Steam’s Dominance Faces Its First True Challenger

Jeremy Ray
Games Indie Games
Games Indie Games PC Gaming Fortnite

Fortnite won’t last forever. Epic has done a phenomenal job pivoting to a 24/7 Fortnite content factory, but the cartoonish battle royale won’t have the staying power of CSGO, or Starcraft. Epic knows this, and has its next move planned — become a platform.

For so many years, PC gaming has been nearly synonymous with Steam. Its rocky launch led to an era where we rely on Steam servers, we brace our wallets for Steam sales, and we work on our Steam piles of shame.

A new store – the Epic Games Store – presents a tradeoff for consumers. It’s nice to have all your games in one place. But the larger a platform gets, the more it loses the ability to curate, moderate, and recommend.

Perhaps the Epic Games Store never intends to become that large. Whether it’s a revolution or another haven for indie gems, Epic has made some well-calculated moves in the past two weeks that we can’t ignore.

Epic Moves on the PC Market

Epic really doesn’t like the 30% revenue standard taken by digital stores. Not only did it eschew the Google Play store with Fortnite, its new store will have a much more generous ratio.

Boasting an 88/12 system, Epic’s proposal to developers looks like this:

Epic Games store revenue share royalty split

This came close enough after Valve announced its new tiered royalty system (more below) to make it seem like backroom meetings didn’t go as well as they could.

Gamers will go where the games are, and Epic is appealing to those games’ developers. During the recent Game Awards, several games were announced as “available on the Epic Games Store.” Ashen is there now, as well as Hades, the new game from the creators of Bastion and Transistor.

More games have come out with release dates and platforms, with one digital store conspicuously missing…

Like other indies announcing availability on Epic, Super Meat Boy Forever still has a Steam page live. We reached out and confirmed it’ll release exclusively on the Epic Games store for the first year. This means Epic is actively approaching and poaching highly anticipated indie titles.

On top of that, Epic is promising:

  • To give developers as much information and sales data as legally possible
  • Access to 10,000 influencers with a built-in affiliate sales program
  • Epic will cover the first 5% of creator revenue-sharing for the first 24 months
  • Free games periodically, the first being Subnautica and Super Meat Boy

Among others, Maneater, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, and Satisfactory have entered into some level of exclusivity with the new store.

Do Consumers Benefit?

Valve seems to escape the ire of gamers who lambast other publishers for doing the exact same things. Loot boxes, defying consumer protection law, exploiting content creators… Its worth reading this post dismantling the myth of Good Guy Valve.

The Steam indoctrinated are voicing their unhappiness to developers of Epic’s newly exclusive games. “No Steam, no buy,” they say, claiming exclusivity is anti-competitive. But in truth, there’s no argument against Epic’s exclusivity other than “all my games and skins are on Steam.”

It’s better for developers and players to make the game as widely available as possible. In that sense, exclusivity may only benefit the platform. But there’s a difference between hardware exclusivity and store exclusivity.

Xbox One owners on a limited budget may have to experience Bloodborne or Nioh through Youtube. But for PC gamers? Snapping up Hades or Ashen might involve laboriously entering in their email address, probably suffering through a captcha to prove they’re not a robot, and enduring the indignity of entering in credit card information.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to these true victims of capitalism.

Valve Hits Back

Valve has thrown a few haymakers at the market in the last two weeks. Unfortunately, they’re mostly missteps.

We’ve talked about how the best quality of Artifact was making us realise how good we had it with other card games. CSGO has also gone free-to-play, with a new battle royale mode which is good for some silly fun.

Valve also announced a new royalty scheme that allows for higher earning games to take a larger percentage of revenue. The highest tier will allow as much as 80%.

The new royalty structure is an olive branch that doesn’t reach far enough; the definition of too little, too late. Publisher-specific stores like Uplay and Origin have existed for years, and Activision will increasingly leverage Battle.net. Where possible, they’ll use their advertising dollars to send traffic to their own portal, not Steam.

The one promise that might help smaller developers is that of increased sales data, but this is matched and beaten by Epic’s similar pledge. Indie communities have already long preferred sites like itch.io, GOG, Humble, or Green Man (Often you get Steam keys from those sites anyway).

Epic’s exclusives have thus far been indie games. But large-scale adoption for newer digital stores isn’t so far-fetched. In another of Valve’s missteps, Steam games are now unreasonably priced for the entire country of Australia — if the game is available at all. It almost feels like Australians are being punished for forcing Valve to abide by consumer protection laws.

With an “adequate” battle royale, a card game that’s dead on arrival, and a half-baked appeal to the deaf ears of large publishers, Valve hasn’t succeeded in reminding us why we should love Steam — other than housing our libraries and skins.

The Long Game

Perhaps the Epic Games Store doesn’t intend to become massive. Its current stable is heavily curated. But if it truly has Steam-sized aspirations, it will undoubtedly come across similar issues of curation and toxicity.

No one’s algorithms have solved the problems of curation and discovery. Not Netflix, not Youtube, and certainly not Steam. Perhaps we’re destined to have a more fractured marketplace of niche stores like itch.io.

It also remains to be seen what Epic would do with such Steam-like power. Where does it stand on the proliferation of loot boxes? Where does it draw the line in terms of quality for published games, and which projects are featured? How will its policies evolve for adult content?

While Epic proclaims 88/12 as the new standard, more than a few cynics are probably wondering how long that will last. It wouldn’t be the first time a newcomer lowered costs to gain market share and then flipped. With the backing of Chinese giant Tencent, Epic could take a hit and keep the caper going long enough to make big players like Steam feel it.

Our money is on the 88/12 being genuine and sustainable. Smaller stores and blockchain marketplaces have been successfully maintaining a better revenue share for years. Epic is playing the long game, and it needs this platform antic to pay off. Fortnite won’t last forever.

Jeremy Ray
Managing Editor at FANDOM. Decade-long games critic and esports aficionado. Started in competitive Counter-Strike, then moved into broadcast, online, print and interpretative pantomime. You merely adopted the lag. I was born in it.
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