Digital distribution is the future. There is no doubt about that. The convenience of downloading video games and media over a broadband internet connection, combined with the extremely affordable pricing and staggering number of titles most digital distribution services offer make it a very competitive marketplace.
RealNetworks-owned casual video game developer and publisher GameHouse is offering one such service at their website. With a library of close to 2000 games for the PC and over 100 for the Mac, including well-known hits like Plants vs. Zombies and Bejeweled, GameHouse is focusing squarely on the casual gamer.
Many Ways to Play (and Pay)
What sets GameHouse apart from other digital distribution platforms, like Steam and Good Old Games, are the many ways in which it allows you to play the games.
For starters, non-members can try out most games for 60-minutes, free of charge. You can also pay full retail price to buy the games. Buying the games lets you play them as much as you want, but after two years you’ll have to pay extra if you want to download them again (onto a new computer, for example). But if you think you’ll be buying a lot of games from GameHouse, you can get a FunTicket membership for $6.99 per month. This membership gets you one ticket each month that you can redeem for a free game (with Premium and Platinum games costing two tickets), as well as a 30% discount on purchases.
Finally, GameHouse offers the FunPass membership. This is a $19.99 monthly membership that entitles you to unlimited play of over 1700 of their non-Platinum games as well as a 30% discount on all purchases and 10,000 GameHouse Reward Coins each month. These games have always been available for the PC, but GameHouse has recently started offering games for the Mac as well! These games are run natively on the Mac, so Mac users won’t have to run games in Parallels anymore (which appears to be a little buggy for some games). Please note that this review will only focus on the FunPass membership, and how it works with the PC.
Lots and Lots of Games
Each game has its own page, and a game’s page usually contains a brief description of the game, a few screenshots, it’s category and a star-rating based on user feedback. Clicking around on the page will reveal user reviews and discussion forums for that game.
Playing the game with a FunPass membership is fairly straightforward: click on the Unlimited Play button, let the installer download to your computer, then run it. The installer will automatically download the game and then ask for your FunPass username and password before letting you play it. Some games might take a while to download over a slower broadband connection (like mine), but overall I was fairly impressed with most of the download times. The only problem I saw with the download is that there didn’t seem to be a way to pause the process. If, for some reason, you have to interrupt the download, your only option is to cancel the download and start it over from scratch. That seemed like a glaring design oversight.
Once you’ve downloaded a game with your FunPass account, you can play it as much as you want; you just have to sign in with your FunPass credentials every time. This is made easy enough by a “Remember Me” checkbox, so signing in is just one extra click, if you choose to use that.
The process of downloading, installing, and actually playing the games is pretty much painless and usually comes off without a hitch. But that doesn’t mean the site isn’t without its problems.
Trouble a Brewin’
Having 1700 is a lot of games, and the collection is constantly growing. A powerful search engine and intuitive organizational tools are essential for casual gamer usability. GameHouse puts its games into 18 different genres, like action or strategy, but in reality, most of the games fit snuggly into one of four categories: puzzle, match 3, hidden object, and “time managment” (meaning, “click-fast”). Which means, for instance, the game Word Slinger showed up in their top 10 strategy games, and their simulation category had mostly match-3 games and click-fast games in it.
Focusing on casual gamers is fine, and certainly some games bridge multiple genres, but if the site’s going to have 18 categories, users shouldn’t see the same games show up in the top slots of a fourth of them.
This can make it frustrating to find something you want to play, especially if the category you’re interested in has a dearth of definitive entries. I was never able to find any good strategy or simulation games, for example. But if puzzle, hidden object, match 3, and click-fast games are what you’re looking for, this is a gold mine.
It’s a gold mine for advertisers, too, however. While the downloading screen is up, behind it your browser is sent to a page that automatically begins playing a full motion video ad with audio, that you cannot pause or skip without leaving the page. Clicking on the video itself will take you that sponsor’s website. Those ads get old immediately, but they also make the other, more unobtrusive ads seem obnoxious and pushy. It sends a message that you, the player, are not GameHouse’s only concern.
GameHouse allows and encourages members to post updates of their plays on various social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. The integration is seamless, but where some users might enjoy the convenience, others will be annoyed by how the site is constantly asking, begging, and at times almost tricking you into linking to your social media accounts. It seemed like every page, every screen, and every dialogue had the little link we’ve all seen to “Like” the game or website on Facebook. Sometimes, the option to do so is in a checkbox that is preselected for you. Other times, it’s a button that is placed very close to (or in place of) buttons like “Ok” and “Cancel”; the kinds of buttons that people tend to click without looking. It’s a technique that comes off as more deceptive than convenient.
Buying games is simple enough, but things can get complicated when you try to redeem your rewards. While any subscriber discounts are applied automatically to your order, redeeming your GameHouse Coins could have been more straightforward. In order to get my one free game, I had to: spend my GameHouse Coins to obtain a ticket, use the ticket to get a coupon code, and then use the code when I purchased a game. Why so many steps? Why can’t I just apply GameHouse Coins to my order? Most of the screens have a bar at the bottom that clearly displays the rewards you’ve earned, but the checkout screen itself makes no mention of GameHouse Coins or tickets at all. This is where knowing what rewards you have and what games you are entitled to would be most helpful. I expected some kind of alert or little notification telling me I have a free game coupon to use, but there was nothing except a small text field that allows you to enter your coupon code. As it is, it just seemed a little seedy. It’s how I would design it if I wanted you to forget that you’re entitled to any free games.
Browsing around the website as a parent, I was hoping that most of the games would have ESRB ratings, or something similar, to help me know ahead of time what kind of content I was downloading. While almost all of the games would probably get a G or PG rating, some of them did seem to contain some images that might be too intense for young children. In cases like those, parental guidance would be especially useful. While a few of the games do have ESRB ratings, the vast majority have nothing other than the user-provided ratings, where people can mark a game as “Kid Friendly”. These ratings are based entirely on the whims of the users, however, and it’s impossible to distinguish those who felt the game was inappropriate for kids from those who simply neglected to mark the checkbox.
I feel I should talk about tech support as well. I never needed any, and I’m a firm believer that the best technical support is the one you never have to use. But I did browse the forums to see how responsive the GameHouse staff appeared to be. What I found was plenty of room for improvement.
That’s not to say every complaint was ignored, but many of them were. And to be honest, it didn’t look like they were being flooded with requests. The few responses from actual technical support staff did seem polite, professional, and helpful, but I would like to have seen more of them. This is just a warning for anyone who still considers themselves to be computer illiterate.
Finally, I wanted to talk about Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM comes in many forms, but its purpose is always the same: to keep people from illegally copying games and other media. In some cases, DRM is unobtrusive and harmless. In other cases, it can be almost as damaging to your system as a virus. But most digital distribution services use some form of it (Good Old Games being one major exception).
The GameHouse website doesn’t go into any detail about the DRM they use for their games, and that’s a little concerning. They simply have a disclaimer in their legalese that says they can change their DRM whenever they want, without telling you, as long as they post it somewhere on the their website.
I contacted GameHouse directly and asked for more information. A representative responded in a polite and professional manner that GameHouse uses ActiveMARK 6 (newer games come with newer versions of ActiveMARK). ActiveMARK’s reputation leans a little toward the bothersome side of DRM, but I think newer versions aren’t as bad. I haven’t noticed any system problems or extra processes on my PC after downloading and installing a number of games. But I will keep my eyes open. If anyone wants to post their personal experience, I’d be happy to hear it.
At the end of the day, I’m not sure I can wholeheartedly recommend the FunPass membership. Having 1700 games sounds like a lot of games, but so many of them were so similar in play style that I can’t imagine ever trying out more than a dozen or so before getting tired of it all. Other digital distribution services offer more variety at very competitive prices, avoid annoying advertising tricks, are more open about their DRM and are more active on their tech support forums. But if you really, really love these kinds of casual games, and want to try as many variations on the same few game types as possible, you might want to look this up.
Father Geek received a FreePlay membership to help facilitate this review. Father Geek was not paid, bribed, wined, dined, or threatened in vain hopes of influencing this review. Such is the statuesque and legendary integrity of Father Geek.