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Small video games offer big, easy fun

Downloadable and quick-playing games like "Monday Night Combat" offer gamers an alternative to epic titles.
Downloadable and quick-playing games like "Monday Night Combat" offer gamers an alternative to epic titles.
  • In a time of epics, downloadable games are offering a quicker, cheaper alternative
  • Many downloads are designed to be played in short bursts, offer instant gratification
  • Independent developers can use online platforms to sell games big box stores would pass up
  • There's still a place for huge titles like "Assassin's Creed," which won't go away soon

Editor's note: Scott Steinberg is the head of technology and video game consulting firm TechSavvy Global, as well as the founder of GameExec magazine and Game Industry TV. The creator and host of online video series "Game Theory," he frequently appears as an on-air technology analyst for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX and CNN.

(CNN) -- From the ultraviolent side-scrolling brawler "Shank" to the tomb-raiding adventure "Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light" or the trigger-mashing blaster "Monday Night Combat," there's been no shortage of enticing video games lately.

But as a recent binge revealed, many share an unexpected common thread. Each of the above is a digital download: a reminder that many of this season's most intriguing titles aren't found at your local GameStop.

Cheaper than the average retail outing ($5-$20 on average) and meant for play in short spurts, downloadable games like "Trials HD" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" also make a strong case for the future of gaming.

Instead of technological advancements like motion controls and stereoscopic 3D special effects, they focus on value and instant gratification.

Rather than pile on extraneous features or hours of extras, others such as "Torchlight" and "DeathSpank" emphasize short, polished experiences that offer maximum replayability, with optional room for growth and expansion.

Even a growing range of game add-ons, such as the "Minerva's Den" mission pack for atmospheric shooter "BioShock 2," are helping to illustrate the digital format's potential to breathe new life into existing retail hits.

Offering an easy way to enjoy a variety of games on demand for the same price as one shrink-wrapped alternative, or to revisit a favorite series or character, these games highlight a troubling paradox.

Even as today's blockbusters grow larger, more sophisticated and increasingly complex, it's hard for fans with limited time and budgets to devote to them, compared with the downloadable outings' affordability and convenience.

Independent developers are also seizing upon services like Steam and PlayStation Network's cheaper distribution costs to make smaller, more innovative games, or remakes and niche offerings that would never fly at Best Buy or Target.

From quirky cartoon adventure "Sam & Max: The Devil's Playhouse" to pinball simulator "Pinball FX 2," the selection of premium downloadable offerings only continues to increase. That means that even if you haven't discovered the ease of downloading from WiiWare or Xbox Live Arcade, just as you would on the iPhone or iPad, there's ample reason to get started.

Obviously, traditional blockbusters aren't going away soon, with sweeping sagas such as "Fable III" and "Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood" still bound to captivate millions.

Likewise, it's a tired cliché to harp on the immediate accessibility, cost savings and other benefits of digital game delivery and downloadable content (DLC) like value-priced mission, map and level expansions.

But with a ballooning number of top-notch outings to pick from on all devices, and at such bargain prices, it's hard to ignore digital distribution's growing influence.

As game makers and fans alike would do well to remember, less is sometimes more.

Not every player has time to track down dozens of hidden secrets, wants weeks of dragon-slaying fun or cares to play 400 different capture-the-flag variants.

So why go big, or even bother stepping off the couch to buy something new?

If you've got only a few dollars or limited time to kill, fast, fun and engaging downloadable game experiences are an increasingly recommendable way to bridge the gap between life-consuming new releases.


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