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 get bored at the often poorly made points of those defending Epic. 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 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, and paid to kept off 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 away from 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, even I’ve found myself sucked into this debate on EGS. Trying to explain why PC gamers are angry at Epic or the publishers being paid for EGS exclusivity 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. 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.

Hammerwatch Review

Hammerwatch is one of a number of games I started playing this last Christmas. It has been unplayed in my Steam library for years (I purchased it New Year’s day in 2014 for just over £2). It’s an indie, pixel art, 2D overhead dungeon crawler with loads and loads of enemies to kill. And unlike many games of its ilk isn’t a rogue-like and isn’t quite a twin stick shooter, although it arguably comes close.

The game has six different classes that can be selected and do have a noticeable impact on the gameplay. Each class has a different main attack and skills. And having played the Wizard followed by the Ranger I can say that the class can have an impact on the difficulty too. I found the Ranger easier with a better range on the main attack.

Hammerwatch screenshot from the PC version.

The levels are fairly large, easy to get lost within and can take a while to progress through with big boss battles breaking up the action towards the end of each chapter. Although it’s worth mentioning that while the game has two campaigns included to play through it does also have survival and wave-based modes as well.

I think this is a game that comes alive with other people although unfortunately I only played it solo. Although it’s fun I found the core gameplay loop can get repetitive quickly as ultimately most of the enemies have either one or two attack patterns. There are upgrades and a combo mechanic that can introduce slightly new elements to the gameplay but ultimately this is a very simple kill hordes of enemies and seek keys to unlock new areas. Although there are also some cool secrets to find.

There is a lot of content here and I do think the game has plenty of fun moments. The controls could be better though. This might just be the PC version but I tried both the Steam Controller and a Wireless Xbox 360 Controller. Essentially you have to use Right Trigger or A button to fire your main weapon, whilst using the left stick for movement and right stick for aiming. When you combine this with the extra skills that are on the front facing buttons (by default) it can make it overly complex to get everything working quickly as the gameplay requires. This felt like a game which is crying out for twin stick support. So shooting with the right analogue stick as well as aiming direction. I do think this change would immeasurably improve the gameplay albeit make the game slightly easier.

As an aside I’ve said recently the Steam Controller works well in certain games. Although I didn’t feel this was one of them. With the dual haptic pads, instead of sticks, I was often struggling to aim the 8 directional fire as easily as on dual analogue sticks although there is an almost unlimited customisation for the Steam controller to improves things.

I don’t currently score games as I generally just write up my feelings on the game in question but this would be a hard one to score overall. It is a simple fun old school 2D shooter which has a neat visual style, nice audio, and great ending mechanic to ensure replayability and different modes to enjoy. However it does get samey, repetitive and feel overly simple. However the developer has continued to support the game years after release on PC which is to be commended. I would have personally enjoyed this game more with a better control scheme and I suspect this is more fun when played with someone else. However even just playing on my own I still played through to complete the campaign which is a sign that I had fun with this game.

Played the PC / Steam version.

FTL: Faster Than Light Review

During the past month or so I have managed to play a few of the indie games from my Steam backlog. Randomly nearly all games that were released in 2012. And of all of them this is by far and away the one I have my enjoyed the most.

Although I have to own up to a mistake. Only upon playing FTL:Faster Than Light recently have I realised I wasn’t playing it quite correctly when I first tried playing the game. At the time I realised that you could upgrade weapons, augmentations and crew members in the numerous stores found in the game. However I hadn’t realised you could actually upgrade the ship to power up things like shields, or weapons from the main screen. Therefore I thought it was a cool roguelike but a bit hard as I struggled in the latter systems. That said I was still able to reach sector 5 and unlock the Engi Cruiser ship!

FTL: Faster Than Light screenshot from the PC version.

Once you get the hang of the game (and yes, there is a basic tutorial for dummies like me) what opens up is a fantastic roguelike futuristic space games where you never know how each run of commanding your fleeing spaceship will play out. Whether this is a successful run or where one of the numerous alien ships will bring your run to a crushing end on the next jump.

The game is hard. Even on easy the game will kill you a lot. Particularly to begin with. With over 12 hours of so played I’ve seen my ships get wrecked far too often. The game will let you experience a massive range of emotions and it has some fantastically tense moments where you can literally come back from near death with only one bar of ship health.

There some things the game did which annoyed me or I didn’t like. There is no auto pause on enemy encounters once you’ve clicked on the dialog options. This mean you have to press the spacebar to pause every time which gets annoying quickly. And it would have been nice to see previous runs count in a progression model, even if it was cosmetics or something simple like crew names carrying over. However some of this is perhaps over analysing the game for what it is.

And for me of all the indie games I’ve played I think this is one of the best examples I have ever played. Although not a huge fan of rogue-like games it’s hard not to appreciate how beautiful, simple yet complex and wonderfully diverse this game is. The highest compliment is that it makes me want to check out the developer’s next game (Into the Breach) even before seeing all the rave reviews that game has received.

But for now, engage warp drive…

Played the PC / Steam version.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP Review

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP was first released in 2011 for iOS, although on PC it wasn’t released until the following year. A bit like Dear Esther which I reviewed recently it’s been in my Steam library since 2012 after picking it up from a Humble Bundle at some point. Also like Dear Esther it isn’t a long game, taking under 5 hours to play through.

The game can be best described as an indie 2d adventure game with some puzzle elements and a small amount of action. However some of these felt more like a rhythm action game in certain sequences. Without saying too much the story centres on one character who ventures into the mountains shortly after coming across some non-player characters in the game. The story is split into parts which you must complete.

Superbrothers: Sword & Brothers EP screenshot

Audio is an absolute strength of the game, both in the soundtrack and the sound effects. The pacing as well, being perfectly in-tune to what was going on in game. A professional musician helped with the soundtrack and it shows. There is a fantastic pixel-like style to the graphics and the whole package is just very well put together, particularly for the less than five pounds the game sells for on Steam (in the UK). It is a very pretty and charming game than made an impact with me.

That said there are two main issues I saw with the game. Firstly the controls on the PC version didn’t feel great. The biggest issue is that the touch screen controls have simply been mapped to the mouse with no use of keyboard of even joypad controls. This lack of direct control really dampened the experience for me. It plays more as a point and click game but at times I was having to click more than once because mouse clicks simply weren’t registered because of the touchscreen controls expecting you to hold down rather than press quickly. On top of this in fights I couldn’t be precise when needed to and therefore resorted to mashing the mouse button which made these parts more irritating than they should have been.

Secondly the game time-gates content to a real world clock. You can adjust your clock settings although you lose a perfect percentage score at the end. And there is an in-game mechanical for changing phases however this is broken (whether intentional or otherwise) if events have been completed in a certain order. This meant I had to wait over a week just to be able to progress the game. I’m not sure that was really necessary. Other than that some of the puzzles aren’t about logical deduction and become simple trial and error.

This is probably a game best experienced on touch screen and portable devices not just because of the controls that have been designed around a tablet but also the gameplay which is suited as a more casual experience and therefore something you can enjoy on the move. Overall a really abstract, weird and unique experience that I enjoyed for the most part.

Played the PC / Steam version.

A changing of the guard

Over the festive period the retailer HMV in the UK announced it was going into administration. Whilst in no way personally affected it did trigger some slightly irrational thoughts on what format I wanted to still buy films on. In the run up to Christmas I had purchased a few movies on Blu-Ray discs. However seeing the only national physical entertainment retailer in trouble (again) made me question whether it is time to finally adopt buying movies on digital. In part because there will inevitably be less choice where to buy a movie on disc as time goes by.

I’ve been a Steam user since the very early days (17 Sept 2003 – only 6 days missed!). Over the years I’ve watched Steam grow from a multiplayer network replacing the old WON system to the feature rich digital platform we know today. It continues to be the only PC Storefront or Gaming Client that automatically starts with my PC and has since the Windows XP days. It is where I gravitate towards when looking to buy any new PC game. But slowly it feels like that relationship might be under strain.

The news that Ubisoft won’t be releasing it games on Steam anymore isn’t necessarily a surprise. However the manner Ubisoft reached an agreement with Epic and will release games on the Epic Games Store alongside its own gaming client; UPlay certainly was a shock. It now means that some of the biggest western Publishers; Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and Bethesda Games Studios no longer release games on Steam.

It’s probably only a matter of time for 2K and Take 2 Interactive (Rockstar) to follow. Indeed what are the odds now for Borderlands 3, an Unreal Engine game to follow suite. Probably a very likely outcome.

So why does this matter? One of the strengths of Steam was arguably having all your PC games in one place. Along with automatic updates, friends, voice chat etc. However if the games you want aren’t on the platform, then it doesn’t matter how good or feature rich the store is.

Certainly I’ve not been completely bought in to everything Valve has implemented on Steam. I hate the microtransactions they have implemented within the store itself (cards for badges). And crucially I also feel they missed a trick with in-game comms and streaming that has seen the rise of the new standards; Discord and Twitch.

Therefore for the first time ever I suddenly feel like I’m faced with the question of where should I be buying my next PC game from and hence my opening paragraph. Like my decision with movies for the first time ever I question if Steam is the best place to buy games. For example would Humble or GOG be better. With large western publishers and even some of the (bigger) indies rushing to a new PC Storefront there is now uncertainty around the Steam ecosystem. And certainly the fact developers receive 88% of revenue from the Epic Game Store is something that I am happy to support. But it is so disappointing that the dream of all games in one place is now most definitely over (arguably it was anyway) and it’s a case of installing multiply different PC gaming clients just to play a PC game.

I won’t be rushing overnight to rebuy all my games on any new PC Storefront but all of this does make me slightly lose faith in PC gaming. Along with the increase in certain hardware prices this is making me not inclined to buy new PC games. And indeed thankful that on my consoles all my games are in one place. With only one store to buy from.

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Review

I purchased Dear Esther in 2012 for the princely sum of £1.74. It’s the perfect example of the sort of game that fills up my library on Steam. Anyway with a bit of time over the holidays I’ve managed to complete it. It is a very short experience and it doesn’t take much time at all to playthrough.

Dear Esther screenshot

I don’t really want to say too much about it because it’s one of those experiences that best enjoyed with as little knowledge as possible. Essentially it’s the original videogame that created the walking simulator genre that has since become quite popular. So a noteworthy videogame in that regard.

It’s difficult to summarise how I feel about it, as at times it feels too vague for want of a better word. That said it is technically well done, quite atmospheric and pretty in places. It’s also well voiced and the soundtrack in general is good. I didn’t enjoy it as much as other similar games and in that sense it’s hard to disagree with either those that don’t like it or those who enjoyed it and really appreciate it for what it is.

It’s worth mentioning that I played the Landmark Edition that was given away for free to owners of the original game to celebrate its release on consoles and includes a director’s commentary and was remade in the Unity engine unlike the original PC Source-engine release.

And finally just a note to say that the Steam Controller is pretty much perfect for this sort of game. I’m not a huge fan of that controller and prefer the main console controllers for multiple reasons. But here the Steam Controller works really well. Particularly the haptic pads which require less resistance to move.

Played the PC / Steam version.

The epic death of Steam

Rubbish attempt at a pun, I know. A very eventful day after The Games Awards where a number of announcements were made. Specifically the news that Epic Games have launched their new PC Storefront with a number of new exclusive games. Many which still had store pages on Steam right up until launch.

On top of this, the news also broke that Rage 2 on PC will be exclusively on the Bethesda.net Store. Not in itself surprising given Bethesda Game Studio’s previous game Fallout 76 did the same. But nevertheless compounding a bad news day for Valve.

Anyway lots of factually incorrect statements and opinions that made me want to note the following:

People aren’t entitled for complaining

Steam is the oldest, and most feature rich of any PC storefront or launchers out there. It offers features such as home streaming, controller support and refunds which a lot of other services don’t offer. People are invested in the service and love having their games library in one place. I’ve long ago realised any dream of having my games in one place is misplaced as publishers launch their own storefronts, but completely understand the complaints from the community that don’t want to sign-up to another storefront or service. People seem to be using ‘entitled gamer’ as a shield or blocker to valid criticism. But here there are arguably legitimate questions being raised, i.e. what is the refund policy? or how will the technical support work? Hopefully not like this…

This IS competition

Whether we like it or not unfortunately competition is not just releasing games across all storefronts. Buying exclusivity is one of the oldest and easiest tactics Epic have to help their new service become a success. It’s akin to BT acquiring rights to UEFA Champion League Football all those years ago. It might not have really offered any benefit to those invested in Sky TV but it offered a basis for BT to take aim at their competitors. Obviously the benefits aren’t really for consumers, particularly those invested in Steam, but it’s probably the only viable tactic Epic has to prise consumers from Valve’s long entrenched platform.

30% probably is disproportionate to what digital storefronts offer

Something Tim Sweeney has talked about before and I can’t help but agree. Realistically the costs and such are probably only a few percent of any transaction. The ‘but it’s industry standard’ feels like a muted response. As annoying as this news was for some, as Epic have gone from struggling developer to financial powerhouse due to Fortnite’s success they can choose what they do next. And offering a PC storefront that maximises the revenue spilt to 88/12% (12% to Epic) is definitely fighting a battle that they believe in.

Some inexcusable practices on the announcement

Ashen was meant to be on Xbox Game Pass for PC (via Xbox Play Anywhere) and has a ‘TBD’ on its Steam page. On top of this another game; Outer Wilds had a previous fig (crowdfunding) campaign stating they were giving out Steam versions for backers. I think the right thing to do would be to offer refunds to any backers for changing a previously advertised reward. The lateness of the announcement and the lack of honesty is wrong. I think the developers and publishers involved should have at least communicated something far earlier and be clear if this is timed exclusivity or not. The obfuscation here doesn’t help.

Games can do well away from Steam

Often stated as fact that games won’t do as well when not on Steam, but I wonder how true this is anymore. Given how much of their revenue certain games earn at release I sense that these games might do fine, particularly if they have already received payment for exclusivity from Epic. Indie games having success away from Steam isn’t new.

Communication is something developers still really struggle with

Specifically this response from Coffee Stain games (Satisfactory) on YouTube. Whilst the intention was probably there, the lack of stating why  they weren’t on Steam just makes me think it would have probably better to have not released this video. A tweet letting people know a Q&A was coming would have probably been better. Perhaps the couldn’t say it because of a legal agreement. But either way if you have nothing of worth to say, then don’t say it.

PC gaming gets even more messy

Yep, even more win32.exe files sitting in my systray taking up resources or launcher launching through other launchers (UPlay on top of Steam – yay!). Although a wonderful open-source project like Playnite can help try and organise the disparate services, PC gaming just got messier than it already is.

Buying videogames at release rarely makes sense

One month ago Shadow of the Tomb Raider launched at £79.99 on Xbox Live for the ‘Croft Edition‘, or aka the most complete version with the least content stripped from it. As of today the same game is now £59.99 on the Xbox storefront (there are similar discounts on PSN and Steam). A whole 25 percent cheaper.

Indeed with Halloween, Black Friday and Christmas sales coming, it is probably likely the game will become even cheaper before the year is out. So buying early and playing for one month has cost the privilege of £20. Unless you’ve spent hours on the game and hammered it within that first few weeks it’s probably not worth the extra £20.

Now Shadow of the Tomb Raider might be selling badly and therefore not a great example. However it’s unlikely to be the only AAA game released in the last few months of the year that will be discounted. If fact imagine what price the game might be in a year from now. Maybe even on Xbox Game Pass or really cheap. And if you have a huge backlog and can’t play the game straight away then that’s a huge reason to not buy on day one.

If you purchase at release you get the benefit of content discovery, with no spoilers, and you’re at the same level as everyone else. At least for a few days. You are experiencing the launch window when everyone gets to play the game afresh and not posting in a forum weeks or months after everyone else has moved on.

However there are arguably more benefits to waiting; you might get the game for much cheaper, bugs and issues have been patched out or improvements made, you get to see the reality of the business model (i.e. just how aggressive is the monitisation) and if the game has staying power (i.e. not a Lawbreakers, Evolve or Battleborn).

Indeed I wrote earlier this year about really looking forward to Forza Horizon 4 but having not had a chance to play it yet – I don’t feel like I’m missing much. Indeed it feels nice to be able to play other games rather than compelled to play a new release. And whilst the game sounds great it also sounds like more of the same. And I never did quite finish with the third game.

Now of course there are going to be scenarios where buying a game at release makes sense. Particularly if you are buying a game to enjoy with friends or don’t want anything spoilt. Or indeed you are really looking forward to the game. And if you leave it for too long certain multiplayer games can become far harder to catch up in if you are late to the party. A game like Star Wars Battlefront 2 where more experienced players have unlocked all the cards or weapons. Even time spent in a game can make a difference. The Twitch streamer Shroud mentioned that he thought Call of Duty Black Ops 4 – Blackout is a hard game, and people could bounce off that game in a month or two when coming up against more experience players.

With high prices for many AAA games now and aggressive monetisation on many games, you really need be playing the game a lot to begin with. And unless you have lots of spare time and a very small collection of games there is a real limit on just how many games you can play. At certain times of the year, like the busy autumn release schedule we are now in, it can feel like there is a major release every week. So for me at least with new games being so expensive I think I’m going to wait on most and pick up when they are much cheaper. And in the meantime try to catch on WoW or my backlog.

Of course that does mean staying away from Twitch and YouTube and not going near reviews or streams to limit any spoilers for relevant games. However I don’t think that’s a bad thing given just how many games get spoiled this way.