Opinion: Care about game developers? Then stop getting angry about studios going exclusive with the Epic Games Store

Opinion: Care about game developers? Then stop getting angry about studios going exclusive with the Epic Games Store

For a long time, Steam was seen as the gold standard in the PC games landscape. It was the biggest platform by a mile and it looked like it was providing a service to developers and consumers alike.

That has changed since 2011, of course, when Valve introduced Greenlight to allow the community to decide what appeared in its walled garden. From there, we had Early Access in 2013, further opening the floodgates to more projects, some of which were of a decidedly low quality.

That was before Greenlight was replaced in 2017 by Steam Direct, allowing anyone with $100 to put a game up for sale. The result was an absolute tsunami of titles coming to the Steam platform, with the average number of releases in a given week doubling shortly after

As a result, Steam has become a decidedly hostile place for developers. Where before being on Valve's platform was a badge of honour or being put on a pedestal in front of the PC games audience, now it is harder and harder to be successful on Steam. In 2018, this was dubbed the Steampocalypse, with developers expressing dissatisfaction with what Valve's storefront had become.

It's easy to entirely blame Valve for what Steam has become; after all, they are in the driving seat of a platform with 1bn registered accounts, 90m monthly active users and 47m daily active users. And while I'm not going to get into the Bellevue-based games giant's inner workings, which are likely part of the problem. But the biggest issue facing Steam was that it had no real competition.

Valve's marketplace was the biggest and the best, but no-one was pushing them to be better. In the PC space, CD Projekt's is widely seen as the second biggest PC storefront, but the Polish games firm won't disclose its use figures and even admitted its own audience was tiny compared to Steam.

You only need to look at Microsoft's performance during the last console generation - being absolutely destroyed early on by Sony - to see that competition can be a decent motivation to improve.

So in December 2018, Epic Games announced it was launching its own storefront. Not only did it have a massive pile of cash following Fortnite's frankly absurd success, the company was offering developers a more competitive revenue share. Where Steam - and other platforms including GOG, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo - keep 30 per cent of cash with the rest returning to the developer, Tim Sweeney's firm was prepared to take just 12 per cent.

Boom. There you go. Competition.

Valve may not have to worry about Epic hitting its bottom line just yet, but the perception that the Fortnite maker was being far more generous was clear from the off. In the GDC Developer Survey 2019, a huge portion of respondents said they felt that Valve wasn't doing enough to earn its 30 per cent share of revenue, with studios telling that they were spending more on marketing outside of Steam to drive people there as discoverability had become such an issue.

While developers were content to earn more cash for their hard work, many consumers weren't happy with the Epic Games Store.

From the off, the North Carolina-based giant started snapping up games exclusively - something we asked Sweeney about at GDC 2019 - even if they had been available on other platforms.

Metro Exodus from developer 4A Studios and publisher Deep Silver had been up for pre-order on Steam for months before moving exclusively to Epic, which did annoy its fanbase. That was before the crowdfunded and eagerly-awaited Shenmue III from Ys became an Epic exclusive on PC, with backers being irate that their copy of the game wouldn't be on Steam

This rage at developers bringing their wares exclusively to one platform or another culminated in the absurd anger generated by Ooblets maker Glumberland, who revealed that the title was coming to the Epic Games Store only to be met with a wave of entitlement and harassment, which the firm condemned yesterday

Why had Glumberland done this? Epic paid them, obviously. The Fortnite firm has been giving developers who come exclusively to its platform a minimum guarantee on sales. Many in the games community might see this as somehow anti-consumer, underhanded or sketchy, or that the developers are greedy for taking Epic's cash.

But the reality is that it is hard to make it as a developer in the PC space these days. In 2018, close to 10,000 games launched on Steam alone. How do you compete with that level of content? You could argue that the best titles will rise to the top via word of mouth or Steam's algorithm surfacing them, but there's such a glut of releases every single day that even good titles will be lost in the noise.

Having a company come along, give you a minimum guarantee on sales takes the chance out of releasing a game. Right now, launching on Steam is a dice roll - you could be wildly successful, but there's every chance you'll be lucky to break even.

In the anger against Glumberland, there's a number of consumers saying that the studio has lost a sale, that they're not going to buy Ooblets because the title is only available on Steam. If these people cared about the developers who make the games they play, then they'd care about the creators securing their financial future. Going exclusive on one platform might not be pretty, but it's ensuring that Glumberland will likely continue to exist beyond its debut title.

Having some competition has also forced Valve to try and improve Steam. It's likely not a coincidence that the Bellevue firm has launched Steam Labs recently, with many of the experimental features being to do with discoverability, answering one of the main problems present on the platform right now. Even if all Epic manages to do with its storefront is force the competition to be better, that's enough in my mind. Hell, even boss man Sweeney says he wants the best for the industry at large.

None of this is to say that the Epic Games Store is perfect. It launched in a very barebones state and even now there are numerous improvements and changes that need to be made to the storefront, with many of those on the way, albeit delayed.

But before getting annoyed at Epic for missing features, ask yourself: are Steam or other PC platforms perfect, either? Before getting angry at developers for wanting to guarantee their future, ask yourself about the market conditions that made them way to take a guaranteed sum of money? Where many see greed or bad intentions, I see creators struggling to make ends meet.

PCGamesInsider Contributing Editor

Alex Calvin is a freelance journalist who writes about the business of games. He started out at UK trade paper MCV in 2013 and left as deputy editor over three years later. In June 2017, he joined Steel Media as the editor for new site In October 2019 he left this full-time position at the company but still contributes to the site on a daily basis. He has also written for, VGC, Games London, The Observer/Guardian and Esquire UK.