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Let’s Talk About the Epic Games Store

It’s not an easy topic to breach. It seems like whatever community you go into, you’re likely to find someone who will endlessly defend the store to the hilt of a blade, or happily run through anyone who dares utter a positive word. This leads to a lot of misinformation on just what use the store is, or why anyone would use it. So, let’s break down the pros and cons of Epic’s new foray, step by step. But before that, we should at least take a look at the state of things at the moment.

While it’s unfair to say Steam holds a monopoly, it’s also unfair to say they don’t have a huge amount of control over the market at this time. If you play on PC even remotely seriously, you have a Steam account. They’re backed up by other stores that either offer Steam keys or their own advantages, such as the DRM-free GOG.com, EA and Ubisoft’s platforms for their own titles, game bundle originators Humble, and more experimentally-focused marketplaces like Itch.io (which offer a “choose-how-much-we-get” revenue split).

This isn’t even going into other, smaller ventures, like Kongregate’s Kartridge or Discord’s store.

Right out the gate, Epic doesn’t have much in the way of advantages. They have Fortnite, quite the advertisement vector, but that’s about it. They can’t beat Steam’s quantity and features, GOG’s lack of DRM, the ‘quality’ (if you see it that way) of the EA or Ubisoft libraries. What they were looking for was a massive feature, something that would get people talking, something that would be spread like wildfire to advertise their shiny new store. Eventually, someone in an office somewhere decided upon making games exclusive. Before we dive deep into why this is an outrage to so many people, I will say this: while the line “any publicity is good publicity” is not a solid truth, in this case, it certainly puts more eyes on Epic.

Most exclusives, here or in the console industry, are designed to do one thing; appeal. Halo helps the Xbox appeal to other factions. Same with the smorgasboard of JRPGs on PlayStation from Persona to Yakuza. Epic getting exclusive titles absolutely appeals to many people, with some of the names being honestly ridiculous; most of David Cage’s games in the past 10 years leaving the PlayStation platform, or games like industry gem Journey making their way onto computers is, to put it in two words, kinda nutty, and definitely enough to attract segments of gamers.

At least on consoles, exclusivity makes sense in a handful of ways. Games being paid for by the console’s developer are at least forgivable if not desirable, as it’s beneficial for your machine to have appeal, and if they’re willing to put up millions for that to happen, so be it. Developers also get to only worry about one set of hardware, as opposed to two or three. And any sorts of unique features (like the DualShock 4’s speaker) can be implemented without worry.

On PC though, it’s an entirely different story – hardware is open for anyone to work on. The only real barriers to a game running on any particular computer is the strength of the hardware it runs; you have to worry about hardware variety from beginning to end. No software platform truly renders a game unplayable under the majority of reasonable circumstances. So when Epic makes a game exclusive like they have, they’re spitting in the face of a kind of freedom only really available on PC, even if that freedom is only across a handful of digital download platforms in some cases.

This applies double when it occurs to a game that’s literally about to come out and has had pre-orders open for a significant length of time, which has happened a few times already. Games promising Steam releases, only to turn their back on that promise, is the absolute best way to break trust in that studio to keep their word. Make it triple when it’s a Kickstarter campaign; you dropped funds expecting a lovely statue, only to get an ugly garden gnome they didn’t advertise until the last minute as a replacement.

Of course, revenue is still a thing, and it’s one of the things Epic is using to appeal to people: big, fat stacks of cash. Their arguments money-wise are honestly incredibly appealing from the developer side of things. Not only is their revenue share smaller (an idea we’ll get into shortly), but Epic have also offered a ‘minimum sales guarantee’ – which is more or less them saying “if you don’t sell this many copies, we’ll make up the difference”. This is basically a godsend for certain game studios / developers, and I’d like to take the opportunity to explain why.

Imagine you’re an independent developer with a great idea, and not much money to put into it. You don’t have many options; quitting your job is insanely risky, asking for loans may not be viable, and heck, even if you do manage to finish the game, chances are you’ll be buried in the giant pile of games that Steam contains and never manage to sell enough to so much as break even, let alone continue supporting the game / any more you might want to make. You might do better on curated platforms like GoG, but barely, thanks to their audience size.

To demonstrate my point, the Phoenix Point fiasco – promised Steam on Kickstarter, offered money by Epic, now they’re Epic exclusive for an indeterminate time.

They have one of these deals, and they let slip that even if they had to refund all the preorders up to this point, they’d still be making a profit, and they still have enough to run their studio for years. This is an incredibly appealing prospect – finish the project stress-free, have enough to spare for years of updates and even another game, no sales numbers to worry about, and all you need to do is absorb a bit of blowback and refunds that they’re covering anyway? Hot damn is that a spicy deal for a lot of passionate devs, especially in an industry where a lot can go wrong, really really quickly.

It’s even sweeter when it comes to the revenue share argument. The default spread is 30% to them, 70% to you. That’s the average for both mobile stores, Steam, consoles, and most other digital stores. (Sometimes it can be different, e.g. itch.io letting you choose the spread.) Epic only takes 12%, with no upfront licensing fees on their own Unreal Engine. That’s also kinda nuts, but in a way, it also makes sense on both Steam and Epic’s side.

On Epic’s side, and they have talked about this with numbers that don’t seem unreasonable at a glance, maintaining that kind of revenue cut as things are now is pretty easy for them. Their store’s simplicity definitely helps with that kind of thing; its lack of features means they don’t have anywhere near the same strain on their servers as something like Steam does. This really doesn’t excuse some incredibly simple things being missing, including a cart that lets you buy multiple games at once, or a search function.

That leads into another mark against Epic though; their store feature set is incredibly limited. Steam has a ridiculous feature set for a free-to-use social platform; community forums and reviews, screenshots with tons of free cloud space, integrated mod support…even features purely for devs, like automatic sales and currency exchange, decent DRM that isn’t bloated (looking at you Denuvo), and the Steamworks API.

That stuff isn’t cheap to make and manage, and considering the effort and cost to maintain these features outside of the Steam ecosystem, it makes their share a lot more reasonable. Real time and money is needed for this kind of thing.

With that said though, Steam’s recent move of lowering their cut the more you sell seems like a bit of a slap in the face to those smaller devs. Things are hard enough for them, trying to fight their way above the bile-filled wastes of Steam’s new releases, and now they’re being told that if they’re one of the lucky ones who gets to $10 million in sales, they get slightly more money? I doubt half the indie games you could name off the top of your head have reached that amount. I’m not going to call it unfair, but I can definitely sympathize with those people who feel they’re being screwed by these cuts.

Speaking of storefronts, the storefronts are kind of one of two extremes right now. Steam is, to be frank, too cluttered.

They’ve been working on all kinds of ways to declutter it without actually removing games; pretty much the entire front page, down to the ‘new and trending’ tab, is part of their efforts. The results have been mixed at best; the discovery queue is anything from great to garbage from one queue to another, half the curators are jokes, ‘recently updated’ is for games I haven’t even played yet half the time, damn Steam sales…

 

Meanwhile, Epic is on the other extreme; they have so few games that they think one long-ass page is enough to make it work, when it really isn’t – scrolling through it with its big square boxes for games is more of an eyesore than a proper storefront. Their status on not taking absolute garbage games on is a good one, and with them opening up for submissions sometime this year, they’re going to have to figure out some way to have more than one page for browsing games on the store…we’ll just have to see if they’re capable of solving Steam’s problems with discovery.

All of these issues would be…well, I won’t say forgivable in all cases, but most are–at least with time and polish (although launching without things such as a shopping cart is almost inexcusable – rushed launch or just that egotistical?) With that said though, these faults might hurt less if Epic didn’t seem so up themselves about the entire thing. Tim Sweeney (the CEO of Epic) in particular just needs to learn to keep his mouth shut.

There’s more quotes along these lines to be found; Tim’s Twitter and Reddit aren’t far away.

I have even more to say that I’ll have to summarize:

  • While there’s no definite proof that EGS sends data to China, Epic is 40% owned by Chinese company Tencent, which doesn’t give people much hope for their data integrity, and old code found in the Epic Launcher isn’t helping these fears.
  • User reviews won’t be an on-by-default option, allowing shadier devs a chance to hide criticism, at least after their initial launch, which is usually the best time for sales. As bad as review bombs are, they really do seem to be what little that the individual consumer has available to make their voices heard these days.
  • They dropped a sale what appears to be out of nowhere, upsetting their own developers enough to pull their games from the service until the end of the sale. If they can’t even afford to let their developers know about what they’re doing…
  • People are constantly getting login access attempts on their accounts, and the lack of security features has definitely cost people their entire libraries. I’ve had a couple of dozen access attempts from all over the planet despite only having played Fortnite twice, although thankfully none have got in to my knowledge.

It’s strange, because Epic have the potential ace in the hole already, and they’ve already bought it up in other interviews: be cheaper. Sell their games elsewhere, and allow games into their store, but take the hit and sell the games cheaper on their own platform. I know enough PC gamers that would appreciate even a $5 cut on the next AAA stealth/craft/shoot game of the week. Many games that cost $15 on other sites might turn into an impulse buy at $10 on Epic. If they just want to throw money at the problem, that would be 100x more effective.

We want competition. We always want more people to stand up to the big boys in any industry; it breeds innovation and everyone involved gets a better deal.

But when it comes like this: games being restricted to one platform in the name of “choice,” a lack of features being passed off as “competition,” and weird business tactics like Tim’s quotes above (all which come off as hostile doublespeak more than fair competition). This attempt seems like a cluster of bad ideas and wonky execution at best, and outright unwarranted hostility towards ‘the big guy’ at worst. I won’t deny Steam’s problems, from terrible discovery to outright lack of curation, to weird choices for revenue splits, but more bad practices is not the way to combat bad practices. Whether or not any of these choices works for Epic will be discovered in the coming months. Personally, I choose not to support practices like these, even with the benefit of the developers involved.

Thankfully, the PC is a platform that embraces choice, so you get to make one as well.

What say you?

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