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.

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.

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.