The Epic PC debate

The ongoing debate about Epic Games Store (EGS) is getting boring and tends to go around in circles. There I said it.

The latest game to announce being a timed exclusive to EGS is The Outer Wilds, from developer Mobius Digital. A small indie game that used crowdfunding but has really angered backers who regard it as having gone back on previous promises to deliver the game on Steam at release. As more and more games have been confirmed as exclusive to EGS we continue to see a similar uproar from many PC gamers.

If you go to any internet forum or reddit there are those who see Epic doing good, creating competition and perhaps making Valve up their game when it comes to their dominance over PC gaming. Often stating ‘it’s just another launcher‘ or it is like Amazon Prime or Netflix streaming services. On the other side of the debate Steam fans see rising prices due to reduced key resellers, loss of features and forced exclusives.

Stitched screenshot of the Steam and Epic Games Store main store pages.

I understand both sides of the debate but do get bored at the often poorly made points of those defending Epic’s new storefront. You see EGS is far from another launcher. It’s a service, a platform, which is in effect a walled garden. No one knows whether it’ll even exist in five or ten years (*cough* Desura). And when one of these services no longer exists then your whole library of games is gone. Forever.

Comparisons with the streaming services like Netflix are nonsensical. With subscription services you are never emotionally invested in them. You watch your content and then stop paying if you wish. You don’t lose anything. On platforms like Steam or EGS you are actually buying games. You build up a virtual library of games on virtual shelves. As your spend more and the library gets bigger the perceived sunk cost becomes even more. It makes it difficult to detach from the service. Media streaming services like Netflix are actually closer to game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass or EA Access.

More often that not even when people explain the huge number of features that are available on Steam those on the Epic side don’t always acknowledge those points. Epic may well improve their offering but the list of features on Valve’s platform is immense. Even in the last year we’ve seen native DualShock 4 support, Proton (so Windows-only games on Linux) and a completely rebuilt Friends client (think Discord). The claim that Valve don’t work on Steam anymore seems to be based on personal opinions rather than actual fact.

For years Valve have been seen as the guardians of PC gaming, arguably even more than Microsoft. At a time when Microsoft was pushing the wholly underdeveloped Games for Windows-Live initiative, complete with plans to charge for PC multiplayer gaming. Valve were building a complete PC-based gaming ecosystem. Full lifecycle from store purchase to playing games. With new features like Big Picture Mode, Achievements, Community Market, In-Home Streaming, Proton Linux support, SteamOS, Cloud Saves, Broadcasting, Steam Works, Wishlist etc. If you use these features then the removal of them matters. Even though it’s a tiny audience some players may have been looking forward to The Outer Wilds on Linux. However as a game on a Windows-only client that leaves them in the dark for now.

Of course the 12% fees for developers on Epic versus the higher charges on Steam may help developers bring new games to market but consumers don’t necessarily understand or directly see the benefit. Something Epic CEO Tim Sweeney has noted. And it isn’t the first time PC games have been exclusive or paid to be kept away from competitors stores. Actually the Oculus Rift storefront for VR did this first. Furthermore it is arguably the only valid strategy Epic Games have to displace a mature and very established competitor. Consumers won’t buy games not on Steam unless you remove that choice. Exclusive content has been used for decades to entice gamers onto competitors products and services. And it is ironically competition, even if not as PC gamers might want.

Although I am a multiplatform gamer, unexpectedly I’ve found myself sucked into this debate on EGS. Trying to explain why PC gamers are angry at Epic or the publishers and it gets really difficult not to have sympathy with those criticising Epic. Often the conversations descend into hostility and toxicity. I can’t fathom those defending anti-consumer practices when it comes to exclusive platform games. Certainly I understand the use of exclusivity deals however I’ll never defend the tactic.

Interestingly Epic yesterday announced a huge month-long sale on their storefront, which has generated some goodwill. The sale essentially sees Epic offering £10 off for games over £13.99 to bring some quite significant percentage discounts on lower priced games. But this sale is arguably a good tactic for consumers and a way to drive them towards EGS. Or at least might have been, but since the sale started many publishers have removed their games from the sale. This was arguably the first good thing we had seen from this new storefront. At least for consumers. Although for now I’m just going to stay away from the Epic vs. Steam debates.