For quite a number of years, Valve has perceived one major challenge to the dominance of its Steam platform for digital distribution of PC games – namely the ambition of major publishers, who chafed against the firm’s position of power from the outset.
Publishers had, somewhat naïvely, imagined the digital future as one in which retailers would be removed and they would assume command of both the significant profit share once taken by distributors and retailers, and perhaps more lucratively still of the customer relationship itself.
The replacement of a fragmented set of retailers large and small, all of whom could be leaned upon to some degree to a publisher’s gain, with a single global retail platform big enough to simply ignore the demands — or commercial tantrums — of an individual publisher was a development which prompted more than a decade of wailing and gnashing of teeth. With that came occasional efforts to supplant Steam with publisher-owned services; the likes of EA’s Origin opened the floodgates to publishers trying to find a way around Steam’s iron grip on the market.
“After watching Steam grow so big and concentrate so much industry power in Valve’s hands, they’ll be wary before handing Epic enough support to do the same thing all over again”
That’s the challenge to Steam which Valve has seen and acknowledged. It’s responded to that challenge in ways that primarily appeal to publishers’ financial sense – with one hand pointing out the sheer size of the Steam customer base which firms eschew by going to their own platforms, with the other trying to entice them back with sweeter deals on the platform’s revenue share. Valve’s recent price changes are well documented and discussed, and they’re the most clear statement of its priorities imaginable; laser focused on enticing the industry’s giants back onto the platform.
What makes Epic Games’ new digital store interesting, to my mind, isn’t the alternative it offers to those big publishers. It’s got a slightly more enticing revenue share, but at present its user-base is, well, zero; granted, Fortnite is about as good a title to use as the foundation for a digital store as Half-Life 2 was all the way back when, but it’ll still take Epic a very long time to match Valve’s numbers.
Besides, publishers have been around this merry-go-around before; after watching Steam grow so big and concentrate so much industry power in Valve’s hands, they’ll be wary before handing Epic enough support to do the same thing all over again. (For the same reason, it doesn’t matter that much how attractive Valve’s revenue split becomes; the big publishers don’t want the PC sector to be dominated by a monolithic retail player, no matter how generous its revenue sharing scheme looks.)
No, what makes Epic’s store into such a major challenger to Steam is, rather, the fact that it’s attacking from a different angle (well, multiple angles at once, as Christopher Dring pointed out earlier this week — but this, I think, is the most important one). Sure, it’ll put pressure on Valve’s appeal to big publishers, but more importantly it aims to pull the rug out from underneath Steam’s feet by directly appealing to the indie and mid-market developers who are the bread and butter of the PC games market.
That’s reflected in the pricing structure, of course — Epic’s structure is clearly designed to be a better deal for small and mid-range developers — but you can see it even more clearly in the commitments Epic is making about how its platform will deal with store pages, community infrastructure, news feed management and so on. The details aren’t entirely nailed down, especially with regard to discovery and curation — but Epic gives every impression of having listened carefully to years’ worth of complaints and problems that Valve has, at best, been high-handed about.
To some extent that’s a function of a cultural mismatch between Valve and the small or mid-sized developers to whom it ended up providing a vital platform; it’s also to some degree a consequence of that blinkered focus on keeping the big boys happy, which has made Valve take the indies and mid-sized developers for granted. Those creators, after all, don’t have the resources or audience required to strike out and build their own distribution platform; they need Steam’s audience. They might complain a lot, and some of those complaints might be very legitimate, but where else would they go?
Well, now there is a ‘where else’ and Epic is making a very good fist of actually trying to build a service that will work for the indie and mid-size creators in a way that Steam has largely ceased to. To be entirely fair, this isn’t just down to a lack of care and attention from Valve; many of the bad decisions made on Steam are the product of the era in which the service was created and it’s monumentally harder to roll back those decisions now than it is to launch something new and make better decisions from the outset.
Steam is the product of an era in which Web 2.0 systems were new and exciting, so people thought that literally everything on the Internet could be improved by building community features into its very bones; those communities would in turn provide data which could be mined to make the service better, to make better recommendations and fine-tune the user experience. And if there was a problem within the community itself? ?, given the right algorithm, the data would have the answer to that too; that was the magic of Web 2.0.
“Valve could match Epic’s revenue share tomorrow; but [not] the promise of a better place to do business, somewhere not open to the brigading, trolling and hate campaigns that have swept across Steam in recent years”
Put like that with the benefit of many years of hindsight, it all sounds impossibly naïve; how could we not have recognised how those community features would become vectors for abuse of many sorts, that bad-faith actors would figure out how to game the algorithms and twist them to their purposes, that building “community” into the most fundamental functioning of our online services would just make it nigh-on impossible to extricate those features when they turned bad?
This is the rock and hard place situation Valve has found itself in; Steam’s community and the problems it has incubated isn’t just a matter of forums and comment pages within Valve’s control, but a network of infected tissue that spreads throughout the platform, its algorithms, its data, and out to other places beyond the firm’s control where brigading, trolling and campaigns of abuse are coordinated. Weeding this out of the platform would be insanely hard work, not just technically but in terms of customer relations; it would make Valve itself into the target of all the bad actors who have spent the past few years targeting indie and mid-range developers on the platform, wrecking the livelihoods of many and the personal lives of quite a few.
Epic has the benefit of starting from a clean slate and being able to avoid those issues from day one. It’s building a store in an era where the mistakes made by Web 2.0 approaches have become not only common knowledge within the industry but the topic of newspaper editorials and governmental investigations. More than that, though, it also actually seems to have been listening and to be prepared to take tough decisions which may sacrifice some commercial success in favour of a healthier, more positive ecosystem for creators. That’s a big deal for many smaller developers, for whom the wrong word in the wrong place can turn Steam overnight into a vector for attacks on their livelihood and their person – a possibility of which many developers are all too aware, even if they haven’t personally experienced it as yet.
Epic isn’t making a big song and dance about this aspect of its attack on Steam’s business, but it’s telling that those decisions are being promoted up front alongside the indie-friendly revenue share. While I don’t doubt that Valve’s focus will remain on the big industry players for the time being, the reality is that Epic is triangulating on Steam’s market in a way that goes far beyond finances.
Valve could, with some pain, match Epic’s revenue share tomorrow; but the promise of a better place to do business, somewhere that’s not open to the kind of brigading, trolling and hate campaigns that have swept across Steam in recent years… That could genuinely start to change the tide and entice away a whole strata of game creators that Valve has taken for granted for many years.
The indie and mid-range development scene are increasingly the industry’s strongest bastion of diversity and demographic growth, which is vital to the future commercial health of gaming as a whole and the PC platform in particular; if Epic’s platform becomes the go-to distribution option for those creators, Steam’s operators may find themselves longing for the relative simplicity of negotiations with EA and Activision.