Yesterday, publisher Deep Silver announced that its next title, the upcoming Metro Exodus, would be coming to the Epic Games Store on PC. It was a surprising move considering that Metro Exodus had been accepting pre-orders on Valve's Steam for some time. Deep Silver said the existing Steam pre-orders would be honored, but all further pre-orders and sales would be coming exclusively through the Epic Games Store for a period of one year. The price of Metro Exodus on Epic's storefront also dropped $10 from its price on Steam.
This isn't the first major title to shift away from Steam. Earlier this month, Ubisoft announced that Tom Clancy's The Division 2 would also be moving away from Steam. The Walking Dead has also been revived mid-season as an Epic Games Store exclusive, though this came significantly after the game's release and the fall of Telltale Games.
Exclusivity isn't the problem. PC players will have to start dealing with the problem more, but those who dabble in consoles are already used to it. Bayonetta 3 is a Nintendo Switch exclusive, and that's life. The announcement of games exclusive to the Epic Games Store, like Hades or Super Meat Boy Forever, is fine. That's another storefront offering competition. That's a developer or publisher having options about where they want to publish their game. Maybe that'll work out, maybe it won't.
My ultimate problem with both of these announcements aren't the games being on the Epic Games Store, it's trying to move them mid-sales. The Division 2 and Metro Exodus have already been selling on Steam. Players have bought in with all of the expectations of that platform. And if their expectation was set with Steam, then moving to a different platform can leave them feeling cheated. It's not the exclusivity that's a problem, it's the move.
Imagine you get excited for a game on PlayStation 4. Goat Puncher was announced for PS4, and you pre-ordered it on PS4. Then, prior to launch, it's revealed that Goat Puncher is actually going to be an Xbox One exclusive. PS4 pre-orders will be honored, but any further sales are all Xbox One only. That's a bait-and-switch. It's similar to crowdfunded games that just drop a platform mid-development, like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night dropping the Vita version amid a delay.
If Ubisoft wanted to commit to the Epic Games Store—and from statements that seems to be the case—then platforms should be established when a game goes on sale. The Division 2 and Metro Exodus began their pre-order periods as Steam games, until they weren't. Ubisoft should've waited for the next game to change over to exclusive support for the Epic Games Store. That keeps things clear and it allows players to trust that what they're being told will be applicable in the future.
If you're a console-only owner, you're probably thinking, "It's just a different launcher!" Let me anchor you in the mindset of some PC players. To them, Steam is a platform with a long history, one that's been with them and they've grown with. Steam launched in 2003, in the era of the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Gamecube. Imagine if you tied those platform generations together in one unending line—PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation 4—on a single console that never changed. People already flip on console status quo changing from generation to generation, and that's without being a continuous platform like Steam.
The shift between platforms and the growth of exclusives is new to the PC market. The Windows Store tried, and it didn't really work. CD Projekt Red launched Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales on GOG, and that also didn't work. Both failed because players are entrenched. Steam is their old faithful bar down the street. It has problems sure, but it's been offering all of their favorite food and beer for the past 15 years. Epic is the new bar down the street; it might be better for you, it might be better for the neighborhood, but it's not familiar. And then this new bar picks up the exclusive license to sell your favorite beer. That's the psychology you're working with here in this PC platform war.
I'm a decently avid player of PC games and own 523 games on Steam alone. I also prefer to have my games on fewer platforms if at all possible; I wrote an entire article about the growth in gaming accounts and subscriptions. Personally, I'd like my PC games to remain on Steam, since I only have to handle one account and retain access to all of my games. That's my personal preference though, which doesn't really intersect with the rest of the industry. Valve Software definitely had the foresight to launch an all-digital storefront and it has paid off, with Steam controlling most of the market for years. This total control has put Valve into a position where it didn't really need to address developer or consumer complaints.
"Steam has become a clusterfuck of things. The visibility on Steam has become such a nightmare. There's so much coming out, ever since they stepped away from curation. Every time I look at it, I go, 'What is happening?'" Spearhead Games co-founder Atul Nath Mehra told me in an article about the growing number of PC digital storefronts.
Gosh, the free market isn't always great isn't it. pic.twitter.com/wrReYfznnKRami Ismail (@tha_rami) January 29, 2019
Despite the complaints mentioned in the interviews that fed into that article, every developer said they would still launch their game on Steam. Developers want more competitors, but the market dictates that Steam has to be one of those platforms. Steam is too big, it has too many users, and many of those users are locked into Steam's momentum. They're like me, they'd rather not have their games on another platform. So developers have to support Steam, even if they'd rather release elsewhere. Steam and the Nintendo Switch seem to be the two current platforms that indies can't ignore, but Epic and potentially Discord can change that equation. (It's always changing: at one time the Vita was a necessary platform for indies.)
That discussion is different for larger publishers. These major companies have the leverage to leave Steam completely. In Ubisoft's case, for the first half of the 2018-2019 fiscal year, only 17 percent of sales came from the PC platform, with another 69 percent coming from other consoles. 44 percent of Ubisoft's sales are on PlayStation 4. Since the PC isn't as important a platform overall, Ubisoft can shift things around.
The decision to move The Division 2 over to the Epic Game Store might be because a deal was struck between Epic and Ubisoft, but it could just come down to the revenue split. Steam has stood on the 70/30 split, with 30 percent of revenue going to Valve, while the Epic Games Store has an 88/12 percent split. With rough napkin only somewhat connected with reality, a $59.99 release nets a publisher or developer $42 on Steam and $52.79 on the Epic Game Store. For $1 million in revenue, a publisher needs to sell 23,809 copies of a game on Steam, versus 18,943 copies on the EGS. For Ubisoft, Epic might have the smaller userbase overall, but it needs to sell fewer copies to reach the same thresholds.
With Metro Exodus, Deep Silver is actually lowering the price on the U.S. Epic Games Store, coming in at $49.99 instead of the normal $59.99. Even slashing $10 off the price, Deep Silver makes a little more money on Epic's storefront: $42 on Steam, $44 on Epic. Assuming fans will go where the game is, it's in a publisher's benefit to go with Epic. Options are good, choices are good. And developers being able to keep more of their money is good. The Epic Games Store also lacks the curation and visibility problems that currently plague devs on Steam.
Developers and publishers spreading out on digital storefronts like a nomadic migration is something that's happening. That's the future of the PC market. Valve will roll with the changes or get overtaken by competition. But in trying to speed up the transition, publishers are making the wrong calls, creating uncertainty in consumers. Move your games to other platforms, break up that hegemony that Steam has, do what's right for your game, but make sure you set expectations correctly from the beginning. Don't switch up things on consumers, because once you lose their trust, you may lose them completely.