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Selling software online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on October 10, 2003
(Issue 2141, Wanna Play?)

Last January, we looked at game publishers that sell to customers directly over the 'Net – without a retail presence. At that time, I focused on military simulations – and used a couple of examples to extrapolate the theory that specialty houses were best suited to succeed with an online-only distribution model.

Such chutzpah on my part. That specialty-only theory was no more than my own hot air.

For it turns out that there are many software publishers that distribute online-only, including a healthy number of mainstream gaming companies. And the caliber of these games is professional and polished, in many cases every bit as good as what you can buy in a four-color shrink-wrapped box at the mall.

Arcade style still lives

At Reflexive Entertainment, there are more than two dozen arcade-style games – updated takes on classics like "Lode Runner," "Breakout" and "Galaga."

And unlike Hasbro's unfortunate attempts at updating old-school games like "Frogger" and "Breakout," the folks at Reflexive don't get so fancy that the games lose their charm. Where Hasbro tried to make "Frogger" and "Centipede" more compelling to contemporary gamers by inserting you into the action and making them 3-D games, Reflexive keeps the games old-style arcade action – 2-D games where you shoot, steer and bomb away.

True, the graphics are better – more colors, sharper edges, smoother animation. But that just adds to the charm – enhances the appreciation for the simple yet addictive design of the first generation of computer games.

Okay, this was supposed to be a discussion about the business model of Reflesive, not the gameplay of their products. But the thing is, they let you download a demo version of any of their games – and you play a level or two, and you're hooked. Most of the demos are limited by time or number of games – and if you purchase them online, you don't have to re-install; simply type in the serial number they provide you to unlock the game.

It's an elegant little setup – easy to use, with a friendly web site that makes it easy to find the games, check out screen samples, download the demo version, and purchase the full version of the game.

The fact that they have some gorgeous, classic games is what gives their business model a fighting chance.

The competition

Garage Games only offers about a dozen games from their web site, but they all seem just as polished and slick as those at Reflexive. And for budding game designers, Garage Games has something very special – a ready-to-go engine for arcade games.

Free Lunch Design carries about a half-dozen games, all classic arcade-style of the same caliber as the others listed above.

Furious Entertainment also offers a handful of arcade titles for the PC, but with names like "Hateful Chris" you get the feeling that these games hearken after the arcade titles of the 1980s rather than the truly old-school 1970s' feel that the other games looked at so far have.

LavaMind Games offers three business simulation games; haven't played them, but the screen shots and descriptions look interesting.

From just these examples, it can be seen that there exists an incredible variety of game designers and publishers beyond what you can find on the aisles of the local software shop.

To explore even more, you can check out the Yahoo! listing for Business and Economy > Shopping and Services > Computers > Software > Games > Developers and Publishers.