I wanna start things off by saying how excited I am that this is happening. Because despite being a gamer for most of my life, a writer for almost as long, and a games journalist for nearly a decade, I still find myself under-qualified to comment on a lot of the happenings in the gaming world. I have always been orbiting around the games industry rather than an active part of it, so I usually feel a nasty case of imposters syndrome when I decide to comment on the goings-on within the industry.
But this? This is about marketing. This is about consumer behavior. This is something I know about, so I feel confident about the subject we’ll be discussing today, and how possible it actually is for the Epic Store to replace Steam as the go-to marketplace for PC video games.
So with all that said, let’s actually look at that question.
And the short answer is: maybe, but it’s not likely. Let’s discuss.
We’re not going to go into detail about the history of Valve and Steam – I already did as much in an earlier article. But the TL;DR version is that Valve made Steam as the client for their games like Half-Life and Team Fortress. They opened it up for other games after a time, but it wasn’t until the Orange Box was released in 2007 that Steam became the super-giant mega-store that it is today: as the enormous popularity of the Orange Box made the storefront a lot more enticing for larger, triple-A publishers looking for a place to host their own PC games.
The Epic Store finds itself in a fairly similar situation: they have the biggest game of the decade on their hands, being Fortnite, and they decided to release it on their own client, which is now the Epic Store, so they can keep more of their revenue. This has proven as problematic as it has been profitable (it’s caused quite a few problems on the Google Play store, for example, as they don’t want to share revenue with Google), and now they’re opening up the store so that other games can share the same client as Fortnite. Other than the order of operations, that’s basically the same story that Valve had.
But there is one other big key difference: when Steam was created, there was no other major online retailer that could compete with it. While Epic is entering a world with Steam.
“Ours to Lose”
As I said above, I work in marketing. Specifically, I work in marketing for a very, very large software company. You can find me on google if you really care, but for the purposes of this article, what exactly I do doesn’t matter, because the truth I learned here universally applies to all products, digital or otherwise.
People are lazy.
That might seem like common sense, but it has an enormous impact on how marketing works. It’s nigh impossible to task people with doing something – such as asking them to engage with the product, or, more desirably, actually switch their current product with ours – because overcoming apathy is far more difficult than changing what’s already in motion. As a company, we devote almost all our efforts into getting new users who are already looking for the service we offer, rather than trying to encourage people who don’t care about our service to start caring. Because while that latter part is a huge demographic, we figure that the effort it would take to make them care would be better spent on other things.
We also spend very little time or money trying to keep the users we actually have: we don’t have to. Because when it comes to software like ours, we consider existing customers “ours to lose”. Which it so say, if we do nothing too risky, the likelihood of us “losing” them is very small, because now that apathy to change works to our advantage. Once they have us, they usually stick with us, because transitioning to a new product takes time and no other product is trying to recruit them.
Now, there are key differences between the software I work and something like Steam or the Epic Store, and we’ll go over those elements in a bit: but the important thing to remember is that as far as Steam is concerned, apathy and entropy are their greatest assets. Because even if there are as many Epic Stores on computers as there are Steam stores (which is likely, because Fortnite), people gravitate towards the familiar and the faithful and what requires the least new effort (which is why the Discord store isn’t a thing).
And that, my friends, is Steam.
A few key advantages
That apathy has been the bane of every “WoW killer” to ever come to market, as well as the main reason why objectively better online marketplaces like GoG haven’t ever managed to pick up the momentum that Steam has enjoyed – despite the many controversies that surround the platform, or the advantages those other platforms had. The Epic Store, on the surface, is exactly the same way: despite being better and perhaps just as common as the steam client, the unique features it parades around don’t seem quite enough to actually dethrone something like Steam.
But Epic does bring a few new things to this fight. A few things that might make Valve nervous, if they were capable of human emotion anymore.
For one: I think it’s time we acknowledge how good Epic is at timing stuff. They evangelized the over-the-shoulder third-person cover-based shooter just in time for the Xbox 360, the console that would become the go-to party console for frat boys around the globe. They saw the popularity of PUBG, figured out they could do it better, and within a couple of months were able to claim a unique space within the gaming world that other developers just assumed PUBG had held, when in reality PUBG had simply created it. And they waited until Steam made their crappy, indie-enraging new monetization scheme public before revealing their brand-new store, which offered better revenue sharing for indie and triple-A developers alike.
They know how to strike when the iron is hot, and the sparks are starting to fly. We’ve seen a number of high-profile indie games either make themselves Epic Store exclusives or timed exclusives, and more are doubtlessly on the way. It certainly won’t be enough to make some triple-A developers give up their own clients (looking at you, EA), but I could definitely see Ubisoft putting Rainbow Siege Six and For Honor up on the Epic Store as well.
Which is why their opening remarks on the Epic Store was so genius: it seemed strange, at first, that they spent almost no time discussing why this client was good for the consumers themselves. But then, their announcement wasn’t for gamers. They understand gamers go where the games are. They were advertising to the developers, and it worked: which is something GoG got wrong when it advertised itself primarily as a DRM-free marketplace. Great for consumers, not so much for developers, so developers didn’t put their games there, so the consumer had nothing to buy.
For two: Epic is still making games. Valve might still be a game developer on paper, but in practice, people have stopped expecting them to do anything except grow fat off Steam. Epic, on the other hand, shows no intention to stop developing, even if 99% of their team is devoted to Fortnite. And by being an active participant in their own marketplace, Epic can assure that they have high-quality exclusive content. And that really matters: Valve’s hands-off approach has shown time and time again that it screws players both in games and in Steam, so Epic showing that they very much plan to remain hands-on should be a major boon for them.
Here’s a key thing to remember: Epic will only “beat” Valve if they get more exclusives. And frankly, it does not look like that’ll happen. Because while it’s smart for a developer to sell their game on the Epic Store, it’s even smarter to sell it on both the Epic Store and on Steam. Forget the price sharing business: the more marketplaces your game is on, the more exposed it will be, and the more sales you’ll generate. Exclusive games are bad for the PC market, which is why so many developers are trying the whole “one year exclusive” deal. They want the Steam pages and the extra exposure. They just want to see if they can get most of their sales from the Epic Store first.
And even if they did get more exclusives? At this point, Valve has been around so long that most PC gamers already have huge libraries of Steam games. These libraries are anchors, and as long as they exist, people won’t be able to get rid of Steam. Even if they’re sick of Valve’s bull.
So Epic Games will probably have a better shot of competing fairly with Valve. But it’s not going to replace Steam. Not for a long, long time.
Take that for what it is.