Steam's iron grip on PC gaming is probably over even if the Epic Games Store fails

The days of Steam being your only option are long gone if you want to play today's hottest triple-A games.

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At the end of January, Deep Silver pulled Metro Exodus from Steam and moved it to the Epic Games Store. It was the latest in a series of high-profile defections, made perhaps more noteworthy because it came just two weeks before Metro’s February 15 release date. Some portion of the internet was, undoubtedly, happy about the move—or at least indifferent. Another, much louder portion of the internet was very, very mad.

As happened with Origin once upon a time, with GOG.com, with Humble, and with Bethesda.net, a significant subset of PC gamers looked at Epic and said “Nay, this will not stand.” They pledged to boycott Metro, to boycott the Epic Games Store, to ignore any game that didn’t grace Steam’s wizened storefront.

And they may win. Like many storefronts before it, the Epic Games Store could still fail. Sure, it has the monetary backing of the most popular game in the entire world, but if at some point the numbers just don’t make sense? Well, they don’t make sense, and Epic will fold—or it’ll simply become semi-irrelevant, like most Steam competitors.

metro exodus 4A Games

Metro Exodus, one of the best shooters in recent memory, left Steam for the Epic Games Store.

It doesn’t matter though. Whether Epic succeeds or not, Steam has already lost. The days of Valve’s de facto monopoly are over, and all that matters is what comes next.

The fall of Rome

When the Epic Games Store was announced in December, I wrote that “Epic doesn’t need to convince players [to abandon Steam.] It only needs to convince developers.” And then I repeated that line when The Division 2 left for the Epic Games Store, and again when Metro Exodus left. I’m repeating it here as well.

Why? Because what keeps people tied to Steam is, in large part, the money they’ve invested in the platform. Me, I have over 2,000 games on Steam. And it’s nice having them all in one place! For over a decade now, that’s how it’s been. The overwhelming majority (at least 95 percent) of my PC library is in Steam, and overcoming that momentum is hard. I’d wager impossible, actually—at least without an outside force.

Epic provides that outside force. They don’t ask you to move, they force you. They say “The only way you’re going to play this game is by downloading the Epic Games Store and buying it from us.” People are understandably upset about Epic forcing their hand and thus, the boycotts. It’s easy to grasp the motive behind people’s anger, even if you disagree with it.

Epic Games Store Epic

There’s plenty of reason for developers to get on board though. Epic gives developers 88 percent of revenue, as opposed to 70 (or up to 80) percent from Valve. On top of that, there’s reason to believe Epic’s sweetening these early moves by guaranteeing developers a certain amount of sales—meaning if Epic’s established user base doesn’t hit those numbers, Epic makes up the difference out-of-pocket.

You can expect to see more exclusives this year. It’s a fact. I doubt any of them will make the same mistake as Metro Exodus, announcing two weeks before release and after the game’s already been available for purchase on Steam. But there are more exclusives to come. If you’re a “No Steam, No Buy” person, your 2019 lineup is going to be full of some major holes.

But—and here’s the catch—if you’re a “No Steam, No Buy” person, it’s only going to get worse from here. People seem to think if Epic loses, publishers will simply return to Steam hat-in-hand and take whatever they’re given. And why not? History’s certainly borne out that scenario, even as recently as 2018. Last year CD Projekt tried to make Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales a GOG.com exclusive, to no avail. A few weeks later Thronebreaker showed up on Steam, with CD Projekt admitting sales on GOG.com hadn’t met expectations.

That’s Thronebreaker though. Sure, it’s got The Witcher in the title, but it didn’t have near the same buzz as The Witcher 3. It didn’t rack up Game of the Year awards, wasn’t hailed as the greatest RPG of all time. It’s a perfectly enjoyable experience, sure, but it’s B-tier at best.

You know what’s not B-tier? CD Projekt’s next game, Cyberpunk 2077. What happens when Cyberpunk releases? Will it be a GOG.com exclusive? Or go to Epic, as an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend gesture? I don’t know. I can’t predict the specifics. Both seem possible though, and let’s play out this hypothetical scenario. Are you going to...boycott Cyberpunk 2077? Even if it’s the industry-changing event people expect it to be? Even if Cyberpunk 2077 is to modern gaming what Half-Life 2 was to 2004?

Not likely.

What 2018 revealed is that Valve simply doesn’t have much power over games it doesn’t make. Not as much as it used to, anyway. In the past Steam’s used its market dominance as a bludgeon, shrugged off competitors without making any concessions, but that approach isn’t looking as foolproof this time around. Sure, Valve still commands the majority of eyes on PC, but ultimately it’s the games that matter—and publishers know that now.

Boycott the Epic Games Store all you like. I’m not here to tell you where to shop. I can tell you though that Epic failing doesn’t necessarily put Steam in a better position. If or even when Epic’s storefront collapses, it will most likely mean more fracturing, not less. In lieu of a viable centralized Steam competitor you’ll have a dozen different publisher-specific launchers, or more. The process was underway even before the Epic Games Store was announced. If anything, Epic’s temporarily put a stop to the splintering as publishers reexamine the landscape.

Because that’s the reality: Publishers aren’t coming back to Steam, at least not if the status quo persists. EA left years ago, and the creation of Origin now seems downright prophetic. Bethesda’s clearly fed up too though, and isn’t likely to return without a significant reworking of its relationship with Valve. Activision’s investing in Battle.net. Ubisoft’s had one foot out the door with Uplay, and now with The Division 2 it’s getting in the car and preparing to drive off.

Even some of the smaller publishers seem like they could follow Deep Silver’s lead and defect. They don’t have the resources perhaps to stand on their own, not yet anyway, but united with Epic? That’s a safe play. Capcom’s recent resurgence with Monster Hunter World and Resident Evil 2 seems like enough to look into leaving. Square, Sega, and WB are in a more tenuous position, but are likely to look to Epic this year.

If Epic fails it might delay those smaller publishers leaving for a bit, and it’ll keep Valve’s stranglehold on the indie market intact. But Steam will still lose an enormous swathe of the release calendar—and the more players get accustomed to running a dozen different launchers on their PC, the less they’ll complain the next time a Steam competitor comes along. I still remember the vitriol on display when EA launched Origin. Last year’s Bethesda.net controversy? Doesn’t even come close. Even this Epic Games Store blowup pales in comparison.

Bethesda.net IDG / Hayden Dingman

And sure, it’s hyperbole to say Valve’s doomed. Hell, its days as a de facto monopoly aren’t even truly over yet, despite what I said up top.

They are numbered though, and it’ll take a massive effort on Valve’s part to turn this around. Steam needs to match or at least come close to matching Epic’s revenue split, for one. The old 70 percent standby just isn’t going to cut it, and even a flat 80 percent might not win back everyone.

Regardless, Valve has to try. It has to make a move this time. It can’t just sit back and count people’s negative reactions to news like the Metro Exodus defection as a win. Sure, players are mad. Sure, Exodus might sell fewer copies on the Epic Games Store, and that in turn might dissuade Deep Silver from trying this experiment again.

Plenty of games will do just fine on the Epic Games Store though, and plenty of others will do just fine wherever they land on PC—at least well enough for publishers to decide it’s worth not dealing with Valve’s dictatorship, anyway.

And the ones that don’t? The ones that can’t stand on their own? This worries me most, because there’s a scenario here where the Epic Games Store fails and Valve is arrogant enough to draw a hard line in the sand. What happens then? Well, I’d bet certain games just...never make it to the PC. If there’s enough bad blood between Valve and publishers, and the game’s not going to sell well outside Steam, then why bother?

It’d be a return to the dark ages of 2001 to around 2010, that era where console games rarely made it to PC and when they did the ports were usually half-broken. Nowadays I can basically count on any non-Sony, non-Nintendo game coming to PC, but there’s a real chance that’s not true in the future, and that certain publishers abandon the PC again, undoing about a decade of progress. Personally I dread that idea more than I dread the idea of running a few more launchers, if that’s what it takes to keep the PC viable.

Bottom line

origin steam 100706062 orig Gordon Mah Ung/Rob Schultz

Don’t get me wrong: The Epic Games Store has definite shortcomings. This article isn’t necessarily focused on what Epic’s doing wrong, but there are myriad issues. I don’t understand how a storefront backed by Fortnite money releases in 2019 without basic quality-of-life features like achievements and cloud saves. And the user interface is dubious as well. It’s great when you have like, ten games on the service, but trying to imagine Steam’s 20 thousand-odd games on the current Epic Games Store? A nightmare.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter though. All Epic’s done is waded into the fray with enough money to make publishers speed up their existing plans. It’s exacerbated disputes that already existed in 2018, in 2017, even in 2016, and without major action on Valve’s part those relationships aren’t getting repaired.

You may not like it—it may annoy you, or even make you angry—but the days of one unified storefront on PC are over, and they’re not coming back. How you treat that news, whether you give Steam’s competitors a shot or continue buying from an ever-shrinking pool of games, that’s up to you.

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