The makers of Fortnite have set out to dethrone Steam with the Epic Games Store, their answer to Valve’s monopoly over video games on the PC. But their efforts are mired in controversy that threatens not only to drive customers away from the platform but kill the experiment before it even has a chance. And that’s not good for the market.
Steam, which came into prominence almost two decades ago with the launch of its classic title Half-Life 2, at the time prompted no shortage of conversations about the physical ownership of video game copies. The concept of “games as a service” was still a long way away, and gamers used to possessing hard copies of their games considered Steam to be a strike against consumer rights.
But convenience won out. Game developers dealing with piracy were quick to move their games onto the platform, doing away with physical media entirely. GameStop, America’s largest video game retailer, is going out of business – posting a $673 million loss in 2018. Simply put, online platforms are the future, and Steam has a monopoly on it – for now, at least.
With an ever-growing video game marketplace, other game publishers including Microsoft, Ubisoft, EA Games and Cyberpunk 2077 publisher CD Projekt have attempted to claw their way into the marketplace with their own offerings. Microsoft’s even has theirs built into every copy of Windows 10. But none of them have managed to have as much of an impact as the Epic Games Store.
Unlike other stores, which see little to no difference in product pricing, the Epic Games Store offers competitive prices for both consumers and the game developers whose games they host. On Steam, developers sign over a 30 percent cut to the platform. Epic, in contrast, only takes 10 to 12 percent. Furthermore, Epic even offers steep discounts for the games it carries, even going so far as to subsidise game sales out of pocket to incentivise customers to adopt the platform.
So why all the fuss? For starters, the platform’s just not that well designed. Besides its small inventory and “curated” nature, the app itself is buggy. There are also concerns over security and the fact that Chinese tech giant Tencent owns a 40 percent stake in Epic Games has some worried about the misuse of their personal data.
But if that were its only issues, it probably wouldn’t be that a big deal. The deal breaker for many is the exclusivity it has over some video games, which were pulled off Steam before release after their developers signed lucrative exclusivity deals with Epic Games.
In cases like Metro: Exodus and Phoenix Point, consumers who had already paid for the game elsewhere worried that the DLCs and expansion content would be exclusive to Epic. This is far from the case. With Metro: Exodus, owners of the game can purchase DLC on Steam. As for Phoenix Point, everyone who backed the game on Kickstarter (where it was initially funded) will be given a year’s worth of free DLC on the Epic Games Store.
Still, some developers are handling the switch less efficiently. The makers of Ooblets made a snarky blog post explaining their exclusivity. This led to the creation of a hate mob against the two independent developers.
In the case of Shenmue 3, fans who backed its development were irate after being promised copies of the game on Steam. For a time, the studio refused to give them refunds as it was unable to. Epic Games, responding to the widespread anger, says it will now offer refunds to anyone unhappy with the deal.
Ideally, all the moves Epic is making will go a long way towards earning the trust of its customers. With Fortnite still as popular as ever, the company’s experiment with an online marketplace is far from over.