Is The Clash Between Steam And Epic Good For Gaming?

With the exclusivity deals stacking up, PR stunts left and right, and controversial tweets firing on all cylinders, it’s getting hard to avoid the Epic vs. Steam debate these days. If you’re not up to speed, check out this TechRadar piece covering the affair. They’ll catch you right up on all the digital distributor drama.

If you are familiar with the debacle, then I want to warn you that this article is not going to weigh in on either side. I’m not here to blindly praise Steam, or cash in my Tencent paycheck. My only concern is whether this is good for:

  • Everyday gamers
  • Developers
  • The gaming industry

I’ll try to keep my biases to the side, but in reading you’ll probably divine where my heart lies. I hope to stay fairly objective, but sometimes you can discern that something is demonstrably wrong, regardless of what it’s being compared to. With that out of the way, let’s dive in.

Epic Games Store by steamXO

Epic Games, Or: The Little Competitor That Could

Initially, I assumed that Epic Games Store would follow a path blazed by previous Steam competitors — one that leads to mediocrity and obscurity. I fondly remember when Origin was the Big Bad of PC gaming. One could survey the battle and know with confidence that Gaben and Valve would rise from the carnage virtually unscathed.

When Epic announced their exclusivity deal with Metro Exodus (something the developers deeply regret), I assumed it was a desperate move by a platform with few users outside of the Fortnite crowd. Little did I know, I was witnessing the first volley in an aggressive strategy intended to force users to migrate from Steam.

Personally, an exclusivity deal here and there doesn’t really bother me. I suffered through the early console wars knowing full well it would be years before I could play certain titles, if at all. However, when the news broke that Outer Worlds would be an Epic exclusive, I finally suffered my first gut-punch in the distributor war.

I considered Outer Worlds a day one purchase, and to stick with that plan I’d have to download Epic Games Store. Hoping to spur this kind of widespread adoption, Epic has secured some of the biggest PC game releases of 2019 as platform exclusives, pocketing:

Along with a host of other titles either already in the store, or rumored to be next up for exclusivity.Suffice it to say, this competitor is not going away anytime soon. They have the means and the will to fight a pitched battle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of PC gamers — whether we like it or not.

Competition’s Merits And The Monopoly Dilemma

Valve, creator of Steam and not Half-Life 3. Photo by steamXO

Here’s an oft-echoed platitude for you: monopolies are bad for business. Which is true in many respects. However, this doesn’t mean that consumers don’t like monopolies, or are overly bothered by their existence. Customers don’t particularly care about innovation or risk-taking from the companies that supply their daily needs and wants. What they really value is:

  • Stability
  • Familiarity
  • Convenience

People want to have reliable access to goods and services. They want these goods and services to be delivered by someone they trust. Finally, they want this process to be neat, tidy, and require as little time and effort from them as possible… they’re paying for it with their own hard-earned cash after all.

This practically guarantees the emergence of monopolies like Steam. Why is that a problem? Well, with great market power comes great irresponsibility. If you’re the only baker in town, people will buy your bread, no matter how bland and tasteless your rye is. Until a rival baker sets up shop, there’s little reason to make that rye tastier beyond the goodness of your heart.

In the midst of all the “Epic Games Bad shitposting,” people often forget that Valve’s bad business practices have been lambasted for years. Of course, they’ve addressed some of these concerns over the past decade, but they’ve been slow to change — a privilege granted by their monolithic dominance of PC gaming sales.

Monopoly power has allowed Valve to rest on their laurels, and Steam has accumulated numerous problems that negatively impact both game devs and gamers alike, such as:

And that’s just scratching the surface. Granted, these complaints often stem from biased sources like op-ed writers and slighted developers, but there’s certainly truth to their claims.

Both economists and laymen know the cure to Steam’s ails: a healthy dose of competition. According to Forbes and Engadget, this is exactly what Epic Games Store is providing. Unfortunately, I’m not possessed by the same spirit of optimism that blesses those writers.

I’d wager that most people outside of a Valve boardroom agree that a Steam competitor is good for the industry. However, Epic has gone about competing with Steam in some of the worst, most anti-consumer ways possible.

Epic Games Store: Not The Steam-Killer We Needed

Cofounder of Valve and retired meme, Gabe Newell. Photo by steamXO

Epic Games Store released with less than half the functionality of Steam and a tiny library held up by Fortnite. Which is fine at first. Origin was a hot mess upon release, but they addressed their problems and slowly built a decent platform for EA’s games. Sadly, instead of learning from Origin’s example and hitting the market with a stronger product, Epic resorted to exclusivity deals to strong-arm gamers into adopting their platform.

Further compounding this, are all the rumors surrounding Epic Games and Tencent. While Epic has denied that the dystopian Chinese Megacorp has any say in the running of Epic Games Store, Tencent still owns nearly half of their company. Gamers have every reason to be concerned that Tencent may exert some kind of undue influence over Epic.

Worse still, Epic has also been caught stealing user data from Steam (of all places). Whatever the specifics of the situation may be, they’ve given consumers very little reason to trust them with sensitive data like:

  • PayPal accounts
  • Personal emails
  • Credit card numbers

This, plus heavy ties to a corporation that spies on Chinese citizens for the government, should send up massive red-flags. While Steam has certainly had security hiccups in the past, they’ve demonstrated swift action to patch vulnerabilities and a commitment to user privacy.

Ultimately, this battle seems to be a lose-lose for gamers and developers. Fossbyte deems it “a selfish battle for dominance,” and I have to agree. These gaming giants duking it out will not spark a PC gaming renaissance, but rather inflict collateral damage upon those who support the industry.

What’s perhaps the saddest aspect of this ordeal, is that it didn’t have to be this way. Steam has faced stiff competition before, and there are several examples of digital distributors who played to their strengths and created great hubs for their specific slice of the market, like:

Even today, Discord is launching an ambitious game store, leveraging their huge user base and Nitro subscription model to their benefit.

Epic Games Store had plenty of examples for how to successfully compete with Steam and not screw gamers over. Few companies have the kind of means that Epic does, and it’s a damn shame we didn’t see them use that huge budget to make a worthy competitor to Steam.

By Jared Carpenter