When the Epic Games Store officially launched in December of 2018, it was met with praise from a PC community slightly jaded by Valve’s near-absolute tyranny of the video game distribution space on that platform. Steam had grown to become the de facto DRM service since it debuted all the way back in 2004, but the publisher’s nonchalant attitude toward quality control eventually drew the ire of a community inundated with low-effort Unity asset flips.
While Epic initially appeared to provide some genuine competition for the service, its proclivity for forcing storefront exclusivity of certain games and shady, user-unfriendly practices have seen it run afoul of many PC players. Even so, it still manages to gobble up big games, something Epic's CEO says is the real key to winning the games store wars. Against this, what can Valve do to defend its throne from this new threat?
As it stands, the publisher behind games like Team Fortress 2, Half Life, and Portal seems content to sit on its hands and wait for the situation to sort itself out. It has condemned the actions of its competitor and issued an open rebuttal to Epic’s exclusive deal involving 4A Games’ recent Metro Exodus title, but Valve has yet to take any legitimate action.
A major sticking point here is that, while Valve takes a whopping thirty-percent royalty fee on all third-party games hosted on the service, Epic’s storefront charges a much more manageable twelve-percent cut. In order to compete, Valve will almost certainly have to reduce the amount it takes from developers for the privilege of appearing on its service, though that’s only the first step in the fight to stay relevant in a rapidly-changing environment.
Most crucially, Valve needs to begin offering some sort of incentive for publishing major game releases on the Steam store. As it stands, Steam’s ubiquity is the major reason for publishers to put up with the less-than-competitive service, and, if other stores see a marked increase in popularity, Valve could end up with a real problem on its hands.
The last thing PC gamers want is an war of exclusivity being waged on a platform previously known for accessibility, and Epic Games has caught a ton of flack in recent months for essentially bribing publishers away from the competition. This really kicked off with the aforementioned launch of Metro Exodus last month, but it’s become even more of a problem as hotly-anticipated titles like Obsidian’s The Outer Worlds and the crowdfunded tactical RPG Phoenix Point jumped ship for the new launcher. As it stands, Valve may have to do what Epic is doing and provide bonuses for loyal partners in order to keep publishers from joining ranks with the enemy.
That’s not the only way Valve can weather the storm, however. Epic Games’ storefront is currently awash with controversy amid issues concerning user privacy, and the new service is by-and-large thought to be much less agreeable than Valve’s platform. If this trend continues, Valve may be able to get away with relative inaction as Epic implodes. The Epic storefront is a long way away from offering as many bells and whistles as Steam, and a lack of many basic features like user reviews for games, mod support, and community forums.
The store also initially made headlines by giving out a slew of free titles, most notably Unknown Worlds Entertainment’s Subnautica. While Steam has given away a few games in the past—most commonly older titles published by Valve itself—that isn’t a very common trend, and ramping up giveaways could go a long way in terms of edging out the domineering detractor.
What’s more, once known for beloved franchises like Gears of War and Unreal Tournament, Epic Games has since shied away from game development following the utter success of its battle royale title Fortnite. Valve could stun the world and re-enter the game development space, and the fabled release of the third true installment in the Half Life series could grab headlines for months and topple Epic’s temporary control over distribution. At the end of the day, Epic currently has a killer app in the super popular free-to-play BR experience, and, if Valve wants to retake its seat on the throne, it should release an equally popular title of its own.
With all of that in mind, it’s hard to know exactly what Valve plans on doing about this newfound competitor. In the past, it's been more than content to remain unaffected as fans complained about the torrent of terrible titles clogging up its storefront, and it isn't guaranteed to make any major moves against Epic in the future. Yet, if Steam's relevance is truly threatened, it could by the catalyst for a major change in the world of PC gaming.