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As anger over the Epic Store subsides, what's next?

(Image credit: Deep Silver)

After a year of Epic Store exclusivity, Metro Exodus is now available on Steam. The user reviews are overall positive, though many include an ASCII drawing of dual middle fingers pointing at the Epic Store, or sometimes just the words "fuck Epic." The anger over Epic Store exclusives which dominated 2019 is clearly still around, but it has relaxed into a meme-state. You just say "fuck Epic" and move on, if that's your position.

As an example, the somewhat prickly announcement of Ooblets' exclusivity last year was treated like a declaration of war, but Red Dead Redemption 2 (one of the best-selling games of the decade) released early on the Rockstar Launcher and Epic Store with only a light breeze of dissatisfaction. The brevity of RDR2's exclusivity period—just a month—combined with the existing year of waiting for a PC release helped, but caveats didn't make a difference when passions were stronger. The last Epic exclusives announced were Godfall and The Wolf Among Us Season 2, and at best there's been some semi-audible grumbling about it.

More than a year into the uproar, being mad about Epic has become a patch you sew onto your backpack that indicates membership in the 'I hate Epic' club without the need to relitigate the whole thing. It's a reminder that the internet's endurance for this sort of thing can in fact run out. The anger has blended into the sea of other gaming gripes that undulates with the seasons—loot boxes, cheaters, bad launches, industry executives saying dumb stuff.

In 2020, being a PC gamer means opening four or five programs to access your whole library.

Maybe that was inevitable: A river as wide and forceful as Epic, which was valued at nearly $15 billion last year, smooths down the stones in its way eventually. But the point is that Epic has achieved its goal of softening sentiments around non-Steam releases. It hasn't hurt that so many other companies have deepened their use of proprietary launchers, normalizing the idea that in 2020 being a PC gamer means opening four or five programs to access your whole library. Call of Duty moving from Steam to Battle.net would've been a huge deal if it had happened five or six years ago, but it was largely shrugged off in 2018. GOG has even made an effort to create a launcher-of-launchers with Galaxy 2.0, positioning its sails in the direction the wind is blowing.

Epic's stated raison d'etre for its store hasn't become the primary issue. Valve has not conceded that 12 percent is a fairer revenue cut for platforms, and Steam continues to take its usual 30 for most games. (Bigger games do get a better deal on Steam now, and it was interesting this week to see CD Projekt call out its revenue bump publicly.)

What has primarily changed is that Steam feels less like the default platform than it did before. Whereas EA's Origin client always felt sort of like a suburb of Steam to me—a place you have to go for EA games even though you'd prefer not to, but no more than that—the Epic Store is a walled city-state in its own right. It doesn't stick to one publisher's games and isn't integrated with Steam like Uplay or Rockstar's launcher.

Ignoring specific technical features—Steam is obviously more developed—they're not identical stores. Before the Epic Store, Steam had already been moving away from its identity as PC gaming's caretaker, and over the past couple years we kids have been largely left to our own devices. You can now publish just about whatever you want on Steam, including porn, and it's up to user settings and algorithms to surface what any individual might want. Epic's approach differs greatly, with a hand-picked selection of games (which may be gory but definitely don't include hentai puzzles), deals with publishers, and investment in perpetual giveaways.

No going back now

With over 100 million users now building libraries on the Epic Store, and a billion Steam accounts already in existence, how Valve and Epic work together, if at all, feels like the next stage in this story. If some of my friends are going to reject the Epic Store entirely, and others like me are going to have both Steam and Epic libraries, I'd love for those friends lists and multiplayer functions to talk to each other. That's something Epic CEO Tim Sweeney expressed interest in when I spoke to him at GDC last year, where he suggested that platform social features ought to be more like email: tyler@steam should be able to talk to james@epic. But as with crossplay, this is the sort of thing you'd expect to hear from the company that doesn't own a majority of the market. Meanwhile, Discord becomes more useful with every new platform.

It's only been a little over a year since the Epic Store was announced, and it already feels like an accepted part of PC gaming, if still the target of ASCII eff-yous.

Any hopes of total platform unification ought to be abandoned, though, as it seems like our libraries will only get more divided. Rockstar clearly wants more people to use its launcher, and Bethesda's got one now, too. One of the most surprising things about Amazon's upcoming MMO, New World, is that it's releasing on Steam and not some new Amazon launcher. Steam just isn't the assumed default now.

While Microsoft has expressed a desire to bring more games to Steam—and notably not the Epic Store—there are rumblings that we could see more PlayStation exclusives on PC. Thanks to Shenmue 3 and the Quantic Dream games, those are starting to be associated with Epic. That doesn't necessarily indicate what Sony itself may do, but it's easy to imagine a company like Sony preferring Epic's less raunchy store over Steam, despite its existing Steam releases and short-lived partnership with Valve back in the PS3 days.

Things change fast. Epic's present influence only began to rise in late 2017 after it released Fortnite Battle Royale. The Epic Games Store was announced in December of 2018. It's only been a little over a year since then, and it already feels like an accepted part of PC gaming, if still the target of ASCII eff-yous. It makes one wonder what PC gaming might look like as soon as 2021 or 2022—if the events of the past few years are any indication, it could be very different, and in ways we never expected.

Tyler has spent over 1,000 hours playing Rocket League, and slightly fewer nitpicking the PC Gamer style guide. His primary news beat is game stores: Steam, Epic, and whatever launcher squeezes into our taskbars next.