A Melburnian nerd of 27 years and counting. A podcaster, critic, writer and developer of games. Uncovering the hidden indie gems, and exposing the dark underside of the AAA industry.
I’ll go ahead and say it. In my opinion, the best platform for gaming is PC. PC gaming has improved so much in so many ways in the past few decades. Digital distribution on the PC has paved the way for independent game development and with that came all new genres of interactive entertainment.
It’s safe to say, however, that the creation of the Epic Games Store has definitely thrown some things into disarray. Many people are upset at the Epic Store’s actions as of late. You may be one of these people. No matter, I will be your guide through this tricky little labyrinth whilst we try to answer the question “Why is everybody so mad?”
So let’s take things back. The year is 2005. Valve’s software “Steam” is a few years old. Originally Steam was created to automatically update Counter-Strike and be a distribution platform for Valve’s first-party software. Although by this point it had begun releasing its first third-party titles. It’s safe to say that people probably didn’t expect this to be the beginning of a massive global empire that leads the way in the digital distribution of games. In the years since its inception, programs such as Steam Greenlight were created allowing smaller development teams to secure themselves a spot on the storefront. These days independently developed games have taken the gaming landscape by storm.
In the years since, Steam has positioned itself as fertile soil for the indie market. By lowering the cost of distribution, anyone can create and sell games. Whole genres have found audiences that didn’t previously exist. The “visual novel” genre, whilst popular in Japan, only gained a Western following through digital distribution. Steam has paved the way for competitors, such as Humble and GOG, though none have properly taken Steam to task, and maybe they should have.
Steam is loved and celebrated for their successes, although there are still some failings that need to be addressed. The problem is simple: Steam Greenlight, and later Steam Direct, are systems that are far from perfect. Both are predicated on a simple rule: if you have enough public support, or money, you can get in. In theory a fantastic idea .Too much corporate meddling meant untapped genres (e.g. the aforementioned Visual Novel) would never find a place on the shelf. But let’s appreciate that drawing a line in the sand is still important. That’s why games like “AIDS Simulator” and “Rape Day” will never darken the shelves of a brick and mortar business.
Steam’s policies were a little too open, and that’s how bad actors seeped in. Developers like the infamous Digital Homicide would create low-quality games on mass. Words like “asset-flipping”, used to describe the act of making low effort games from bought art and/or code, started to be thrown around more and more. Underhanded groups would begin trading votes of approval for Greenlight submissions in exchange for free game codes.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of a proper alternative for quite some time. Epic seems primed to be that competition. So why is everyone upset?
It’s fair to say that Epic Games had a lot of good karma in the bank at the outset. Epic Games has seen great success with the Unreal Engine, with it being the foundation on which so many games are based. And where there are games using your engine, there are developers paying you fees for its use.
So when Fortnite became one of the biggest games of all time, Epic was in a prime financial position to create its new store. Everyone was excited. Epic announced with their Store that developers would see a bigger share of the profits than Steam was offering. Devs talked about how this extra slice would help keep themselves and their projects afloat. Epic went into lengths about additional fees being waived for using the Unreal Engine. It was a fantastic PR move that really got people excited. I was and still am enthusiastic about this move. It is nothing but good for the future of independent development.
But we are not in the future. We are in the present. Suffice to say, as it currently stands, the Epic Store leaves a lot to be desired.
The Epic Store opened its metaphorical doors in December of last year. It seemed to be doing a lot to attract positive press. The site was and still is visually clear and simple. Games were and still are given away for free. Then we started seeing acquisitions.
The first major game to go exclusive to Epic was The Division 2, along with the announcement that going forward Ubisoft would be releasing on Epic and not Steam. It seemed like quite the shot at Valve. The new guy had sidled in and had taken Steam’s monopoly down a peg. It’s fair that some people were annoyed by this, but most were fairly forgiving. People have become less so.
“But this brings into view the biggest problem with late acquisition deals. It isn’t about supporting the creation of a piece of work. It’s about trying to secure the funds regardless of the issues on a consumer level.”
“But wait”, I hear you ask. “Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo go exclusive all the time? What’s the big deal?”. It’s a fair argument. I won’t disagree that exclusives generally aren’t great for consumers. To support and be a fan of an industry that requires multiple platforms is a bit of a raw deal. But business is business. In order to entice you to buy a console, a company has to create exclusive content. Sony has a catalogue of fantastic games by supporting great companies. Xbox has acquired some fantastic companies to help boost their profile. Although Epic is not doing this. Epic is mostly scooping up games at the end of their development cycle and making them exclusive.
The biggest overstep example is Phoenix Point. Made by the XCOM Developers, Phoenix Point raised its initial funding through crowdfunding where it promised a Steam release upon completion. It would go on to receive further financial support from Epic Games, in exchange for the game’s PC Launch exclusively going into Epic’s pocket. The backers, quite justifiably, saw this as a bit of a betrayal of the system. Those getting Steam keys could be refunded, or transferred to an Epic Game’s copy. Crowdfunding is an exercise in trust. People pay money to developers potentially years before any product is released. But this brings into view the biggest problem with late acquisition deals. It isn’t about supporting the creation of a piece of work. It’s about trying to secure the funds regardless of the issues on a consumer level.
Epic is picking up games at late stages. Epic is giving money to developers in exchange for getting more attention for the store. This is not properly about supporting developers. Games like Persona 5 and Horizon Zero Dawn might not exist were it not for the support of Sony. People would not have the games or the jobs to make them without that backing. Epic is paying developers, that much is true. But anything that Epic has supported was already set for release. The only thing that is different is the consumer has fewer options. And, if we’re being honest, it’s not a good alternative to Steam.
The Epic Store has been saying they will slow down on acquisitions soon. I’ll say that I don’t necessarily trust them to do that. It’s very easy to envisage the Epic Store acquiring more and more, as it does bring in new customers. But you’d hope the revenue split will become the main motivator to go to Epic’s Store. I want some competition with Steam’s monopoly, not for Epic to become the new monopoly.
Let’s be fair: Steam is a better store on many metrics because it’s been in the game for so long. From basics, like navigation and ease of purchase, to advanced consumer-friendly features like the Steam Workshop, Valve has a set a high bar. No one probably expects Epic to catch up to the standard of Steam and that’s fine. It doesn’t need everything in place at launch. Having said that, even the basics are far from complete.
Perhaps a recent addition, a search bar, will help to shed some light. In the beginning, Epic had few items to call its own. It therefore had a simple little layout, which made things easy to find. Good, because for a while, a very basic feature of many sites (a search bar) was missing. It’s fair to say that the Epic Games Store needs to be focusing on the features of their website, not more acquisitions. The good news is that there is a game plan in the form of a roadmap.
Roadmaps in recent years have become a bit too popular for my tastes. In games, it’s a promise that often indicates that “you may not like the game now, but don’t worry you will, just be patient”. This isn’t how games should operate. They should have all the features intended for the full game available at launch. But in a world of day one patches, some publishers are willing to make the public wait for a properly functioning game with all the content. Suffice to say, I have similar feelings to Epic’s timeline.
Consider the future feature of “Shopping Cart”. The Cart in this context refers to a virtual trolley that can hold multiple items, and purchase them in one transaction. A fairly basic, standard piece of any online retailer’s architecture. With any luck, we may see such a feature before Christmas. Of course, all feature release times are subject to change, so who knows for sure?
There are definitely problems with the Epic Store that should not be contested. They are not supporting new games, rather they are picking up games months from launch and gating off the retail options. They are also woefully behind when it comes to both simple and more advanced features that benefit the consumer. The Epic Store has a long way to go before it is of comparable quality to its competition.
But here comes the twist: I think the Epic Store will be a very good thing in the future.
Steam, for all the love it receives, has grown rather lazy in recent years. Yes, it has allowed the indie games market to thrive, but this doesn’t excuse the technical and moral failings that have appeared on the store. In its monopolisation of the market, Valve has stopped doing basic quality control on the games it is selling. What it needs is some competition, and that’s what Epic may provide.
Epic has paved the way for the future. The store is not good enough now, but at least there is an awareness of how to bring it up to speed. I won’t give them a free pass on its current state. I won’t ignore its predicaments. Although I do look forward to the day Epic stops acquiring and begins listening to the consumer and acting on their promised features.
Moreso than anything else, I hold out hope for the original vision of the Epic Store. Recall the statements that developers would get larger slices of the profits. That right there will bring developers in naturally, and help the indie market become more stable and continue to thrive. Those new studios can use the additional revenue to support their continued output of games. Hell, if the Epic Store becomes a proper threat, it may put the squeeze on Steam to give better profit margins for companies. This could be a whole new phase for games development if Epic makes good on its promises. Although until then, the Epic Games Store is worth the ire it receives.