Gamefly's PC game rental service: Is there really an audience? [video]

The PC gaming digital distribution world is certainly getting crowded. For the longest time we had Steam, Direct2Drive and Impulse as 'the big 3' with Steam being by far the biggest. Then streaming services like OnLive and Gaikai hit (joined recently by Happy Cloud) and now Electronic Arts has struck out on their own with their Origin download service. There are also a host of smaller options like GamersGate, Good Old Games, Green Man Gaming and I'm sure there are others I'm unaware of.

Not too long ago game seller Gamestop bought Impulse and has integrated it into their website. Gamestop is putting the new download service to good use; shelf space in the (generally small) Gamestop brick and mortar stores is always at a premium and in many locations, PC gaming has been squeezed out by console games and of course Gamestop's highly lucrative used game sales. Gamestop's solution is (or will be, I haven't visited a Gamestop in some time) to sell digital copies of PC games at their brick and mortar stores. While at first glance that may seem crazy, it makes some sense. Gamers can trade in old console titles and use the money on downloadable PC games. And of course you can use cold hard cash in a brick and mortar store. Think kids with birthday money, or people tired of worrying if their credit cards have been stolen from online sites. So you buy a code from Gamestop, take it home and download your game.

Another relatively recent (last May) acquisition was game-rental service Gamefly purchasing PC and Mac digital distribution service Direct2Drive. Gamefly, sometimes call "the Netflix of video games," rents console games by mail. Customers pay a fixed fee for a certain number of games out at a time. Sounds familiar, right? But why the purchase of a PC game download service?

Now we know. Yesterday it was revealed that Gamefly is adding PC (and eventually Mac) game rentals and sales to its service. Gamefly subscribers will install a client on their systems which will give them access to both physical console game rentals and digital computer game purchases and rentals. Purchasing is old news; it's just Direct2Drive re-branded, but PC game rentals is pretty new (though D2D has been experimenting with the concept already). Gamefly co-founder Sean Spector told USA Today there would be over 100 titles available to rent at launch, but that the number would grow.

In addition to renting PC games, the new client will add some social aspects to the Gamefly experience. Sharing lists of games you want to play, following other customers and that sort of thing. I guess everything has to be "social" these days.

The service is rolling out in beta next month and the intention is to have it fully deployed for this holiday season.

I'm really interested to see how the rental end of this service does. In some ways it is similar to OnLive's $10/month PlayPass offering, except OnLive is a streaming service and so requires a fast Internet connection but modest hardware, whereas Gamefly's system requires you to download the games and have a PC powerful enough to play them. Considering that Gamefly's current audience is 100% console gamers, having a beefy PC isn't really a given.

Of course it depends on what kinds of games we're talking about. Here's a quote from the USA Today piece:

"There is a huge benefit with GameFly for a family with a couple of kids, and we have been really successful with that," Spector says. "So this client will be filled with PC games for kids, with casual games and indie games. It will run the gamut of content. We want to be accessible to all gamers, whether you are a 14-year-old boy or a 17-year-old girl or a 35-year-old gamer."

This quote leads one to wonder how many of the 100 games will be variants of Diner Dash, Bejeweled and hidden object games. In a way these kinds of games make more sense; they're fast to download and don't require a lot of hardware.

The good news is that this new service apparently won't change the (somewhat high) cost of a Gamefly membership ($15.95/month for one game at a time, $22.95 for two). Console gamers already using the service will just be getting some added value to their memberships, and maybe that's all Gamefly is going for. However if they're attempting to lure in PC gamers they're going to need to offer a "download only" membership plan, as well as titles for the 'core gamer.' You can see core games featured in the video above, but it isn't at all clear if those are from the 'to purchase' or the 'to rent' side of things.

Serious PC gamers might be willing to pay $16/month but the service would have to offer the latest AAA titles for rent. If the service launches with Battlefield 3 and Skyrim then I'll be impressed. If the rentals are all casual titles, or older PC games that can by had for a discount on competing services than I suggest PC gamers will pass. As for casual gamers, I think they're going to need a much cheaper 'digital rental only' plan (maybe $5/month?) in order to be enticed.

Lastly, I'd be remiss in not mentioning GameTap, another subscription-based PC gaming platform that has been around for years. Gametap charges $9.95/month for their "Premium" subscription that offers access to what I'll call second tier games (a few examples: Two Worlds II, Divinity II and East India Company Collection) as well as lots of retro games run via emulators. Gametap has struggled since launching in 2005 and I can't help but wonder if a rental service is really what PC gamers want.

I've signed up to beta test Gamefly's PC rental service and will be reporting back if I get in then beta when it opens early next month.

Read more of Peter Smith's TechnoFile blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Peter on Twitter at @pasmith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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