Epic Games sent a small shock wave through the industry earlier this week when they announced the Epic Games Store, a direct competitor to Valve’s Steam Store. In their announcement, Epic described a service that sounds like it would be a dream come true for most game makers. They get a bigger cut of their sales, can completely control their game pages and can connect with content creators more easily. Epic will even cover the Unreal Engine licensing fee and 5% of creator revenue sharing for developers using these tools. These are all things Steam doesn’t offer at the moment and that deficiency could spell its doom. If Valve handles it right, however, the emergence of Epic Games Store could be the best thing that’s ever happened to Steam.
For most of its lifespan, Steam has been the undisputed juggernaut of PC gaming. A few publishers like EA and Bethesda have split-off to sell their own games through their own services, but Steam is by and large the place to go if one wants to buy and play games on their PC. The service has plenty of things going for it. It’s got a massive install base of users; gamers love their sales, controller support makes it easy to play however one wants to. That said, the service is also rife with problems.
Two major problems have been plaguing Steam for several years now, neither of which Valve has shown much interest in addressing; the first has to do with quality control. Thanks to programs like Steam Greenlight and now Steam Direct, the store has been flooded with slap-dash and barely functioning “games.” There are so many games getting poured onto the service each month that most decent titles are getting lost in the noise, and many are already seeking better homes on the PS4, Xbox One and especially the Nintendo Switch. Good developers and games just cannot be easily found anymore, and that leads into Steam’s other major problem: navigation. Steam is a nightmare to navigate for casual and intermediate users. There’s so much garbage to wade through, that trying to discover anything genuinely good on Steam pretty much amounts to a fool’s errand. As things currently stand, one is better off going to an outside site to learn about which indie games are worth looking into and they won’t necessarily know about everything. For gaming consumers, Steam serves as a handy way to buy and play games, but it’s totally worthless when it comes to finding something new; it’s even worse for developers.
Getting onto Steam isn’t difficult at all, but selling on Steam absolutely is. Remember all those features Epic touted in their announcement? Those are all direct challenges to how Steam does things. Right now, Steam’s standard take from all game sales is a whopping thirty percent. Additionally, they reserve the right to run whatever advertising they please on individual game pages and do very little to support the developers using their platform. Once a game is one Steam, it’s completely up to the developer to market it outside the platform and win some sales. If they finally manage to get some sales, Steam takes a full third even though they do virtually nothing. This is a store that doesn’t work for anyone except for Valve and they’ve had no good reason to do anything about it for almost its entire lifespan. Now, though, now they’ll finally have to.
The announcement of Epic Games Store doesn’t necessarily have to serve as the death warrant for Steam. It could actually be the opposite if Valve is smart enough to act on it. Epic has described a fantastic system for game makers and content creators, but they haven’t yet explained why the average gamer would want to use Epic Games Store over Steam. Gamers will have to go there if that’s where the games are, but it’ll take a little bit of time for things to reach that point. Until then, Valve has an opportunity to turn their service around and make it better than it’s ever been. They could drop their overly greedy and hands-off policies and adopt something similar to what Epic is proposing, but they’ll need to go further than that.
Valve needs to completely rework their quality standards and the overall usability of the store if they want gamers and developers to favor them over Epic. That means no more allowing nonfunctional piles of garbage onto the service, no more relying on algorithms and under-explained filters to get games in front of gamers and no more reliance on the community to handle curation on its own. It would be difficult and it would be painful to implement in such a short period of time, but Steam will emerge all the better for it. It’s just a matter of Valve finally stepping up and doing what they should have done a long time ago now that they have some real competition. Otherwise, Epic Games Store really will mean the end of Steam as the main place to get one’s games and it’ll end its life as ghost town filled with nothing but hot garbage. That would be a real shame indeed.