Steam, unquestionably, needs a sizeable competitor. With a significant monopoly on the PC games market, such that present rivals like GOG and Humble barely take a dent out of its audience, Valve is able to take an infuriatingly lackadaisical approach to many aspects of Steam. Something to scare them into action would be marvellous. And while not optimistic, I'd hoped that maybe Epic, with their lorries full of money, might be able to try. Except, with yet another exclusivity announcement today regarding Metro: Exodus, they're going about it entirely the wrong way.
See, here's the weird thing: Steam, as damaging and dangerous a monopoly as it might have over PC gaming, got to this position a few years back without acquiring competitors, and without demanding developers and publishers bind themselves to inescapable contracts. It just sort of bumbled and stumbled its way there. And Valve, while deserving of so much criticism, significantly have never - so far as we know - asked that a game be exclusively released on their platform.
Valve may make about a dozen inexplicably weird or unhelpful decisions a week, and goodness knows getting onto Steam had been a fraught and miserable process for new developers for many years. Steam is by no stretch the promised land of game releases. But it's tempting to assume that Valve, for all its idiosyncrasies and issues, isn't a Machiavellian corporation. To accuse it of such would credit far too great a level of organisation and discipline within the company. What I'm saying is, Valve is far too haphazard and ramshackle to have tricked and manipulated its way to where it is now. And I'm saying that in order to make the point that their position at the mountaintop of PC gaming is something they just sort of ambled into. They're not invincible. They're exquisitely improveable-upon.
Epic wants part of that space, and with the phenomenal success of Fortnite, they've got extremely deep pockets to try to achieve it. And this is potentially very exciting. This could really improve the whole PC landscape. So much that's so wrong with Steam would suddenly become a priority for Valve if there were a significant challenge out there. You don't need to fix the seats if you're the only bus up the hill. But if I launch my swishy new cable car, you're sure as hell going to suddenly start caring about your passengers' comfort.
So bring it on, Epic! Except, so far as I can tell, actually competing is a long way off. And signing exclusives isn't going to hurry it on.
There's a bunch that's good about the Epic Store, not least their industry-challenging improved revenue split for developers. Taking only 12%, compared to Valve's (and others') 30% is something that could really shake things up if it were to start competing for sales numbers. Until it does, of course, 88% of not very much isn't nearly as good as 70% of a lot. But it's important.
Also significant for Epic is that they've already got a huge user-base for their software, because it's used as the launcher for Fortnite. In June last year Epic said that a mindblowing 125 million people were playing Fortnite. If you've got your launcher software on 125 million computers and phones (and goodness knows how much higher that number is seven months later), then what a brilliant stroke to quietly morph it into an entire platform and store. Masterful.
To a point. There are two big issues. The first is, the vast majority of those people just want to play Fortnite, and the more the launcher gets in the game's way, the more they're going to resent it. And secondly... well, the store isn't very good. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it's utterly bloody awful.
It's a completely dreadful thing to navigate, despite its immediately pleasingly clean presentation. Just finding a game on its horrible tiled mess of a store page is miserable, made worse when you realise unavailable games are muddled with the released, and worse still when you discover that mousing over each far-too-large-yet-sparse tile reveals... nothing. You have to click through on everything, where Steam offers a precis, genres, and a collection of thumbnail screenshots. Such basic things done so badly. And so much more (try to find a search button on the Store page...), but this isn't an article about why the Epic Store is crappy - it's one that's saying that it's crappy is a problem when they're already trying to perform coups.
Steam CAN be toppled! History shows that any platform people assume is indestructibly ubiquitous is actually extraordinarily vulnerable. There was a time when it was inconceivable that any band wouldn't have a MySpace page. I bet you don't even know if MySpace is still online. It is perfectly possible for a Steam-beating PC platform to come along and take over the sector, no matter how dominant Valve's behemoth may seem. Not least because, in so many significant ways, Steam isn't very good! There's plenty of room for someone to do better, albeit most likely someone with an awful lot of money. That could be Epic.
Securing exclusives with big name games may seem like an excellent way to force players to your store. But this doesn't engender a user base. This creates an atmosphere of animosity amongst customers, who will be just as likely to skip a game as install yet another application, let alone one that is presently demonstrably worse than their familiar one. When that game is Metro Exodus, certainly fans of the series are more likely to make the jump, but it's still by no means a certainty. When it comes to a first-time indie game, even one with some buzz like Maneater, it's going to pull in negligible numbers. It fleshes out their store, certainly, but that's not much use if no one's browsing it.
We live in a reality where people's loyalty is irrationally placed, and extremely hard to break. People defend a platform, or a console, or a genre, like it's a close family member. It's genuinely tribal. And that irrationality often means people won't even act in their own interests. Heck, take a television programme like The Great British Bake Off. It had its audience almost halved when it moved to Channel 4 from BBC 1 in 2017. The exact same programme (albeit now with advert breaks), plummeting from 14 million viewers to 7.3 million. And all that involved was clicking three channels up on the telly.
Metro will sell far fewer copies for being on Epic and not Steam. This won't affect developer and publisher 4A and Deep Silver in the short-term, because Epic will most likely have paid them outrageous amounts of money for the exclusivity. As they will most likely have paid to everyone else who's signing on for these one-year spoiler deals. But I confidently predict it won't actually help Epic. Because even the people who are willing to buy Metro, or whatever, over there will just put it in the app next to Fortnite, and then switch back to Steam to browse upcoming releases.
You doubt this? Think about the last time you had to use Ubisoft's awful UPlay? Or even EA's not-that-terrible Origin? See.
If it's going to work, Epic has to create a platform and store that people want to use, not one they're forced to use. And they can pay off developers and publishers to sacrifice sales until their money runs out, but it won't engender loyalty. Honestly, it'll just mean they're thought of as an annoyance as big as anything released on the godforsaken Windows Store.
Valve haven't helped matters with their seemingly petulant statement on the Metro Exodus Steam store page. It's not "unfair". It's business. It's incredibly annoying to Valve, and possibly very irritating for people who just wanted to get the game on Steam when it was released. (Pre-orders are being honoured, so those who have made the mistake of buying it before reviews will still be able to play on Steam.) Not unfair, but annoying. And very silly.
Annoying people, hogging games to yourself to try to force your store onto players, making PC gaming more inconvenient rather than less: none of this is going to help Epic, nor make the Epic Store competitive with Steam. Being better than Steam would. And it would be far better for them to spend the presumably astonishing amounts of money they're using to secure exclusives on creating a Steam-beating piece of software.