Anti-Valentine reviews PC games and writes about the video game industry.
In only 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 will likely remain so for some time.
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 those people. I stopped buying games on Steam some time ago. My brother is also one of those people—he won’t have anything to do with clients or DRM, but that might be because he isn’t particularly clued in on the matter, and probably has 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. I only say some people because there is 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 dozens of places which sell DRM-free games. Read on and be amazed.
This is the most obvious, 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 have their very own client, Galaxy, which is completely optional to use. One of the main focuses seems to be multiplayer—and the good news is that multiplayer is cross-platform, so the people who dare to be different and have a GOG.com copy of a game instead can still play with others who have a Steam copy.
And no—for the last time, you don’t get Steam keys. Okay?
Series to Check Out on GOG.com
The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, which has famously had various types of DRM (except Clear Sky which was removed at one point), is 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?
Desura has been referred to as some as DRM agnostic, so it isn't pro- or anti-DRM. While the service itself does not have any restrictions or limitations as you might find elsewhere, developers may choose to include third-party DRM with their games.
What this essentially means is that if a game is on Desura, you can most likely download a DRM-free copy, and then get a Steam key if it is 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 provides many DRM-free games, with an added bonus of a Steam key. 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 of the free games they have on their store.
4. Humble Bundle
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. But if you have bought a game that 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. Some people have had success in doing this.
One of the major pros of Humble Bundle is that you can use bitcoin to make purchases. 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.
5. Indie Gala
On occasion, Indie Gala offers DRM-free downloads for games that aren’t yet on Steam, but may be featured on Steam Greenlight. Better yet, sometimes they give you a Desura key, so 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 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 games with bitcoin.
7. Indie Royale
This is another website that 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.
8. Games Republic
I've rarely seen this website offer keys that can be activated on GOG.com, mainly for games developed by CD Projekt, like The Witcher series.
This is another little website that I’ve become quite fond of. 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. Most often, it’s a direct download.
Some games actually do have keys that you can activate on Itch.io. 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. 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, mostly 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, 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.
11. Tremor Games
Tremor Games is a reward site where you can earn tremor coins for doing tasks like surveys, downloading apps, etc.
When the time comes that you have enough tremor coins, you can check out the rewards section to see what is offered. 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 be rejected by most mainstream publishers.
It relies on crowdfunding, and so appeals directly to gamers and even non-gamers (why not?) to help fund the development of their game. As a reward, people who donate to the cause receive benefits—and some of these may include alpha builds of games or 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—if the game doesn’t get released, you don’t get what you were promised as a benefit.
13. 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 that come 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, 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 hard drive, 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. 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's “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 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. (Though some people 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.
© 2014 Anti-Valentine
fusionlab on February 22, 2018:
Good list. I've bought a lot of cheap PC games from https://www.fanatical.com
Not sure if they sell DRM-free there but they have some uplay etc
cfin from The World we live in on November 13, 2014:
I just downloaded a whole pile of games for a very low donation to humble bundle. If I could afford more I'd give more, but it's great to give and get games too :)