For many years the PC gaming empire of Steam went unchallenged. Gabe's 30 per cent became immortalised as a meme. But all empires must fall at some point, and right now we're standing at the cusp of a potentially game-changing moment in PC gaming. We're not saying the end is near, but perhaps we're going to have to realise that the days of using one launcher and store for our PC needs are gone. And there are many reasons why this is a positive, even if it makes our lives as PC gamers a bit more complicated.
It may have started slow, but with The Division 2 and now Metro Exodus not launching on Steam (though pre-orders made on the latter prior to the move will be honoured), Steam is starting to look rather deserted as far as big, new AAA titles go. Epic Games are eager to claw and scratch their way to a healthy piece of the market, and clearly, developers and publishers are keen to jump ship.
There are two reasons for this. The Steam fee is one, but Epic Games also pushes their exclusives with advertising. Signing Metro Exodus no doubt came at a cost for the Fortnite creator, most likely they've committed to some heavy advertising across social media and the Internet. Longterm developers and publishers likely want to put pressure on Steam. Recently, Steam made some concessions to their 30 per cent cut, but with Epic at 12 per cent and Discord at 10 per cent, there is a natural desire to push Valve further and there are many millions of reasons to pursue this.
Epic came in with a very "pro-developer" message as they launched their store. They were definitely seen as the good guys, but buying "store exclusives" certainly puts them at odds with the hordes of people who prefer to buy all their games on Steam even if it's simple enough to add a non-Steam title to your library. In many ways, this loyalty to a store and launcher is a testament to the great job Valve have done with the various features, ranging from social stuff, collectables, and marketplace, that has a large number of PC players practically married to their Steam account. It's a minority of Steam users, but it's a vocal one, and every company who signs on the dotted line making their title an Epic exclusive knows it comes at a price. Negative user reviews on Metacritic. Trolling on social media. It's the sort of negative cloud that can affect sales to a much larger audience than those who actually care whether they buy their PC titles on Steam or somewhere else.
It's interesting to look at the origins of Steam. The much-ridiculed launcher that came with Half-Life 2 on PC was the ultimate trojan horse as publisher Vivendi paid for and sold a game that came with a piece of software that would become so much bigger than anyone could have imagined. A piece of software (the Steam client) they had no claim on whatsoever.
What about the consumer? Shouldn't lower costs for publishers and developers make for a lowered price to the end consumer? The answer is probably both yes and no. We doubt there's going to be a big change made in terms of the day one pricing, but on some products, we could see a slight shift. If you remember as far back as when there was no Steam cut and PC games were just sold physically, the usually came cheaper than their console counterparts. Don't expect those days to return. However, with a lower cut to the store, it makes more sense to go really low with the price during a sales event. Over the years, as developers and publishers learned to make the most out of Steam sales, the truly stellar bargains (we're talking quality games for a couple of quid) are fewer, but perhaps we will see more of those in the future. Of course, we've yet to see how Epic Games Store will approach sales, for now, they've been giving away free games in a similar fashion to Origin and Uplay, but once they've got a fuller catalogue of titles sales events make sense.
In hindsight Steam's best-seller discount on their cut (after selling for $10,000,000 on Steam the cut is lowered to 25%, and after $50,000,000 it goes down to 20%) was a way to preempt the launch of Epic Games Store and to keep the big games on their service without giving up too much in the way of earnings. Now the pressure is on. Will Valve yield further and drop their percentages down towards the levels of Epic and Discord? Maybe, but not right now. There's every reason for Steam to feel confident that opting out of their platform will hurt the sales of Metro Exodus and The Division 2. You could say that the cards have been dealt and now we're just waiting for everyone to call so we can see what the fallout is. Much will be decided by the outcome of these first big attempts by Epic to wrestle their way into a market share. If they fail, new exclusives will be more costly, if they succeed, maybe Valve will reconsider their cut once more.
The publisher Deep Silver is sorely craving a big hit after some quiet years, and Metro Exodus is their best chance of getting there. It's a big gamble then to opt out of being on Steam. Sure it's likely to sell well on consoles, but the series has a big following on PC and given its Eastern European roots (where PC is king) it makes the stakes even higher. A big plus for Deep Silver is that much of the day one sales on Steam have already been secured through pre-orders, unlike The Division 2 they kind of get to have the cake and eat it (or most of it). Deep Silver's new owners THQ Nordic (which picked up Koch Media and Deep Silver last year), also need Metro to go big following the less than stellar performance of Darksiders III last November. But they're also one of the publishers, given their vast catalogue of older titles (a collection they continue to expand on an almost monthly basis with new acquisitions), with the most to gain from putting pressure on Valve.
Nvidia has a stake here too. Metro Exodus is one of a very select few big titles to feature real-time ray tracing with their RTX cards and broad adoption of the game is in their interest as it will tempt people to upgrade their cards, particularly the more affordable RTX 2060. So, there's plenty of players both directly involved and looking on with a stake in how this all plays out.
Meanwhile, on the console side, things are a bit more orderly but don't mistake this for something that's isolated to the PC scene. Microsoft, likely the third-place finisher once all sales this generation have been counted, is looking to disrupt the scene. Particularly given how they're positioning themselves with Xbox Game Pass and Xbox as more of an eco-system that expands from PC to Xbox One (and soon beyond) rather than a traditional closed console environment. Market leader Sony is in the same position as Valve in many ways, they want to disrupt as little as possible and keep their firm grip on the market. Nintendo is perhaps more likely to disrupt in other ways as you seldom know what the company plans to do next. What you can be sure of is that all three look at what's happening on the PC side, along with Apple and Google. This could affect them all in the long term where securing the best content for your service is going to be key.
There once was a dream, a dream of a one console future where everyone could play together and where all the best games could be enjoyed. It still exists, but perhaps it's more that we will be able to enjoy all games on one device, through multiple services. And competition is not a bad thing, even if it means we have to switch between the Amazon app, the Netflix app, and the HBO app as we watch our favourite TV shows. On this PC we've got Bethesda.net, Steam, Uplay, Origin, Galaxy and a few more launchers installed, and while it's not as clean as we would like it and they don't all come with the same features and accessibility, this is more likely indicative of the future than any "one launcher to bind them all".
Steam wasn't alone a decade ago, but it beat out the competition at the time simply because it was vastly superior. Now, there's a new battle at hand, and while Valve certainly sits in an advantageous position behind thick walls, there are now catapults being rolled out ready to try and possibly force the king to relinquish his crown. It's not going to be easy for Epic, but that Fortnite money can buy plenty of ammunition such as Metro: Exodus and The Division 2.
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