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Indie devs like myself have always likened to be the scrappy underdogs underneath the machine. While AAA game companies make their dollar to dollar decisions on using nylon for their $200 Collectors Edition bag to save a few bucks or revamp their loot box structure to better their game (in the face of outright hostile feedback), we, the Indie Devs, make games from the heart™. That’s not to say there aren’t some cold, calculating moves done in the background, but for the most part indies have enjoyed existing outside the large, lumbering business of games, while utilizing the exact same delivery structures to sell to consumers, whether that’s the PlayStation Store, Steam, you name it. Its why game fans like us nod our heads at Call of Duty making the most money ever for another holiday, or Xbox Game Pass adding a million subscribers, but can feel warm, cozy, even excited about the latest indie dev making the most money ever with their Switch port, or a new breakout hit exploding out of Early Access. It feels good when indies win, especially at a time where its never been more difficult to survive as one.
Perhaps it was under that guise of warm, cuddly feelings that Epic, flush with cash from Fortnite, announced their own PC game launcher store. Their proposal to devs was simple: you could be earning 88% instead of 70%, complete with a curated store and access to the potentially second biggest audience on PC right now. This, coming off the news of Steam offering financial breaks to the highest earners of Steam, all but ignoring a majority of indie devs, was primed to make the biggest splash possible. With a flurry of games announced as Epic exclusives at the Game Awards, the headlines practically write themselves: Steam, growing complacent with the lack of competition, suddenly has a new rival that makes more money for indie devs. It’s a win-win for all the hard-working indies, for the spirit of competition to make others react in business-positive ways, and for gamers everywhere.
As the launch of the Epic store unfolds and I’ve learned more about the dynamics of each store, I have come to the following conclusion: the Epic Store, in its current state, is not good for anyone. Not for customers, not for competition, and potentially not even for indie devs.
Let’s go back to that moment when, as a dev, you have a decision to make: earn less per sale on Steam, or more on Epic? There are, of course, many things to consider outside of that: with the launch of the Epic Store you have a chance to be at the forefront of what could be the next biggest store on PC. You get to be a part of the Epic PR machine, trotting out trailers of your game and using it in their marketing splashes. There are no guarantees on Steam anymore as far as success is concerned- your game might be lost forever in a sea of algorithms, especially if you don’t get promotional coverage by Valve. I have to say, given the opportunity to launch with Epic in exchange for exclusivity for one would assume a period of time, it would be a hard offer to turn down.
What this decision comes down to is the very cold hard AAA business decision that I think most indie devs have never had to make: take the 30% revenue cut, or the 12% revenue cut with added PR benefits at the expense of the customer?
Because with all this free press about how great the Epic Store is for developers, it is undoubtedly a net loss for customers. They are getting a worse experience with your game.
I don’t expect Epic to have met Steam’s 15-year feature-set with an answer on day one of their launch. I did expect a lot more than this. Because while its easy to dismiss buying a game on Epic’s Store as “just another launcher” and not a big deal, it is side stepping everything that a customer has enjoyed from their own preferred stores on PC.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the user features enjoyed by other store platforms:
DRM-free packages (optional), access to Android versions of games (APK), Steam keys, Charity-share support, gift purchases for others, refunds (case by case basis), wishlists.
DRM-free packages, access to the GOG Galaxy client with Achievements, Leaderboards, Friends List, forums, cloud saves, roll back branches, multiplayer API, cross play with Steam, game reviews, wishlists, Steam keys for older purchases (via special promotions that vary from game to game), refunds.
Achievements, Leaderboards, Steam Stats, Cloud Saves, Big Picture Mode, gamepad integration with mapping and community presets, forums, artwork/screenshot sharing hub, ability to stream video within the Steam client to friends and followers, The Workshop (community mod sharing), game reviews with filtering and metrics data (such as showing which reviews were bought on Steam, or an outside store, developer responses, etc.), Linux support for non-Linux based games, friends list with chat/presence integration and block/unblock, wishlists, dev hub with “follow” feature for news related updates, game guides by the community, Steam Music integration, Family Sharing, trading card economy with unlockable content, gift purchases for friends or those on Steam, full regional pricing, refunds.
I’ve tried to list features that, if not unique to the platform, at least are very nice quality of life features that one can expect when buying games on that platform. Here’s the list of Epic features as of December 9th, 2018:
Friends list (block/unblock functionality), DRM-free packages (optional), refunds, limited regional pricing (more regions to come in 2019).
I am utterly shocked that a company as big as Epic did not have a larger feature-set, or any features at all, ready to launch with their store. And looking at it this way something becomes very clear: they aren’t necessarily taking just 12% to benefit developers. They are taking that 12% because they are offering absolutely nothing in return, feature wise, and it would be a crime to take any more than that at this stage. It is the most barren store I’ve ever seen- and had it launched with no exclusives, it would be shrugged off into existence.
So how do you position this featureless launcher with no benefits to consumers? By plugging it as a positive: it’s a “lightweight storefront” that “gives more money to developers.” We’re already seeing the effects of the lack of features with bug reports for the Epic game Ashen being posted on the Steam forum that was left from the now TBD coming soon page. Many devs who are exclusively launching on Epic are championing the launcher as having a “direct player connection,” but what does that mean, exactly? Its nebulous words and phrases that skirts around the main reason any dev does something seemingly anti-consumer: it will make them more guaranteed money.
Let me be clear: I am not against making money. If you had the choice between buying my game on Steam and the Epic launcher and chose the Epic launcher to give me more money, I would be grateful. Perhaps you don’t care about any of those features that Epic doesn’t have, and you just want to play the game. That’s perfectly valid and certainly encouraged! I love money. What I don’t love is the restriction of that freedom to choose- with Epic’s launcher, the only way they can funnel customers into their launcher is by locking everyone else out. Outside of a larger dev cut, no one would or should ever choose the Epic launcher as their go-to store, short of very specific circumstances (maybe all you play is Fortnite and want to expand your game library to 2, or maybe you just really have it out for Steam). Instead of working to provide a unique experience, building a feature-set that is strong out of the gate and can be improved upon in the months ahead, they have chosen to just pack the store full of exclusives and force you to use their extremely basic launcher.
While there are certainly those who don’t use many or even any of the extra features enjoyed by other platforms, is it really too much to ask for a company that made over one billion dollars to provide a better user experience out of the gate?
But Competition is Healthy!
Despite how bad the user experience is comparatively for players, there is one good outcome: competition is good, and this will only make the marketplace stronger.
This is true and not necessarily applicable to this situation.
I’ve already outlined why it is a decidedly worse user experience in just about every way for the end user, but let’s talk about the dev end of things- the competition against companies. Around the time Twitch released their own game store, Valve released their own streaming services within their client, allowing users to watch and stream their own games without using an outside client. Whether this was a direct response to Twitch or not, it’s hard to say, but its easy to see where the motivation to strengthen their streaming set came from.
Another client, Discord, came and took over Valve’s too-simple chat system with a better friends list and community set of features that took PC gaming by storm and became the de-facto client for most gamers. Then Discord launched their own storefront, and Valve answered with their own set of new community features and friend integration that were long needed. It may not and likely will not shut down Discord, but it sure as hell is a better feature set than Steam had before.
Valve knows what’s coming down the line. They are too massive of a company not to know about Twitch/Discord/Epic’s plans before they’re revealed. They are able to respond in healthy ways that benefits everyone.
The situation with Epic benefits no one. They do not have set of community features that Valve doesn’t have, nor are they enticing players with new and exciting features and Steam could use. They are clamping down on games as exclusives in order to bring in their audience. If you’re Valve, how do you answer that?
For one, you stem the flow of big games exiting your client by increasing revenue share, which they announced in November. This will not change much, as we’ve already seen with some big AAA titles skipping Steam altogether. It is a net positive for some devs of course.
The second way to respond to Epic would be to offer exclusives of your own, or perhaps punish those who chose Epic’s deal with less exposure and marketing support. Something Valve has long offered but seemingly gets no credit for these days is the ability to distribute keys to other competing platforms. Think about this for a minute: Valve allows devs to take, say, 1,000 keys and cut them out of the loop altogether. Selling those 1,000 keys on MegaKeyMart nets me a better percentage of sales, makes money for a storefront that isn’t Steam, and Valve incurs the cost of bandwidth and support.
It was an ingenious move many years ago when Steam was still growing. It allowed Steam to get on computers that would have otherwise never downloaded a Steam client. But now, is it necessary? Does Steam need to grow like it needed to before with over 100 million users? If Valve forced developers to pay 10% of each key requested, many small distributors would be severely affected. Valve would make more money. And not only that, they would in turn force a kind of exclusivity by making devs think twice about sending keys to Humble or any other store. It would not be a good PR move, but when you’re fighting against a company who’s only method of competition is to “steal” games away from your service, how else do you fight other than making your own platform even more exclusive?
That’s not to say Valve has to do anything at all- Epic’s store is highly curated, and you won’t find a majority of games on the Epic Launcher. Steam will always have the library and feature-set advantage, for the immediate future anyways. But this kind of competition doesn’t help foster growth, it fosters exclusivity on an open platform.
You’ve Got One Launch.
For those who argue that the rise of all these new PC launchers is good for gaming, good for competition, answer this- what good has come from having a Bethesda launcher, or a Blizzard launcher? I give full credit to EA for at least attempting to make Origin a solid alternative to Steam- a full set of features and consumer friendly tools like a no-questions-asked refund policy (which I believe was implemented before Steam’s own policy- other example of the right kind of competitor influence) and unique services like the Origin Access club. Not only that, but EA has left their legacy catalog on Steam and other store fronts that were launched pre-Origin. Compare that to the Epic launcher that had some devs remove Steam pages and promotional deals that were advertised immediately before the exclusivity announcement came out. This is a problem in the immediate right now and going forward games likely won’t show up on Steam at all, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more coming soon pages get torn down from Steam in the months to come.
And that’s the main inherent issue with this whole launch: literally only developers benefit from this service. No achievements to program, no API issues (as there are zero for the Epic store), less to code, more money to make, a curated store puts your game front and center…it is a place that will help foster more success stories about the scrappy indie dev who didn’t make it on Steam but made a huge pile of cash on Epic, thanks to their revenue share and friendly dev features (though it may be awhile before we get that story- most if not all of the indie devs chosen to be on Epic so far have large fanbases who don't necessarily have to worry about exposure like most other devs).
Which brings us to the most AAA-like decision we’ve ever had to make as indie devs. Should we make more money with Epic, with greater PR reach and the potential for success made even higher thanks to a curated storefront, or go with literally any other store platform with less revenue share but better features and support for our fans and customers?
Whatever choice you make, know that it will be nakedly transparent, and no amount of spin is going to change that. It’s ultimately going to be up to Epic to make the Epic Launcher the best place to play a game, instead of the only place you’re allowed.