The Epic Games Store is here and folks are very angry about it. Maybe you're deep in the throes of that anger yourself, or perhaps you don't care at all. It's possible you're blissfully unaware of all of the anger and the Epic Games Store itself. It's okay, that's why I'm here to explain the whole situation to you.
Valve Software's Steam storefront has had the de facto control of the PC digital games market for a long time. Part of this is foresight on Valve's part: it was one of the first companies to realize the future direction of PC gaming and it made a play to be at the center. Valve made Steam to handle the issues of auto-updating its games, notably Counter-Strike, much easier, but it pivoted once it saw the possibilities. It even tried to pitch its proposed platform to giants like Microsoft and Yahoo at one point, but after being declined, Valve went ahead on its own.
It launched on September 12, 2003, but you didn't need to use it for Valve's games unless you were deep into playing Counter-Strike or Day of Defeat. That is, until just over a year later when Half-Life 2 released, which required Steam to work. Fans were livid; day one launch issues are normal now, but people tend to forget that Valve was one of the first to release a single-player game with the problem. The Steam activation issue was so big, that many of the comments at the time match those made about Epic Games Store exclusives today.
"They have given me an excuse to not purchase the game. I use my machine for programming, with a bit of light gaming on the side. I'm not interested in Steam and if I have to sell my machine's soul to their marketing drones, well they can take their delayed, litigated, and now 'strings attached' game and shove it. Sad really, reviews are high and I loved the first one. I guess I will be more productive next month than I expected," said one Slashdot user back in 2004.
Fans ultimately rolled with it, because it was Half-Life 2, and you weren't going to be a PC gamer who didn't play Half-Life 2. Valve slowly improved, making moves with indies like Darwinia and Audiosurf, releasing the excellent The Orange Box compilation, and signing major publishers for Steam releases. A few years later, Steam was a staple of the PC gaming industry, even with competition coming from services like Microsoft's Games for Windows Marketplace.
The Epic Games Store isn't the first competitor to come at Steam, so why are fans so angry? Let's go over a few of the reasons.
Looking at the Cloud - Features
The Epic Games Store is launching into a space that already has Steam. I've made this point about specific games before, but EGS is competing with Steam of 2019, not an earlier iteration. This is a Steam that fans are not only used to, but provides a number of useful services, like cloud saves, a robust friend and group system, the Steam Marketplace for mods, item trading, and more. Valve has had 16 years to improve Steam's offerings, and one thing most competitors miss is matching that robust library.
The Epic Games Store is no different in this regard. It's woefully behind Steam in terms of basic features. On March 14 of this year, Epic Games launched a public Trello board with a roadmap for future Epic Games Store features. Reading this list is mystifying, leaving me to wonder why some of these features weren't in at launch. Near-term features, coming within 1-3 months, include cloud saves, genres and tags, and improved support for downloadable content. Meanwhile, mod support, user reviews, play time tracking, and additional payment options are mid-term additions, and a shopping cart, achievements, and automatic store refunds are much further off. A shopping cart is further off!
Many of these items should be in the Epic Games Store client now, not months from now. For customers, it's a barebones offering. Yes, in 6 or 8 months, or even a year from now, many of those features will be a part of the store, but by that point, many of those planned exclusives will also be coming to Steam finally. This issue is probably the easiest for Epic Games to fix, because many of the features are already on the roadmap. But right now, the EGS is far behind the competition and it needs to catch up quickly.
Open That Corporate Wallet - Paid Exclusives
It's been over the past two months that the Epic Games Store has ramped up in terms of exclusive games. At launch, it was a few indie releases, including Supergiant Games' Hades, Skybound Games' The Walking Dead: The Final Season, Tinybuild's Hello Neighbor: Hide and Seek, and Annapurna Interactive's Ashen. But then the major publishers started to play, with Ubisoft's The Division 2 and Deep Silver's Metro Exodus jumping from Steam to the Epic Games Store. I've previously argued that this was an error of expectation: if you announce your game on Steam, then you should follow through on that promise. But what came next was different.
Private Division and Obsidian Entertainment's The Outer Worlds and Gearbox Software's Borderlands 3 also made the move over to the Epic Games Store. Given the parent publisher of both is Take-Two Interactive, it's not hard to surmise that future 2K titles on PC could also end up as exclusives. Remedy's Control and Snapshot Games' Phoenix Point are also making the jump. Quantic Dream is ending its exclusive time on PlayStation platforms, bringing Detroit: Become Human, Beyond: Two Souls, and Heavy Rain to PC on EGS.
Epic Games has already said that it probably won't be sticking to this aggressive plan of pulling in developers and publishers, but this was the first shot at taking on Steam's hegemony. "We could go to zero, or we could go to very very few major exclusives within a given year," said Epic Games Store head Steve Allison. "We will definitely not be doing them on the scale we're doing now."
Some fans have argued that they have a problem with Epic Games pulling in exclusives that it didn't fund, which provides cover for games that are console exclusives. I don't entirely think that's the case, because fans definitely threw their ire at EA's Origin in 2011, which was entirely comprised of PC exclusives from Electronic Arts. That service launched with Battlefield 3, FIFA 12, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. It wasn't any different than EGS, as the community lashed out at EA for removing its games from Steam, a lack of features, and the sheer existence of Origin itself. Former EA COO Peter Moore was heckled onstage at the EB Games Expo in Australia, purely about Origin.
"Within five seconds of starting on my first slide somebody shouted out 'Origin sucks!' Unfortunately I didn't hear him the first time so he had to repeat it," Moore told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time. "Like any piece of software, and I worked at Microsoft for enough years to say this, you launch software and continue to polish it, upgrade it, get feedback and make it better. That's where we are with Origin."
Ubisoft's Uplay also ran into similar issues. Bethesda tried the same with its bespoke launcher, but it recently announced that many of its games were coming to Steam soon. Everyone gets heat when they launch against Steam, because many fans seem to not like anything that's not Steam. Despite that, Epic Games is offering things that some developers and publishers are looking for, and the money to sweeten that pot.
See, the truth is many publishers and developers don't actually like Steam. They work with Steam because the platform is too big to ignore, but to them, Valve is woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing their concerns. Valve's 70/30 revenue split hasn't changed in years, and its views on curation and moderation cause creators a number of headaches.
"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 at PAX South earlier this year.
The Epic Games Store offers an 88/12 revenue split, meaning creators have to sell fewer copies to make the same amount of money. That's lucrative, and they don't have to deal with Steam community forums (which have to be moderated by the developers themselves), Steam Trading Cards, or a number of other features. The organizers of the Game Developers Conference did a survey of developers earlier this year, with 32% of respondents saying Steam didn't offer enough to deserve its 30% cut. Another 27% said the storefront probably didn't deserve the cut, while 17 said they didn't know. "Take less revenue from sales and curate their store better for visibility for real games," said one GDC respondent when asked how Valve could improve Steam.
Valve itself could drop its revenue cut, undercutting the Epic Games Store's ability to entice creators, but it's doubtful that's going to happen. For smaller developers, while the EGS cut looks nice, they can't ignore Steam: its audience is too big. Major publishers on the other hand have the wherewithal to roll the dice—they can hazard their games are big enough that players will buy anyway, so moving to the storefront with the bigger cut is more worthwhile. For the last fiscal quarter, 24% of Ubisoft's revenue came from PC. The publisher is likely hoping PC players will pick up The Division 2 on Uplay, at which point it gets all the money, or the Epic Games Store, at which point it gets a bigger split than Steam. Only 8% of Take-Two's net revenue came from PC (and other platforms), so again… it can take the risk.
Even if the Epic Games Store reaches feature parity with Steam, it needs a carrot to bring players over to the platform, because of the next issue on this list. And this being a long-term problem is contingent on the fan backlash actually affecting sales, and not being another Modern Warfare 2 boycott.
The Path of Least Resistance - Existing Library
I have around 500+ games on Steam; PC is my platform of choice, and Steam is my launcher of choice. If I get the option from a publisher for review code, I want a Steam code. Generally, I'm not given that option, so I retain Uplay for Ubisoft games, the Bethesda Launcher for Bethesda games, GOG.com for CD Projekt Red's titles, and the Epic Games Store for these new exclusives. So yes, it sometimes feels like there are too many platforms. I'm already forced to make the split some of you fear. That's the job.
The truth is, people like what they already have. Convincing customers to switch platforms and services from what they already have is very, very hard. It's not just a case of matching what's there, or even slightly surpassing it in terms of services. It's been tried in other markets and it doesn't always work. Sometimes customers are fine with what they have and you have to convince them to move.
As an example, part of Disney buying 21st Century Fox is about leverage. It wants to launch its own streaming service, Disney+, and having the Disney and Fox catalogs is how it will convince users to pick up its service, over just settling with Netflix. It sucks for the consumer—more services means more you're paying for the same content—but it benefits the publisher.
Streaming video services are one comparison, because it used to be that Netflix had it all. Now you need to have Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, Crunchyroll, VRV, CBS All Access, and a number of different services just to get what you used to access on Netflix for one low price. Steam has been the one service on PC for a very long time, and while Origin, Uplay, and GOG.com have taken their shot, the Epic Games Store feels like the first real challenge. It's a harbinger of that same split in streaming video: what once was a single point of entry will become many. This is an imperfect comparison of course, because the split means there's actually more entertainment being made available as everyone makes their own original content, but in addition, PC game launchers are largely free.
To be honest, yeah, the split does suck. Sure, switching these platforms is free, but it is also annoying. I know my Steam password, but every time I need to access the Bethesda Launcher, I have to go through the mess of remembering which password metric this storefront uses (hey, y'all can list this on the password screen), trying out my varying passwords, and then ultimately resetting my password, which only makes this process more annoying in the future. It's easier just to stick with Steam, the service I'm already using, even if Valve itself may have some problems. This is one of the bigger issues Epic Games has to overcome, and one I'm not sure it'll be able to fix without relying on the exclusives from the previous section.
Totally Spies - The Tencent Fear
USG news editor Matt wrote about this extensively already, but there is also the prevailing fear that the Epic Games Store is spyware, placed in the store by Tencent, a Chinese company that owns a lot of interest in Epic Games. Some have pointed to processes that the Epic Games Store runs, many of which Epic Games has addressed as anti-cheat, anti-hack, and Support-A-Creator program software.
Tencent does indeed own 40% of Epic Games. It picked up a number of shares to reach that point in June 2012, for a reported $330 million. That marked a transition at Epic Games, and was the point where Gears of War executive producer Rod Fergusson, Gears of War director Cliff Bleszinski, People Can Fly founder Adrian Chmielarz, and Epic president Mike Capps all left the company. Not all because of the Tencent deal, but some point to the "new" Epic as a reason.
But Tencent is one of the world's biggest companies. It owns stakes in Ubisoft (5%), Activision-Blizzard (5%), Paradox (5%), Fatshark (Warhammer: Vermintide 2, 36%) Grinding Gear Games (Path of Exile's developer, 80%), Supercell (84%), Riot Games (full ownership), and many many more. Hell, it owns a 12% stake in Snapchat's parent company. Outside of Riot Games, none of these are controlling interest. Neither is the Epic Games stake. If Tencent wanted your data, it certainly has way, way more options to get it, especially since Riot Games boasts 100 million monthly players the last time it offered League of Legends numbers.
It you're worried about Tencent, there are bigger places to look, and ultimately, the fear looks unfounded. Most of it is conspiracy theory nonsense, and the stuff that's not is the same user data that Valve Software already collects. As part of the European General Data Protection Regulation compliance last year, Valve had to actually say which data it was collecting. You can see how much of your data Valve collects right here, and what the company does with it is largely unknown.
"I worked for Valve and believe me they gather huge amounts of data about virtually everything you do with the Steam client. Yet no one calls Steam spyware," said one former Valve employee.
The problems of the Epic Games Store are the problems inherent to that store, not a giant Chinese conspiracy to grab your data. And to bring it up like that only muddies the discussion. And if we're worried about user data collection, then at least be actually worried about data collection, all around.
Looking back through the list, I honestly don't know if there's a way for the Epic Games Store to really mollify the community. With Steam itself, then its competitors, the community has tended to dislike them all at launch. That's not to say that the Epic Games Store is a shining castle on the horizon, fixing all of our issues, but there's space out there for an actual competitor to Steam. Currently, EGS is the closest to that spot, for all its problems and errors.
The community may hate its practices and the general lack of services, but I'm not sure the response would be much better if the services were improved or the practices were different. Well, perhaps it would be different, but it would be more of a general lack of caring overall. In a warfare of moneyed interests, this is the real fighting. This is what it might take to go up against the mighty wall that is Steam.
Is that good or bad? I honestly don't know the answer to that question. It's annoying to me, but I'm only one person. To you, it might be the most horrible thing in the world, or a non-issue. But looking back at Steam's history, I can tell you that it only takes the right move, or the right game, to truly change that narrative. We'll see if the Epic Games Store ever finds the right game.