Store Wars update: Microsoft and 2K pick sides in the battle between Epic and Steam

I knew Epic's challenge to Steam was going to be an important story in 2019, but I didn't know I'd already be out of popcorn in April. 

What was going to be a moderately quiet year on the game stores beat—a Steam redesign, some new Epic Store features—has turned into one of the industry's premier dramas. The Borderlands 3 exclusive is Epic's biggest coup yet, and it suggests that future Take-Two and 2K-published games could also head to the Epic Store. The Outer Worlds, the second-biggest grab by the Fortnite creator, is published by Take-Two's Private Division label, so we should've seen this coming.

(Imagine if Red Dead Redemption 2 were an Epic Store exclusive. An iceberg would melt from the heat of the Reddit meltdowns, at least if there are any icebergs left by the time Rockstar finally announces a PC version.)

It's starting to feel like Epic is picking all the good players for dodgeball, and Valve is just standing there. But that's not quite true.

The absence of an Epic Store release for Master Chief Collection is an unmistakable wink to PC gamers.

The Master Chief Collection is releasing on Steam, which is probably the best move Microsoft could've made to earn goodwill from the most vocal PC gamers—especially because of the store it opted not to support. The absence of an Epic Store release for MCC is an unmistakable wink to PC gamers who feel aggrieved by Epic's exclusives, even though it seemingly comes as a mea culpa for Microsoft's own store (which sucks).

And this is despite Valve and Microsoft not being the best of friends, historically. Epic, on the other hand, contributed a lot to the success of the Xboxes—Gears of War, the Unreal Engine, cross-platform functionality—which makes the Halo announcement even juicer. Remember when Epic was called a betrayer of PC gaming for focusing on Xbox 360 exclusives? Microsoft had the opportunity to return the favor and make a deal with Epic, and surely be derided for it by Halo fans, but chose Steam. That's a Top 10 Anime Betrayal, for sure.

We'll see more of this drama play out throughout the year, including more high-profile Epic exclusives. Games are more and more expensive to develop and the market is more saturated than ever, so it's no surprise that developers and publishers are keen to mitigate risk with Epic's help, especially since they can still release on Steam later. The past few years of layoffs, studio closures, and flops explain why. Even Valve's own Artifact flopped, and Breach only lasted a few months.

Epic has said it's going to relax on the exclusives at some point, though. When that happens, I wonder what PC gaming will look like.

Epic and Steam in harmony?

At this point I think Valve did the right thing by creating Steam Direct and opening the platform to adult games. Yeah, the flood of games made all games on the platform harder to discover if you're not pulling the levers within Steam that personalize recommendations, but a great indie game might not have had a chance on Steam at all without an easy way to get there, and there was no alternative store as big. (I've criticized Valve for its reluctance to raise Steam out of the muck even slightly, or use any of its power to improve gaming culture, but that's a separate issue to the general idea of openness.)

The Epic Store, on the other hand, is more boutique-like. 

At a Game Developers Conference Q&A, Epic said that every developer or publisher that releases a game on the store will have an account manager to discuss sales and promotion opportunities with (though there'll be no paid promotion). That's a far cry from Steam, which devs poured 9,000 games into in 2018. And as for what the Epic Store won't sell, "crappy games" and "asset flips" will be culled, said Tim Sweeney. No adult games, either.

So Steam and the Epic Store, for the moment, do serve different functions. Steam is an open market, where anyone can set up shop and sling hentai puzzle games, whereas Epic offers tidy shelves that look a bit more inviting to parents of Fortnite kids, even though it'll list M-rated games. Epic's human curation and smaller selection is understandably attractive to top-tier indie developers like Unknown Worlds and Supergiant, who also benefit more than 2K or Ubisoft from an increased cut of their sales. (Though big publishers are obviously into it, too.)

An angry hive

I'd say things are looking peachy for Epic, but its moves sure have made a lot of people extremely angry. Exclusivity deals are being called "bribes," and each new announcement is met with threats to pirate the game, conspiracy theories, and denouncements. I could hardly find a single positive sentiment among the 3,100 comments on the Borderlands 3 announcement in the PC gaming subreddit.

Epic thinks it can weather the anger because Valve itself did, which Sweeney brought up when I spoke to him before GDC. Remember: Steam was reviled when it launched in 2003, but for over a decade now has enjoyed being the de facto PC gaming store. 

There's also the fact that younger gamers probably have no attachment to one store or another, or even a stronger attachment to Epic than Valve—there's a Fortnite generation now. 

Above: Reddit is displeased.

These exclusives are certainly hurting Valve, but killing it? That's hyperbole for now.

But fears that Epic will throw its capital around so hard it'll put Valve out of business are way, way overblown. That isn't something to be concerned about right now.

Valve has Microsoft's support (if putting the Master Chief Collection on Steam isn't a statement of intent for future games, I'll be very surprised), a massive userbase that includes the Chinese market (where Epic currently does not sell), and a huge library that will eventually include current Epic Store exclusives. It'll miss out on the initial sales of those games, but Grand Theft Auto 5 has been a top seller on Steam every year since it released on PC in 2015—a big enough game can do that. These exclusives are certainly hurting Valve, but killing it? That's hyperbole for now.

Epic itself mitigates some of Steam's losses. By creating new PC gamers who are eventually going to wander beyond Epic's walls, Fortnite helps Valve, too. And by putting some of that Fortnite cash toward exclusivity deals with developers such as Remedy, as well as $100M toward no-strings-attached developer grants, Epic helps ensure that those devs can continue making games—games which are likely to come to Steam, possibly with no timed Epic Store exclusivity for future releases.

I don't know what will come of all this once Epic is established and its store better built-out, but in a year or two, I hope we can say that PC gaming in general has improved—not for Valve or Epic, but for us and the developers we support. 

PC gaming is better than ever right now, but we're also in a time when massive layoffs and studio closures are common, the culture at big developers is crappy as usual, and giants like Google are pushing game streaming without telling us how it'll really benefit us or small developers. If we dig our Steam and Epic trenches too deep, we risk losing sight of the problems driving this battle in the first place.