Epic Games, Paid Exclusivity, and the Death of PC Gaming

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A wise man once told me, “Three things are guaranteed in life; death, taxes, and security emails from Epic Games”. The last of which has become increasingly prevalent and bothersome as of late, as for nineteen consecutive days, almost in circadian rhythm, I have been notified via email that my “Epic Games” account may have been compromised by a foreign entity despite my attempts at securing my account.  

While I don’t necessarily feel as though I’m at risk of malicious activity (I haven’t spent a single cent on the Epic Games store and have yet to link my account to a credit card), it's concerning that a corporation which has been pushing so aggressively for market share in the PC gaming space has overlooked the most fundamental right of the digital consumer – that of security. While my personal experiences with Epic Games’ account security may be viewed as purely anecdotal, it’s hard to overlook the other reprehensible security blunders which have popped up over the past year; from a Fortnite-rooted data leak to the Epic Games client collecting its users’ Steam data unbeknownst to them, the latter of which can be directly attributed to Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney as he pushed to implement social features into Fortnite. Sweeney has acknowledged the blunder in a Reddit thread, claiming that “The current implementation is a remnant left over from our rush to implement social features in the early days of Fortnite. It's actually my fault for pushing the launcher team to support it super quickly and then identifying that we had to change it”. 

Herein lies the underlying issue with Epic Games, the lack of forethought. Epic has been a major player in the industry for 28 years, with their client having been released in 2012, yet they are just now making the push to add the features which Steam has accrued over the past decade. If Epic Games is truly as consumer-focused as Sweeney touts, it would be reasonable to assume that at least the bare minimum of social and functional features would be present from release, yet the Epic store has still omitted the basics; cloud saves, a user-review system, dedicated game forums, even basic search functionality. It’s not as though there is a lack of DRMs to take inspiration from either; EA’s “Origin” (2011), Ubisoft’s “UPlay” (2012), and GOG’s “Galaxy” (2012), all exist as publisher-specific competitors to Steam, and are all superior to the Epic store from a User-Experience standpoint.  

This isn’t to say that Steam is perfect by any means; it’s client is riddled with gluts of technical issues which have existed for years, the saturation of low-quality titles drown out honest independent developers, and a flawed review system make it difficult to ascertain the quality of certain games. Gamers are willing to overlook these flaws however, as these features have popped up organically over the course of the past 16 years in order to meet the demands of 90 million active users. The rise of Steam feels like a grassroots movement, a collective agreement to centralize the world’s largest gaming medium to one platform, led by an exciting (albeit juvenile) startup. Steam is a voluntary monopoly, we’ve bought into the platform not out of necessity, not out of convenience, but because it has been developed from the ground up as the definitive platform for PC gaming. 

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It makes sense why Epic would want to advance their presence in the PC distribution space; Steam brings in between $2-$4 billion in revenue annually, and the user base which Epic has acquired through the popularity of Fortnite has breathed new life into the developer several decades removed from Unreal Tournament. There is no fundamental issue with distributing third-party games on a specific platform, and had Epic simply supported third-party developers with a higher revenue stream as they’ve flaunted time and time again, they may have pressured Valve to tighten up some of their archaic business practices as developers organically migrated to the platform which they found to be the best for them. Rather, Epic decided to go with the outdated and rather abhorrent practice of paying off developers to force exclusivity. Paid exclusivity is not a new concept to the games industry, in fact the launch of the seventh generation of consoles was plagued by a lack of first-party content, prompting Microsoft and Sony to throw bags of money at developers to release content early or exclusively on their platform. The most recent console generation has seen an abandonment of this practice in favor of outright buying the development studios responsible for certain titles; Ninja Theory, Playground Games, Obsidian, and inXile were all acquired by Microsoft in 2018, whilst Sucker Punch, Naughty Dog, and Media Molecule all belong to Sony Interactive Entertainment. However, Epic’s purchasing of titles like Metro: Exodus, The Walking Dead: The Final Season, Borderlands 3, and dozens more mark the first high-magnitude rupture in PC gaming history. Epic is trying to brute force its way to relevance, and developers are happy to oblige for a heftier chunk of sales revenue and a fat exclusivity check. But what is really the problem with this disjunction? Why am I making such a big deal of this? Isn’t it better to have multiple platforms to choose from? Besides, all you need to do is have one extra launcher on your computer! 

While competition within an industry is traditionally good for the consumer, the fragility of video games complicates the situation massively. Obviously I don’t mean that games are physically fragile, but rather that the rise of digital distribution has led to the concession of ownership by the consumer, and in an industry that is becoming increasingly expensive to maintain, a divergence of power could quickly lead to a loss of everything PC gamers have worked their lives to build. When a user “buys” a game on steam, they aren’t purchasing a copy of that game, but rather they are buying the right to download and play that game for time its platform is alive and maintained. Whichever distributor issued you that game license may revoke your right to play that game at any moment, whether it be due to increased cost to host that game on their servers or because the IP of the game has been bought by a different corporation (see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).  

Epic CEO and guy who wants to steal your games - Tim Sweeney
Epic CEO and guy who wants to steal your games - Tim Sweeney

Imagine if your Nintendo 64 came with a disclaimer that every game you own will just stop working without notice should Nintendo fall upon financial hardships. You would still have to buy it if you wanted to play Majora’s Mask (best game ever made), albeit with some apprehension. Now imagine that Sony had ponied up the money to buy the Legend of Zelda series, and now with a lack of first party titles Nintendo decided to call it quits, bricking every system they had ever produced and distributed. This is the future that paid exclusivity in the PC space is begging for. There is a very imminent possibility that as AAA developers chase a check that Steam begins to sweat, then falter, then disappear with all our achievements, screenshots, and most importantly our game libraries. 24,059,228,727 games are owned on the Steam platform and are all at risk of being lost to the wind should Valve ever decide that Steam isn’t maintainable. 

Therefore, I’m hesitant to support the Epic Games platform. Sweeney and co aren’t the gamer’s champion that they claim to be, rather they are on the offensive to overthrow one monopoly (at the expense of the consumer, nonetheless) and create one of their own. If you truly do love playing one of the exclusive titles on Epic’s platform, and you aren’t turned off by the lack of features or blatant disregards to customer security or misrepresentation of intentions, feel free to make your purchases there. Ultimately, a few one-off titles exclusive to Epic’s platform won’t dethrone Steam, but they will hasten the inevitable, an unhealable rupture in the gaming community that will surely lead to the demise of either Valve or Epic.

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