Right now, the PC gaming industry is witnessing a knock-down, drag-out fight between two rival digital distribution game store portals, Steam and the Epic Games Store.
How did it all start and what will it mean for gamers? Which is better now, and what will the future bring, both for gamers and developers as a full-scale distribution war seems to be breaking out? Is competition good for the consumer, or will it splinter the market into a bunch of shards?
Read on to find out the past, present, and possible future of how you get and manage your games.
A history of corporate wars
Sometimes, corporations battle each other like monsters in a Godzilla movie.
In these confrontations, the idea of sharing profitable sectors or zones of a large market and engaging in friendly competition is gone. It’s not a rivalry, but a gunfight: A specifically targeted attack for control of a market space where there is a “zero sum game” at play.
The idea is that anything one company has is necessarily a loss to the other, and vice versa. It seems that nearly every decade has a big market war like this.
In the 1970s, there were the “Burger Wars” between established, dominant McDonalds and the newer upstart, Burger King. In the 1980s, rivals Coca-Cola and Pepsi ramped up multimillion-dollar campaigns against one another, not just for growth but for dominance in what came to be known as “the Cola Wars.” In the 1990s at the early dawn of the internet as a consumer space, “the browser wars” raged between companies Netscape and Internet Explorer. And in the mid to late 2000s, the rumble was between smartphone operating systems, as Apple’s iOS became engaged in a battle with the newly introduced Android platform, launched by Google, vying for app and music download money.
There’s a specific quality to these kinds of industry competitions. Competitors in them are not attempting to find a way to co-exist with competition and edge rivals out as a gold-medal winner, where silver and bronze exist, but rather to destroy them and be the last one standing, Hunger Games style.
Game Store Portal Wars
Flash forward to the present day. We find ourselves in the opening shots of what will probably come to be known as “the Game Store Portal Wars.” They are currently between the companies Valve and Epic Games. Valve owns the industry-leading behemoth online portal Steam, a clearinghouse and marketplace for the purchasing and management of PC games. And Epic Games owns the Epic Store, which launched after the runaway success of its zeitgeist-grabbing, almost $8 billion property Fortnite. That’s quite a war chest to fund a conflict.
The game store portal as marketplace
To understand the showdown taking place, you’ve got to see how the playing field got created and has evolved. Valve Corporation began its life as a game development company, founded by two ex-Microsoft employees. Their first product was the game Half-Life, a horror-themed first-person shooter (FPS) that went on to become considered one of the best and most influential PC games of all time.
The success of Half-Life allowed Valve to not only develop a few other well-regarded and profitable games (like Portal and Left 4 Dead), but to also acquire other, smaller studios. Soon it was more of consortium, purchasing out new development through acquisitions, made possible by that initial software success. Then came Steam.
The digital distribution hub is born
Steam was launched in 2003 as an all-in-one portal program to distribute patches and updates to all of the various games that Valve Corporation put out. But what Valve had almost inadvertently created in this program was a stand alone digital distribution hub. Not a game, but a platform from which whole games could be sold.
As consumers’ bandwidth and download speeds increased, and with the increasing on-demand nature of streaming and the push away from physical copies of software, Valve used Steam to sell not just its own games, but also offer other game publishers a ready-made, turn-key solution to distribute their software via digital download.
Getting a split of the profits from all the games sold within the Steam ecosystem has grown into something far beyond the profit from any one game. Valve is now much more a distribution company, by way of Steam, than it is a games development company. It has been many years since even the thought of a new sequel for Half-Life has made it to the table. There’s just so much more money to be made in the Steam store.
Gamers and developers flock to Steam
As it grew, the Steam platform created and implemented a platform that persists for the gamer as much as - maybe even more than - the games themselves. The Steam Store isn’t only a place to buy and launch games. It’s also a rather robust destination full of persistent friends lists, user reviews, community forums, live broadcasts of games to watch, cloud-based saves for all games purchased within the Steam PC games ecosystem, and a host of other rich features.
Steam exists, in a way, like almost a virtual gaming console with a profile-based system that allows gamers to collect and organize all their gaming in one centralized, familiar hub.
Or at least, it had existed as the one unified hub for many years, enjoying a kind of de facto monopoly in a space it had innovated itself.
The Fortnite juggernaut
Enter the Epic Games Store. The absolutely unprecedented, runaway success of the free-to-play, pay-for-microtransactions-and-battle-passes model of Fortnite: Battle Royale has suddenly put Epic Games, maker of Fortnite, into a position where it could take on Steam with its own games store.
It’s not just a Fortnite-launching platform, but an actual games store, set up to distribute games from all manner of publishers, with a profit-splitting model just like Steam. Only it’s one that’s more attractive to developers, letting them keep a bigger cut of the action.
The idea was to disrupt and shake up Valve and Steam’s near monopoly in the digital distribution space. The same way Google, with profits from its search engine and ad revenue, decided to take on Apple’s Apple Store by creating the Android OS, so too did Epic, flush with Fortnite money, decide to muscle into the game store business.
Surprise! The exodus of Metro Exodus
The Epic Games Store launched in December 2018, so it is very, very new in terms of development. The Epic Games Store is absolutely bare-bones in its feature set compared to Steam. Stuff like cloud saves, mod distribution, forums, user-created wikis, library sorting, etc. are absent as of yet on Epic, but these are well-established parts of the Steam experience.
This is to be expected with such a brand-new launch. But what the Epic Store lacks in features, it’s making up for by using its seed money to establish a bunch of Epic Games Store exclusive titles. This, in essence, forces gamers who want to play those games to create an Epic profile and start buying through them.
The biggest game, and the thing that has caused the most controversy, is the securing of exclusive rights for the highly anticipated Metro Exodus. The exclusivity deal was announced (and seemingly, secured) only two weeks before the game’s release. The move surprised everyone, including Steam, who had already set up an anticipatory page and taken pre-orders for the game.
Can’t I have both?
What does this equate to for the gamer with an extensive Steam profile and library who wants to play Metro Exodus, or some other now-Epic-exclusive title? The answer, really, as it turns out is: not much more than a few clicks, along with having two different shortcuts on the desktop to different launchers. It isn’t like either one costs the gaming consumer any money, or anything, really, other than the inconvenience of setting up second profile and managing two different accounts.
What it means in the short term is that the Epic Games exclusive game titles will not have the now-convenient and familiar launching shell of Steam or the integrated features some gamers have come to see as just a part of their gaming experience.
For those of us old enough to get this reference, the inconvenience faced would be similar to going to a website using Netscape Navigator in 2001 to find a screen that says, “This site can only be displayed in Microsoft Internet Explorer. Please launch that program and come back.”
What many Steam users are objecting to online and in Reddit forums on the subject is that they don’t like being “forced” to use a different games store with less meta-features surrounding and enhancing the game software itself.
While this may be a matter of aesthetic annoyance to those who just like having all their games organized in the same place, this will ultimately affect the game developers. What is at play here is who will end up controlling the profit-splitting revenue from developers and what kind of cut the developers will end up getting for their software.
So how do the two game stores stack up against one another?
Currently, the difference is quite stark in terms of features and content. Steam has been a years-long enterprise and controls over 75% of the market. They have added features then honed and refined them. Epic Games Store offers game downloads, a friends list (that you either have to start over from scratch, or import from your Steam account), and chat. That’s it.
Comparatively, Steam has library sorting, in-home streaming from device to device, wish lists, forums, user-reviews, broadcasts, digital-item trading (and a marketplace to support it), and a host of other features absent, for the moment, from the Epic Games Store.
Steam also has a wild free-for-all massive and sprawling catalog of games available to purchase and download, from developers all along the spectrum of one-man-band indie studios to triple-A (AAA) titles from the major publishers.
To some degree, one might argue that the absence of some of these features in Epic Games Store is, itself, something of a feature. The user forums and reviews within Steam can be abusive places full of flame wars and bitter vitriol. Steam has done little to police them to make them more inviting. It can be somewhat refreshing to be confronted with the simple, clean, and straightforward interface of a store that lets you buy a game, launch it, and play with your friends, and doesn’t get bogged down in the meta-quagmire of the meme community of sometimes contentious gamers.
Additionally, Steam’s open-door policy for every developer, big or small, has created something of a sometimes-depressing slog of shovelware or cheap, ugly, and bargain bin titles to wade through.
Epic Games Store’s idea of beginning with a curated list of quality titles has its appeal. But this is early in the process. The catalog of titles available through the Epic store, while high in quality, is lacking in quantity.
As for the feature list, it is all but certain that Epic will roll out the standard features over time; cloud saves and library sorting and all that are no doubt on their way as it grows. But they’re certainly not there yet.
What Epic Games Store is banking on is the fact that you’re already there for its killer app, Fortnite, and while you are, you might as well stick around to see what other exclusive games you could buy there.
Epic vs. Steam: How they divide the money
The thing that really might end up being an industry game changer (pun intended) is the fact that Epic is disrupting Steam’s grip on developers as the only marketplace in town. It’s leveraging its huge Fortnite installation base and offering a much sweeter and more generous deal on profit sharing to developers.
While Steam takes 30% of all profits of games it distributes digitally, Epic is offering an introductory incentive for developers to sign with them, taking only 12%. That leaves a hefty 88% of the sale price going to the developer, as opposed to only 70% with Steam.
That Steam platform share may seem huge, but when you factor in the reality that both Valve and Steam offer developers ready-made matchmaking, cloud saving, secure microtransaction management, mod distribution, and access to a truly massive user base, the value of the remaining 70% is pretty great. No additional outlay is needed, so the developer essentially pockets the 70%.
Still, Epic’s play of such a generous split has already brought a good number of exclusive high-quality, in-demand games over to their new platform. And the market pressure has made Steam begin to adjust its profit splitting to compete.
Valve announced recently that Steam will move to a tiered system where it only takes 25%, after a certain number of purchases are made, then 20% after hitting another threshold. Indie game studios have complained that this incentive system really only benefits AAA, massively successful games, and leaves them out in the cold.
Online conspiracy theories and dirty fighting
It may just be a function of life in 2019, but a part of this battle between Steam and Epic has been the spreading of online conspiracies concerning Epic’s ulterior motives. Reddit threads and YouTube videos have been espousing the idea that Epic’s store installs “spyware” with its games. Or that one of its major investors is the Chinese firm, Tencent, and that your data will end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
These are dubious claims that Epic’s CEO Tim Sweeney has vehemently denied on Twitter . Whether this is the result of intentional trolling by angry gamers upset at the buffalo-ing of exclusive titles being only on Epic, or just misinformation and controversy having the tendency to multiply, it is all a part of the new Game Store Wars of the soon-to-be 2020s.
Can’t we all just get along?
From the gamer perspective, the presence of competition in distribution is probably a good thing. It might mean a little bit of disruption in your normal routine, but if two companies are competing for the same dollars, they might end up encouraging more developers to make more innovative games, and reward them with more of a cut. This could provide enough of an incentive to draw real talent and innovation.
When it comes down to it, it doesn’t cost you anything to have both the Epic Games Store and Steam on the same computer. Both are just a different click away. The war here is really about which company will end up with more money. And in the process, we may see some benefits as consumers. At least, that’s the hope!