Late in 2018, Epic Games, makers of the Unreal engine and the massive battle royale game Fortnite, released their new storefront, the Epic Games Store. Since then, they’ve announced a number of exclusive titles, including some games that were formerly exclusive to Valve’s competing service, Steam. This, and some other issues we’ll discuss, have generated quite a bit of blowback for the company.
If you’ve worked or paid attention to the tech industry for long enough, some of these complaints may be giving you a sense of déjà vu. Back when Steam launched, gamers didn’t just dislike it — they hated it. Virtually every aspect of the service was controversial, including the mandatory Half-Life 2 online activation. When Valve made the service mandatory with Counter-Strike 1.6, some players revolted by refusing to upgrade. Valve eventually forced them to by shutting down the older CS1.5 game servers.
What’s Past Is Prologue*
Gamers who are upset about Epic muscling in on Steam’s turf have raised a number of reasons for why they feel this way. Some of these complaints are objective facts. The EGS, for example, currently has a fraction of Steam’s lineup and included services. There are no achievements, cloud saves, or an offline mode. There are no trading market, game reviews, or mod support. The app doesn’t currently support multiple profiles, forums, game sharing, or game streaming. For some, that’s reason enough to dislike the service. Others are concerned that the EGS will fragment game distribution, forcing players to use more than one client. Collectively, these concerns echo many of the same principles people were concerned about when Valve launched Steam in 2003.
Back then, people tended to hate the software’s limits and lack of features, its always-online requirements, the difficulty of putting it into offline mode once that mode was added, and the initial problems surrounding Half-Life 2 activation if you bought the game on disc. Some gamers didn’t want to buy games in physical boxes and receive a slip of paper with a download code. They were concerned about the impact that a single PC store could have on the physical and digital markets — prescient concerns, given that today, Steam has an effective near-monopoly on game distribution. But Steam didn’t become an unstoppable titan because people liked it from Day 1 — it succeeded, over time, by slowly implementing features people wanted, while avoiding implementing features so terrible they would drive gamers away in droves. If you’d based your prediction of Steam’s success based on the reaction to it at launch, you’d have predicted its complete failure within a matter of months.
Steam Isn’t Fair and Gaming Isn’t Meritocratic
Kotaku has an excellent article on this topic that deals in part with the question of fairness — specifically, whether it’s fair for Epic to use increased revenue sharing and cash payments to build a market for itself. Meanwhile, GamesIndustry.biz has a story about a conversation between indie developer Rami Ismail and Epic Games’ David Stelzer and Sergey Galyonkin about what indie developers can do to make sure their games make it through the curation process on EGS. Stelzer’s response is remarkably untrue.
“The cream always rises to the top at the end of the day,” Stelzer said. “If you make a crappy game, then there are places where you can put crappy games.”
The cream doesn’t always rise to the top. If it did, discoverability wouldn’t be such a massive problem. The number of games on Steam has been exploding in recent years.
Discoverability aids on the platform have not kept pace. This problem is not at all unique to Steam; the App Store and Google Play both suffer from it as well. But if discoverability is a problem for a platform, then by definition, some excellent games are going to go undiscovered. That’s unfair to both the gamers that would otherwise enjoy these titles and the developers that built them.
Steam may be the default gaming solution for players, but the idea that its hands-off management method represents some kind of idyllic “free market” or intrinsically fair discovery system simply isn’t accurate. A recent Gamasutra investigation of Steam’s Discovery Queue found that October 2018 changes Valve made to the Steam Discovery Algorithm appear to be prioritizing larger games over smaller ones. Whether that change was fair probably depends on whether you’re one of the studios whose games are seeing more traffic or that never got visibility at all. Steam doesn’t detail how its algorithm operates to prevent people from gaming the system, so players don’t have a window into how it operates beyond investigations like this.
Developers have their own perspectives on fairness that deserve to be considered as well. Here’s former Valve employee Richard Geldreich (Geldreich worked on OpenGL development for Valve; hat-tip to HotHardware for seeing it):
Steam was killing PC gaming. It was a 30% tax on an entire industry. It was unsustainable. You have no idea how profitable Steam was for Valve. It was a virtual printing press. It distorted the entire company. Epic is fixing this for all gamers.
— Richard Geldreich (@richgel999) April 5, 2019
The price of games and the impact of marketing and sponsorship deals like Nvidia’s TWIMTBP program or GameWorks isn’t something we’ve even touched on yet, but both deserve to be part of any debate over the fairness of the market. The static $ 60 price point has encouraged “innovation” in the form of DLC and loot crates as companies search for alternative revenue streams to replace the money they aren’t making on sales, even as the cost of making games continues to rise with every generation. Major deals with one GPU manufacturer can impact how well a game performs on a rival company’s hardware, even when that outcome doesn’t serve the best interests of gamers.
Considered in totality, many aspects of gaming are not fair, either to developers or to gamers. The history of gaming is, in part, the history of brilliant titles that never sold the way they should’ve. Entire studios and franchises have died because of conflicting executive mandates or must-ship deadlines that were impossible to meet. The problem of discoverability means that some excellent games ultimately never reach the playerbases they deserved. From a developer perspective, being forced to publish on the one platform where PC gamers play in large numbers could be considered the ultimate unfair Catch-22 if there’s no way to inform those players you’ve released a game in the first place.
Sometimes, what represents a more fair outcome for one group may be perceived as a less fair outcome to another. Game developers are looking for platforms that give them an increased cut of profits and where they don’t have to compete with thousands of other games being released per year. It’s hard to argue with that. PC gamers point out that the EGS isn’t a replacement for Steam and that it lacks a great many features while selling games at the same prices. Both groups have valid points.
In the long run, gamers will vote with their wallets and decide whether Steam’s near-monopoly is worth preserving. But the fact that gamers are reacting so strongly to the Epic Games Store now isn’t necessarily proof that the endeavor is doomed. Once upon a time, they — or we, if I’m being fair — loathed Steam at least as much. In the long run, competition could improve both services. Certainly, that’s typically the case — and Steam has faced very little direct competition in its years of dominating the PC market.
*With apologies to Billy Shakespeare.