By Sweep 10 Comments
For a long time, Steam has reigned supreme when it comes to PC games; they had the best sales, the widest selection, the best support for independent developers and publishers. They seemed to be on the side of the players, finding meaningful ways to incorporate player-made assets and mods into their structure and rewarding their customers who made the biggest investments. Even games not installed through steam were often made easiest to manage through the robust steam client, allowing you to use your existing steam friends list and library to keep everything neatly consolidated.
What a time to be alive, eh?
But as we're all aware, it's not quite the perfect picture that it's made out to be; The marketplace was saturated with rubbish moneygrabbing titles that nobody wanted (diluting the cool stuff and making it harder to find unless Valve featured it on their store), reviews for games were frequently skewed by hordes of malicious players, and the few developers that actually managed to find an audience only received a fraction of their profits as steam took a large slice for themselves. The forums and games were predominantly unmoderated, making them a safe haven for abusive and hateful groups of people to congregate and harass other users. Worst of all, perhaps, was that there was nobody out there to challenge them - if you had a problem with steam then there were few alternatives - even the other stores that sold the games you wanted would usually give you a steam key in order to activate it. It's easy to claim you're the "best" when there's nobody else to compare yourself to, I guess?
But now in 2019 we have alternatives!
We have Origin, BattleNet, Uplay, Epic Store, GoG, and even the Microsoft Store, to name but a few. Many of these services have excluded their own games from Steam for years, but increasingly they seem to be promoting exclusivity and competition for games published by other studios, too - case in point, Epic is making bold moves regarding exclusivity with games like Ashen and Phoenix Point.
So what does this mean for the PC gaming landscape?
Despite the awkwardness of having to manage multiple clients and friends lists, my own thoughts are this is profoundly positive. Origin, Blizzard and Uplay long ago proved that their blockbuster games could convince an audience to move away from steam, and now that these stores are also seeking out exclusivity deals there will be plenty of bidding over the best games being developed; Instead of an independent developer having to put a game on steam, take whatever deal Valve offers and simply hope their game gets noticed, these stores will fight over the rights to publish and sell. Competition is healthy, as we have seen repeatedly from the Sony/Microsoft rivalry every E3 for the past billion years, forcing developers to continually one-up each other as the players reap the rewards. Hypothetically if people stop using steam as their default service then that, in turn, should prompt steam to actually try doing things differently; Better incentives for developers, better community management, better curation of their store. In theory, anyway. With their purchase of Campo Santo there's an indication that they might even start developing some real games again...
Some other potential knock-on effects;
- The re-invigoration of the independent mod communities? I can't speak to all of the available stores, but I know Origin does not currently support mods (I just installed the HD texture pack for Mass Effect 2 and it was a pain in the ass). Instead of having to go through the steam workshop players will now have to scour old websites and forums, downloading shady zip directories from anonymous google drive and dropbox accounts. So that's exciting.
- More support for independent developers? If there's several publishers fighting over each game then they have a better chance of working out a good deal and securing some solid financial backing. Capitalism!
- E3 is going to be a lot more wild? More stores means more showcases and presentations. We've started to see a shift away from the big stages already, it would not surprise me if every store started doing their own treehouse-esque webinar on their upcoming titles and plans.
- New approaches to community management? New ways to entice community contributors and positive community members means a more pleasant experience for everyone.
Ultimately I believe the increase in variety and diversity among game stores is good for the industry and good for the players. Which is refreshing to think about.