Steam is the biggest digital shop in the PC gaming world. Many PC players – myself included – have built up Steam libraries over a number of years that are irreplaceable. But Steam is not the invincible juggernaut it once was. Not only is the growth of Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription service something that has the potential to be a major disruption, the Epic Games Store has been aggressively elbowing its way onto Steam’s turf.
I had an Epic Games account until recently. However, when their crappy customer support caused me a problem that should have been easily resolved and cost me money, I vowed not to shop with them again. But that’s not always easy, because the way Epic has been competing with Steam has been to buy up the rights to as many games as it can, making them exclusives or timed exclusives to the Epic Games Store. Players like myself who only use Steam thus can’t access the titles – and Epic hopes that will bring more players into its marketplace.
To be fair to Epic, despite this policy being anti-consumer it has worked. And again, to be fair to Epic, asking PC players to install a second launcher for games isn’t a huge request. The Epic Games Launcher isn’t particularly cumbersome and works as intended. It’s a minor annoyance, but one players are willing to put up with to play the games that they want to. I may have my own reasons for disliking Epic Games considering they cost me money, but most players – even those who were initially opposed to Epic’s policy of buying up exclusive rights – have softened their tone and signed up. After all, for those titles it’s the only way to play if you’re a PC gamer.
Watch Dogs Legion and the remaster of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 are two of the latest titles to be snapped up by Epic, and at this point the exclusivity problem is beginning to bite. Watch Dogs Legion looks moderately interesting, but I was definitely excited to play the remaster of a skating game I remember with fondness from the Dreamcast era. Alas, the only way to do so is to subscribe to Epic.
For Steam, this is a growing problem. One or two titles here and there can be written off. Shenmue III may have generated a lot of controversy amongst its Kickstarter backers, but since hardly anyone bought the title the actual loss to Steam is negligible. Watch Dogs Legion, however, is a pretty big release – the kind the games industry refers to as “AAA” or “triple-A.” Its loss to Steam is going to be significant, with revenue easily into the hundreds of thousands of dollars simply disappearing.
One way or another, Steam is going to have to get a handle on this. Their recent partnership with Electronic Arts has brought some popular titles – like the FIFA series – to Steam, but that’s a distraction rather than addressing the problem. Steam has never faced such stiff competition; the platform had the PC gaming realm almost all to itself for a long time. I’m not sure that, at a basic level, they even know how to deal with a problem like competition from Epic Games.
Epic Games has been throwing its wallet around to nab as many exclusives as possible. Not only has it worked for them, but that practice shows no signs of slowing down. If anything, we’re likely to see more games go Epic-exclusive, not fewer. In addition, the backlash games could expect to receive online for announcing a deal with Epic gets smaller and smaller every time. In the cases of Watch Dogs Legion and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2, I don’t recall seeing any criticism at all – no one even mentioned it. It wasn’t until I looked up the titles for myself that I learned they’re Epic exclusives, so from a developer or publisher’s perspective, there’s a lot to be gained and almost nothing to lose by signing on with Epic Games. Why wouldn’t they do it?
Competition in a marketplace is usually a positive thing. It forces all participants to be better in order to remain competitive – at least, that’s the theory. It doesn’t always work, and there are times where competing companies have done some pretty crappy and shady things in order to get a leg-up on their adversaries. But broadly speaking, competition can force companies to do better and to ditch bad practices. Epic Games should be a wake-up call for Steam. After years where they’ve had an effective monopoly, there’s finally some real competition. They need to step up, because Epic won’t give up and go away. Not when they’ve found a model that works, and one that’s becoming more palatable to players by the day.
Even though I’m still stinging from Epic’s refusal to help me a few weeks ago, I have to admit it’s probably only a matter of time before I give in and sign up for an account again. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 & 2 almost pushed me into doing so; it’s only anger at this point that’s keeping me from jumping back in. As a single person, it’s easy to feel like any such protest against a large company is meaningless. Epic doesn’t care in the slightest that I don’t have an account. They already have the money I spent on the few titles I owned, and any lost revenue from me – especially given that I’m not someone who buys games every day of the week – is negligible to a huge company like that. Regardless, I continue my one-person protest simply out of spite!
Steam has a real problem on its hands. And they need to start looking for creative solutions. The more Epic Games’ presence in the PC gaming realm grows, the harder they will be to dislodge. Steam can no longer afford to wait it out – Epic is clearly not going away. Fighting fire with fire is one option; Steam could use its considerable resources to buy up exclusive rights for a lot of upcoming titles, beating Epic at their own game. Or they could undercut Epic on every shared title, even if that means selling some games at a loss. The point is they have options, but right now they seem to think they can coast. Steam seems to think that their position as the current number-one in the PC gaming space is unassailable, and that they can ignore Epic’s presence altogether. That is simply not viable.
This article may have been prompted by a couple of recent games, but there are dozens of big Epic Games Store exclusives. Here’s a short list of some of the big ones that Epic has successfully kept away from Steam:
Anno 1800, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, The Division 2, Ghost Recon: Breakpoint, Hitman 3, Industries of Titan, Magic: The Gathering Arena, Maneater, Rocket League (free-to-play version), The Outer Worlds, Saints Row The Third Remastered, Shenmue III, The Settlers, SnowRunner, Super Meat Boy Forever, Tetris Effect, Total War Saga: Troy, Twin Mirror, and The Wolf Among Us 2.
That’s by no means an exhaustive list; there are many more titles that Epic has snapped up. In some cases the games are available elsewhere, such as on Uplay or Game Pass, but Epic has still been willing to open its wallet purely to stop the title also being released on Steam. And Steam quite happily lets them do it, offering no protest and no rebuttal.
Something’s got to change over at Steam, because if they don’t get a handle on this – and soon – their days as the number-one PC gaming shop will be over.
All titles mentioned above are the copyright of their respective studio, developer, and/or publisher. Watch Dogs Legion promo art courtesy of the press kit on IGDB. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.