The Best Places Online to Buy DRM-Free PC Games
In a decade, Steam has become synonymous with PC gaming. Origin and Uplay have done their best to compete with the digital distribution service, but Valve’s brainchild is still the king, and likely will remain so for some time to come.
But despite the fact that Steam is so popular, there are some of us who would prefer a proper alternative – to be exact, a DRM-free alternative. I am one of these people. I stopped buying games on Steam some time ago. My brother is also one of these people – he won’t have anything to do with clients or DRM, but that might just be down to the fact that he isn’t particularly clued up on the matter, and probably nothing to do with principles.
Now some people would only be able to name one name when it comes to DRM-free – and that is GOG.com. Now I only say some people, because there is a still an overwhelming number of people who always ask the question when there is any mention of GOG: “Do they give you Steam keys?”
But you’d be surprised to know that there are a dozen places or more which sell DRM-free games. Read on and be amazed.
Series to check out on GOG.com
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, all of which famously had various types of DRM (except Clear Sky which had it removed at one point), are now available without.
Also make sure to check out The Witcher. Did you know you can activate CD keys from retail versions of The Witcher and The Witcher 2 on GOG.com for a free digital backup copy?
This is the most obvious one in this list, so we’ll get it out of the way first. GOG.com has been around since 2008, and came out of beta in 2010. Since then it has gone on to become the chief competitor to Steam, and not merely a Steam reseller like most digital distributors online.
GOG.com is set to become even more popular among gamers now that they are on the brink of releasing their very own client, Galaxy, which will be completely optional to use. One of the main foci (it’s the plural of focus, you half-wit) seems to be multiplayer – and the good news is that multiplayer will be cross-platform, so the people who dare to be different and have a GOG.com copy of a game instead of Steam can play with others, instead of being treated like the lepers that they are.
And no – for the last time, you don’t get Steam keys. Okay?
Desura has been referred to as some as DRM agnostic, so isn't pro or anti-DRM as such. While the service itself does not have any restrictions or limitations like you might find elsewhere, developers may choose to include third party DRM with their games.
What this essentially means is that often, if a game is on Desura, you can download a DRM free copy of a game, and then you can also get a Steam key for the game – if it is indeed available on Steam. You might also be able to get a GOG.com key as well if the game is on there. But I don’t think you can get both. It’s one or the other.
Much like GOG.com, Desura also has an optional client to download games through.
Much like Desura, Shinyloot also provides many games as DRM-free, with an added bonus of a Steam key as well. Some of the titles are referred to as DRM lite, which means they require a one time online activation.
Shinyloot has a review rewards program that you might find interesting: you review games, and your first qualified review will get you 40 cents, and every review after that will get you 15 cents.
You can make nearly $2.50 just by reviewing more than a dozen free games they have on their store.
Quite a few games in Humble Bundle’s catalogue have DRM free installers available for download, and you might also receive a Steam key as well. The downside is that the DRM free installers aren’t hosted forever apparently. Luckily though if you have bought a game which only has a DRM free installer with no added Steam key, and the DRM free installer is taken down, you can ask the developer/publisher for a Steam key or GOG.com key. Apparently some have had success in doing this.
One of the major pros about Humble Bundle is that you can use bitcoin to make purchases there. Buying from Humble Bundle is also good because a larger part of the profits goes to the developer than say an agreement with a digital distributor like Steam, and a portion of the profits goes to charity as well.
Indie Gala on occasion offers DRM-free downloads for games that aren’t yet on Steam, but may well be featured on Steam Greenlight. Better yet, sometimes they give you a Desura key, so that means that when or if the game does make it on to Steam, you may get a Steam key for it from Desura.
Like Groupees and Humble Bundle, you can buy with bitcoin.
I have on occasion seen Groupees offer GOG.com keys for games like BloodRayne, as part of their bundles.
Sometimes they offer free "give back" bundles. They did so in October/November 2014 and it had a DRM-free installer for Boxes With Guns, and a Desura key for SanctuaryRPG.
Like Humble Bundle, you can also buy with bitcoin.
This is another website which specialises in selling bundles, and they do offer the odd DRM free game from time to time. Unfortunately, unlike most of the other bundle websites featured here, they don’t accept bitcoin.
Rarely, I’ve seen this website offer keys that can be activated on GOG.com, mainly for games developed by CD Projekt, like The Witcher titles.
This is another little website which I’ve become quite fond of lately. The developers often offer their games for a “pay what you want” price. So you can pay whatever you think is fair, and yes, that even includes getting the game for absolutely free, and most often it’s a direct download.
Some games actually do have keys that you receive to activate on Itch.io, I believe, but from what I can see there is no client, and no DRM either. All of the games featured are indie titles, some of which make it to Steam, and while a lot of them probably aren’t that good, some of them look bloody brilliant. So if you want to try a game before it makes it on to Steam or elsewhere like Desura, your best bet is to download a free copy here.
G2A doesn't have a very consistent reputation among consumers, because it is always questioned where the keys originate from, and a common belief seems to be that they are from bundles. Some developers/publishers and even gamers view this as unethical.
Nevertheless, you can buy games cheaper on G2A than just about anywhere else most of the time, and that includes keys that work on Desura. You might also be able to get keys for games on Steam that don't have any third party DRM.
Tremorgames is a reward site of sorts, where you can earn tremor coins for doing tasks like surveys, or downloading apps, etc.
When the time comes if you have enough tremor coins, you can check out the rewards section to see what’s on offer, and they do actually have GOG.com keys from time to time, but they don’t have as much stock as they do with Steam keys, obviously.
Kickstarter is a revolutionary tool for indie developers that has allowed them to create and release games that would otherwise have been rejected by most mainstream publishers.
It relies on crowd funding, and so appeals directly to gamers and even non-gamers (why not?) to help fund the development of their game, and as a reward, people who donate to the cause receive benefits, and some of these may include alpha builds of games, or perhaps a GOG.com key for the game upon release, essentially at a discounted price. From what I’ve seen, usually at around the $10 mark, you will get a key for a digital distribution platform, which is a lot less than what you’d pay for it otherwise.
There is a substantial risk with Kickstarter though, and that is that your investment could backfire – the game doesn’t get released, and you don’t get what you were promised as a benefit.
Directly from the developers
Some developers who make their games available to purchase on Steam and from other digital distributors may also allow people to buy their games directly from their website. You don’t get the perks of what comes with a Steam key like trading cards or achievements, and you might also end up paying more, but if you’re after DRM-free, none of that will matter anyway.
You might even be able to score a free non-steam alpha build of the game.
Yeah, wait… what? It’s true. You wouldn’t think it, but you can get quite a few games from Steam that are devoid of third party DRM.
As I understand it, a game has to be classified as "launcher free" for it to work outside the Steam client. So you can download a game, move the contents outside of Steam elsewhere on your harddrive, and run it without the Steam client being open or even installed. The downside to this is that certain features of the game may be disabled, like achievements, etc., but that’s the trade off for a DRM-free experience. And it’s one that I’d be willing to make.
The majority of games on Steam do have some form of DRM though, and even if they don’t, they probably aren’t launcher free, so they’d still require the Steam client to install and play.
Note about GamersGate “DRM-free”
Now some of you who have gotten this far might ask about the “DRM-free” games that are available on GamersGate (nothing to do with GamerGate).
To tell the truth, these aren’t technically DRM free at all. It would be more correct to say that they are DRM lite, which is what Shinyloot calls it. They require an online activation, but the difference between Shinyloot and GamersGate is that with GamersGate it isn’t a once time activation. You have to download the game’s files from GamersGate every time you want to install the game. You can’t even back the files up, although some have found workarounds, where they were able to achieve this.
Note about DRM-free retail games
If you can’t or won’t buy games online for whatever reason, you can still find DRM-free games in stores, or at least ones that have very light DRM bundled with them.
Older games like Thief Gold, Thief II: The Metal Age, and Deus Ex only use a disk check and no online activation.
Other games are released DRM-free on release, but only in certain regions, while other games like Far Cry 2 have their DRM patched out eventually.
What is your favourite place to buy DRM-free games?See results without voting
© 2014 Anti-Valentine
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