "Simon the Sorcerer." One of GOG's strongest selling points is that all its games come without any DRM, making GOG popular with those who disagree with the limitations DRM places on media.
Recently, GOG has expanded to include recent popular titles such as the "Assassin's Creed" series, the "Witcher" series and "Dust: An Elysian Tale." It also continues to add updated versions of older games as well as indie games. With frequent discounts, DRM-free policies and strong support for small-studio developers, GOG is an excellent alternative to Steam.
Just as game developer Valve found success with Steam, developer and publisher Electronic Arts tried to do the same with Origin, an online store that sells digital copies of its own games. Like Steam, Origin is a software client that must be downloaded in order to access its games. The client also acts as a social platform to let players share their progress and play against each other.
Origin never saw the same success Steam did, and it only offers games published by EA. However, considering EA is one of the biggest game publishers, Origin's offerings are hardly small. If you're looking for a game published by EA, such as "The Sims," "Battlefield" or "Dead Space," check Origin before you go to Steam; you're more than likely to find a better deal on the former.
Amazon PlayStation Network Store
This online store is different than the others on this list, because you can't play these games on your computer. Instead, through the Amazon PlayStation Network Store (opens in new tab), you can purchase games for your PlayStation 3 or 4 from the Web, then send them straight to your console to begin downloading.
What's more, the Amazon PSN Store's user interface is much better than the PlayStation Network Store on the PlayStation consoles themselves, not least because it's easier to type in searches on a keyboard than to spell them out using a controller.
Currently, the Amazon PSN Store is offering $5 off games such as "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag," "The Last of Us" and an indie bundle that includes "Super Motherload," "Trine 2: The Complete Story" and "Flower."
Google Play Store
Mobile games have always been download-only, and the Google Play Store is still the best and safest place to get Android games.
Aside from pop culture phenomena like "Angry Birds" and "Temple Run," the Google Play Store has unique games from small studios and indie developers, such as "Superbrothers Sword and Sworcery," "Terraria" and "The Room."
Some older games have also found new life on the Google Play Store, including the classic point-and-click adventure game "Simon the Sorcerer" and the early "Final Fantasy" games, including "Final Fantasy IV."
The iTunes Store
Like the Google Play Store, the iTunes Store has a strong collection of games that may be smaller in scale than console titles, but still deliver complex, immersive game experiences.
Some, like "Lili," "Nihilumbra" and "Infinity Blade," are mobile-first. Others, like "Bastion," "Limbo" and "The Walking Dead: Season 1," debuted on other platforms, such as the Xbox Live Arcade and Steam, but came to mobile soon after.
The iTunes Store also has a strong selection of rereleased games as well, including the "Phoenix Wright" and "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," as well as some old-school classics like the point-and-click games "Myst" and "The 7th Guest."
Chrome Web Store
Did you know that the Chrome Web browser has its own selection of video games? You can find them at chrome.google.com/webstore. Google account holders can purchase these games, which then act as browser plugins accessible through a Chrome browser signed into the corresponding Google account.
The Chrome App Store's star title is the 2011 indie darling "Bastion," but the store also offers 2012's world creation game "From Dust" and the perennial favorite "Angry Birds," as well as dozens of smaller games, many of which are free.
For a really alternative gaming experience, check out the selection on Indie City, an online store for downloadable games from small studios and single-person development teams. The games on Indie City vary widely in quality and repute. The biggest name you'll find there is probably "Thomas Was Alone," the minimalist platform game released in 2012.
Indie City's games can be purchased and downloaded on their own, or players can use the site's optional client to get automatic updates and participate in the Indie City community. The site also makes it easy for small-time developers to publish their games on the site.