For nearly two decades now Valve’s Steam has existed as the primary and undoubtedly most well-known distribution platform for PC users. Started in the early 2000s amidst Valve’s ramping-up to the vaunted release of classic title Half-Life 2, Steam was initially not much more than a platform for their own in-house games, and eventually a multiplayer hub for titles like Counter-Strike and DotA 2. However, Steam’s use as a digital storefront with automatic patches and built-in digital-rights verification and protection just couldn’t sit unused for long.
In the time since Steam took the crown as the king of digital distribution, countless other such services have cropped up. Some, such as Desura or Good Old Games, serves as a bit of a rival to Steam or its practices while fulfilling a different niche–in this case, indie games or vintage classics you can’t find on Steam. Others, such as EA’s Origin or Ubisoft’s Uplay, have attempted to serve as direct rivals to house the company’s own products, as these giants have tried to corner their slices of the pie for themselves. None of them has really done much to topple Steam, though that may change.
Epic Games, once the studio behind such gaming giants as the Unreal series and Gears of War and now the juggernaut behind Fortnite’s rise to fame and financial success, has announced plans to make a digital distribution platform akin to Valve’s own, and they intend to be direct competitors. While this may seem like an unusual choice, Epic has shown something of a more widespread interest before. Their engine is still the most licensed first party development engine in use and is only rivalled by indie darlings like Unity for use. Not to mention Epic’s previous forays into indie titles working as a publisher alongside developers such as Chair Entertainment and Cloudgine.
That said, a small bit of experience and the wealth of Fortnite’s bank aren’t everything Epic plans to bring to the table. While Steam’s digital store is blessedly free of most involvement–and as of 2018, won’t even ban or remove games with adult-only content anymore without reason–this lack of curation is seen by many to be a problem. And such voices aren’t exactly wrong. While a free and open digital marketplace has its perks and sees many, many games that might otherwise be lost in a peer-based review system of inclusion. These are crowded out extensively by actual trash games, ranging from those made entirely of stolen content to cheap and awful cash-in games made by pretend developers with cheap Unity assets thrown together in haphazard, almost always terrible ways.
Epic seeks to move past that, with a hand-curated selection of first and third-party titles to distribute and, surprisingly, a much lower cut taken off of the top. While Steam has traditionally held a 30% share in the sales of all titles pushed through its digital space, even the recent announcements of a new tiered system that lowers this fee down to 25% and then 20% can’t compete. The plan is based on millions sold in revenue generated, so it leaves out indie games which make up a large amount of Steam’s storefront. But Epic’s announcement includes a flat 12% charge across the board, leaving a large cut still in the hands of developers, making it a lovely option.
Earlier this year, as if to herald the surprise announcement, Epic snatched up the full ownership of Cloudgine, the studio in charge of the upcoming and often-delayed Microsoft title Crackdown 3, as well as a small subsidiary called Kamu, known for their anti-cheat software that is likely to be implemented in some games going forward on the new platform. While Sony has also made an attempt at a prime digital gaming storefront, and even manufacturer Lenovo’s put a hand into the markets, neither of them have seemed to plan this far ahead or pick such specific points in Steam’s infrastructure to target. The bold strides can only help Epic, though of course as a platform it will still need third-party games to succeed.
To that end, the small licensing charge to third-party games on Steam built with the Unreal Engine won’t be an issue here; while Epic’s platform will support Unity games, they won’t show any special treatment towards Unreal Engine games made by other devs. The fee, mentioned above, is an extra 5% charged on top of Steam’s own commission and has been a contractual part of Epic’s licensing fees for the engine since its inception. With it not featuring into their as-yet-unnamed distribution platform, however, you have one more pricing highlight for devs of all sizes, making it equally attractive to large companies and indie creators regardless of their development methods.
It’s hard to say if this will indeed shake up Valve or Steam’s often saurian practices, or how this will affect Fortnite’s reach–or be affected by it. And there’s no word yet on if Epic will be able to match Steam’s massive and incredibly useful seasonal sales, either. But one thing’s for sure; the competition will only help both platforms become better for the people they serve.