Comparing the Digital Distribution Platforms
In 2004, Valve revolutionized the games industry with the launch of their digital distribution platform, Steam. Steam’s pioneering success owes a great deal to Half-Life 2, which was launched in tandem with Steam. While the Half-Life series sadly faded away, Steam went from strength to strength. Today, the platform is synonymous with game distribution.
For many years, other studios and distributors have been challenging Steam with limited success, and Valve’s baby still rules the roost. But as the games industry continues to grow and diversify, there is an increasing amount of competition in the digital distribution platform space. We often don’t have much choice in which launcher we use, and many gamers will most likely have several launchers installed.
But, when we do have a choice, where do we go? This is a highlight of the main features, pros and cons of the most popular launchers, to help you make that decision.
Steam (Valve Software)
Steam is by far the king of digital distribution, and deservedly so. Valve practically invented the practice, and have been refining it ever since. Steam recently underwent a somewhat controversial facelift, but when it comes to features, it has it all.
- Choice – Unless it’s tied up in some sort of exclusivity deal, you are likely to find whatever game you’re looking for here.
- Community – through the Community Hub, Workshop, Friends, Groups and other social media-esque features, Steam has a great sense of community about it.
- The Cards – a bit of meta for the collectors out there, while also giving those who aren’t interested in an easy way to gather a few scraps of store credit every now and then.
- Sales and Giveaways – Steam’s sales are legendary, and they’ve also been quite generous over the years with freebies.
- Inconsistent application of DRM – some games have it, some don’t, and it isn’t clearly communicated.
- Steam releases of classic games are often half-hearted, lacking in features or functionality
Verdict: A few minor shortfalls vastly outweighed by stacks of features, familiarity and reliability. Tried and tested, you can’t really go wrong with Steam.
Epic Games Store (Epic Games)
Epic’s launcher is probably the first launcher that has been seriously considered as a competitor for Steam. Thanks to Epic’s near-limitless income from Fortnite and Unreal Engine licensing, Epic has been able to secure exclusivity for some big names, while getting in the developer good books for giving them a bigger cut of sales. While it is severely lacking in features currently, Epic is unlikely to give up any time soon, and they’ve got the money to play the long game.
- Bigger share for developers – put simply, if you buy a game on the Epic Games launcher, the dev is getting more money per copy sold, if that’s something that means a lot to you.
- Free games – if you’ve been using Epic’s launcher in 2019, you’ll already have quite a sizeable library of free games, such as Subnautica and the Batman games.
- Unreal Engine integration – if you’re a developer using the Unreal Engine, it is right there and ready to use.
- Transparent development – Epic have shared a Trello board detailing their roadmap of upcoming features.
- Severely lacking in features – the Epic Games Store has already been around for quite some time, but considering Epic’s annual revenue, it is still surprisingly lacking in features.
- Exclusives – Epic isn’t the only store doing exclusives, but unlike EA or Blizzard, they aren’t just doing this for their own games. A shrewd competitive tactic, but one that hasn’t earned them much respect.
- Security concerns – if you believe it, then Epic Games is stealing your data and is vulnerable to state influence through its relationship with Tencent. However, it would be naïve to think that this is the only platform collecting you information, and they certainly aren’t the only ones tied to Tencent.
Verdict: The Epic launcher might get there with features one day, but when pitted against Steam, there is little reason to choose it unless you want a free or exclusive game.
Uplay forced its way onto many computers thanks to its Steam integration. Ubisoft knew that they couldn’t compete with Steam for sales, so they allow Ubisoft purchases through Steam, but your Steam shortcut is simply a shortcut to launching the game with Uplay. Uplay has a couple cool features, but outside of a few exclusives, it is unlikely to ever compete on its own merit.
- You can earn Uplay Points for playing your games, which you can then use to unlock the occasional bonus wallpaper, skin, or other little in-game trinket.
- Does what it says on the box – launches games.
- Um… occasionally a free game?
- No real “cons” per se – Uplay simply doesn’t bring anything that interesting to the table. It’s nothing more than a boring piece of bloatware.
Verdict: A waste of bytes and system resources, but unfortunately a necessity for Ubisoft games.
In 2011, publishing behemoth EA thought that they’d invest a slice of their significant revenue in to taking on Valve with their own Origin launcher. A bold move, one that led to a rather messy divorce with Steam, and a move that ultimately failed. While EA has always been able to rely on their blockbusters, Origin has never come close to competing with any other platform. Thankfully, after eight years, it seems like Valve and EA have decided to kiss and make-up, and EA games are once again available on Steam – a noble admission of defeat, and a big financial win for Valve.
- Origin was probably the first big player to offer a subscription service (Origin Access), which lowers the threshold for trying out EAs traditionally disappointing games.
- So many cons, I’ll just amalgamate them into one point… Origin is ugly and lacking in features. Those features it does have are half-assed (like the lame overlay), and by offering little other than EA games, the library is pretty pitiful. I’m glad EA has admitted its failure, hopefully I’ll be able to uninstall it soon.
Verdict: Please EA. Just kill it already.
Battle.net, as a service, predates all the launchers on this list, and first appeared in 1996 with the release of Diablo. Battle.net might be lacking in features, but their games are so iconic and obscenely successful that no one seems to care, and Blizzard doesn’t need to rely on anyone else to help them sell.
- Minimalist – Unlike Uplay, Battle.net doesn’t feel like bloatware. It’s not overloaded with features, it just provides easy access to what you need – your games, the shop, the forums, news and social features.
- Battle.net chat integrates with in-game chat – you can switch between the launcher, WOW, Starcraft, Diablo III, etc. and continue the same conversation seamlessly. Not a game-changer, but a nice little feature.
- No integration of older Blizzard games, such as Diablo II, unless they’ve been updated (like Starcraft).
GOG Galaxy 1.2 (CD Projekt)
Surprisingly, out of all of Valve’s competitors, their only real competition comes from an independent Polish outfit by the name of GOG, the digital distribution arm of CD Projekt. GOG Galaxy has been rapidly incorporating Steam-like features over the years, such as cloud saves, categories, chat and an overlay, but the best features it that it is all entirely optional. If you don’t want to use their launcher, you can just download the installers from their website.
Note: GOG Galaxy 2.0 is currently in closed beta. From what I’ve played with so far, it addresses almost all the negatives below, and is looking like serious competition for Steam’s features. It also adds a fantastic ability to import your libraries from other launchers.
- Entirely optional, with no DRM for any of their games
- Useful Steam-like features – cloud saving, a consolidated screenshot key, chat an overlay
- Patch rollbacks, in case the most recent patch caused issues with your save file
- Most GOG games (especially the older ones) come with generous collections of wallpapers, PDFs, avatars, etc.
- The most reliable and best source for classic games – you can mostly guarantee they will work
- Thanks to their curated selection, there is no shovelware to be found in GOG’s library
- GOG aren’t afraid of giving away free games
- Smaller game selection than Steam
- A less transparent refund policy compared to Steam
- Not the prettiest launcher
- Lacks some of the more advanced Steam features – mod workshop, a screenshot library, more advanced chat.
Verdict: If you like the convenience of a launcher, then GOG Galaxy does the job, and executes the standard features fairly well. But the best part is that its entirely optional, so if you don’t like it, don’t use it!
It should be no surprise Steam wins overall. Its been around the longest, has the greatest amount of features, and has a level of polish that no other platform can compete with. Valve shouldn’t rest on their laurels – Epic and GOG are both rapidly closing the gap, and GOG Galaxy 2.0 is shaping up to be quite the competitor. Watch this space.
In about 1989, Gavin Annand played his first games on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. Thus, began a lifetime obsession with games. A gaming addict or connoisseur, depending on your perspective.