Last time we looked into the Epic Store v Steam conflict, we were talking about the sudden exodus of Metro Exodus, how that specific instance was an insult both to Steam and everyone who had preordered that game on that platform, and postulated what, exactly this would lead to in the future. I had three predictions, and of the three, the second one, so far, has come to pass: Steam, despite their strong rhetoric, continues to do nothing as the Epic Game Store continues to gobble up exclusive after exclusive, almost as if the bloated monster they’ve become makes it impossible to do anything but watch as the Epic Game Store bleeds them dry, slowly and surely.
Of course, it’s not too late for Steam to strike back. But it seems they don’t even have to fight their own battles anymore: because in lieu of any kind of strategy or plan from Valve itself, the fans are the ones hoisting battle standards now, and for some reason they’ve started going out of their way to defend Steam and attack the Epic Game Store: doing everything from running smear campaigns, creating memes, protests, and of course review-bombing whatever games they can reach… an activity that really came to a head when they tried (and failed pretty fantastically) to review-bomb the Borderlands games on steam because Epic Games announced with Gearbox that Borderlands 3 would be a timed exclusive for their platform.
The latest big-name exclusive in a long list of upcoming games, including The Outer World, The Division 2, Control, Phoenix Point, and more.
And honestly, this has me feeling terribly confused.
On one hand: I get why people are doing this. Part of the long-time appeal of PC gaming (as opposed to consoles) was that “exclusivity” was really only a problem for a handful of Sony games and almost literally everything Nintendo has ever made. PC players have always enjoyed the benefits of being the default gaming platform, separate from these kinds of “exclusivity wars”, and while some publishers like EA and Activision-Blizzard have complicated things slightly, whenever you needed a new PC game you could by-and-large just visit Steam and find it. That was convenient, and it was easy, and Steam is chalk-full of community features and other tools that no other gaming platform could ever really compete with it fairly. Credit where it’s due, outside the actual storefront, Steam has a lot going for it: a comprehensive friends list, mod workshops, community hubs, complicated review systems, a friggen shopping cart, which is apparently a big issue now… of course people are going to want to stick with the store that not only has the biggest selection but the best service.
But it’s not just about offering a superior service. Games are, unfortunately, inexplicably tied to the service that provides them now. Steam has been around for nearly sixteen years, and that means that there are people out there who have sixteen years worth of games linked to that platform. Imagine a hypothetical situation where the Epic Game Store actually manages to trump over Steam and push them out of business: what would happen to all those games? Some of them would still work, for sure, but games that rely on, say, Steam’s network features or workshop, they would be absolutely unplayable, or at least severely handicapped. I don’t think it’s realistic to fear that losing Steam means losing all the games you have on it, but losing the service would definitely be a huge problem. How would you organize your games if you didn’t have the convenience of the Steam library tab? How would you mange your mods? Or play with friends?
And of course, there are people who would argue – and have argued, apparently – that the Epic Game Store isn’t playing fair. Which lets us transition to the second part of this discussion: because while I can “get” why fans are upset…
…they need to grow up.
No amount of complaining or anger will change the fact that the Epic Game Store is, at this exact moment, and objectively good thing. No game company is your friend and no monopoly is good for the consumer, and for a long time now Steam has bloated and crippled itself due to its lack of any real competition, which in turn has made things worse for the end user. I’ve always said that the best-case scenario was that the Epic Game Store proved a worthy contender and forced Steam to shape up and create a worthwhile competitor in the PC digital gaming marketplace. That would be good for all of us. But even in the absolute worst-case scenario, where the Epic Game Store just straight-up demolishes Steam and becomes every bit as unwieldy and useless as Valve’s own marketplace has become, I would still argue that the Epic Game Store was a good thing because it proved that Valve could even be overthrown in the first place.
I mean, I think we need to appreciate how miraculous that even is in the first place. Could you have imagined – even a year ago – that Steam would ever find itself in this kind of situation? It seemed indomitable, which was bad because it meant it could – and did – take a very relaxed and unhurried approach to consumer complaints and issues. Cry all you want about how terrible Steam Direct was or how indie developers were getting drowned out and underpaid – what were your alternatives? GoG Galaxy, like some kind of freak? No, they had you by the short and curies and they knew it.
Even if Epic Games should become exactly the same tyrannical despot that Steam became, the fact that Epic Games overthrew steam means that Epic Games could, in theory, also be overthrown one day, and they’ll know it. The usurpers throne is never secure, and Epic Games will either have to respect the fact they need to work to keep it, or they leave themselves vulnerable to whoever might come along next. I mean: Fortnite can’t and won’t be popular forever. Like all fads, it will run its course, and while it still might well remain a multi-million dollar property for years to come, I think equating it to something like Pokemon or even Minecraft is a little foolheardy.
Fortnite isn’t making more than they did because it’s better. It’s because the audience is bigger now than it ever was before. And unlike Pokemon or Minecraft, which can continue to exist and flourish in the pop-culture landscape thanks to the timeless appeal of its fantasy and the unique gameplay on offer, respectively, once Fortnite is finally put in its place, it won’t have anything else to fall back on. As lovely as the sense of humor and the style that Fortnite employs is, it’s not enough to keep the game relevant after the core battle royale mode loses its luster.
And once that happens, Epic Games will find it a lot harder to keep momentum with its store. At least, if it’s anything like Steam.
…anyway. Another point worth disputing is that Epic Games is “cheating”. Frankly, that accusation is ridiculous: Epic Games isn’t “cheating” by using money to bribe developers into giving them exclusives. First of all, one could argue that the 90-10 split alone, which was the entire premise the platform was built on, is “bribery” by that same logic, which it absolutely isn’t. But secondly: ensuring exclusives is the only way the Epic Game Store could possibly compete with Steam right now. It’s a smart move, and a necessary one if the Epic Game Store is going to get the momentum it needs to push past the first few months and years of its operation. And it’s one of those things that Steams other competitors didn’t have when they stepped into the ring, which was why they were demolished so badly. I mean, imagine how different the PC landscape would look if GoG decided to make the Witcher and all Witcher-related games were exclusive to that platform. Maybe the Witcher 3 wouldn’t have become so big as it eventually did… but you’d bet your butt there’d be more people talking about it.
And I mean: you can’t really accuse Epic Games of cheating because it pays for exclusive. That’s the model that literally every console manufacturer has used since the dawn of time. And as much as PC gamers like to pretend that’s a different industry with different rules… it isn’t. It really isn’t.
So far, the “war” between Epic and Steam has been less of an exciting battle waged between two giants and more of a slaughter, with a few angry PC gamers trying to defend a platform too lazy and slow to defend itself.
I have to admit, when I positioned this conflict as an exciting bout, I may have been over ambitious and a bit over-excited.
But hopefully, at the very least, people will stop leaping to the defense of Steam as this drags on. End of the day: they’re still not your friend, and they certainly need whatever Epic Games is giving them.