In early December of last year, Epic announced the launch of the Epic Games store, a digital storefront for PC games. It’s a relatively simple concept, except that the company faces a strong incumbent: for more than a decade, digital game sales have been dominated by one service, Steam. Run by Valve Software, the developer of games like Half-Life and Portal, Steam has for a long time been the only digital store that mattered. Steam was an app store before app stores existed. Anyone remotely interested in computer games probably owns a collection of dozens or hundreds of games on the service (usually acquired through occasional sales offering steep discounts).
There are many benefits to Steam. For users, games are installed with the click of a button. For developers, the company makes digital publishing relatively easy, handling things like credit card payments and no-fuss implementation of features like cloud saves, transferring game progress between devices. It also has an enormous customer base.
Every major PC release comes out on Steam. Or at least, they used to. As Steam has grown in market dominance, users, developers, and publishers have started to bristle at Steam’s growing list of hassles. At the top of the list is the 30 percent cut that Steam takes from every transaction (Apple and Google take identical cuts on their app stores). There is also Steam’s review system, which is often subject to a form of manipulation known as v bucks hack “review-bombing”, and the store’s return policy — any game purchase played for less than two hours can be automatically refunded.
Over the years, major (“triple-A”) publishers have begun to conclude that with tentpole releases, they can likely get away with releasing their games outside of Steam. The idea is that the need to play a game immediately at launch will supersede a player’s devotion to Steam. Pretty much every triple-A publisher has its own “launcher,” a piece of unifying software tying together a user’s catalog of purchases. Recent releases in Electronic Arts’s Battlefield series have been exclusive to EA’s Origin launcher. The most recent Call of Duty title is available to PC players exclusively on Activision’s Battle.net, which is also the only place to buy Blizzard games like Starcraftand Diablo digitally. In a strategy shift, the newest Bethesda title, Fallout 76, is also only available through a proprietary launcher. While available independently, Ubisoft’s launcher software, Uplay, is even baked in to some of the titles it sells on Steam.