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Parcival

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Great Launcher Debate

Over recent months there has been a great debate raging amongst the PC gaming community - is the Epic Store a good thing or not?  This week rather than a review I thought I would share an opinion piece and my thoughts on this issue.

For a number of years now, Steam has had a bit of a stranglehold on the digital distribution market.  Almost everywhere that you purchase games will actually be for a Steam key - see Humble Store, Games Planet, Green Man Gaming, Instant Gaming etc.  Even your local bricks and mortar gaming store (if you still have one) will no longer have racks of DVD cases, but will rather have a couple of shelves of accessories such as mice, headsets and gaming surfaces, with a rack of digital keys and gift cards, predominantly for Steam.

Alternative stores and launchers are not a new thing with EA releasing Origin in June of 2011, Ubisoft following with UPlay in July of 2012 and GOG with GOG Galaxy having been in beta since October 2014, so why has the Epic store caused such a stir?  Whilst the first two of these other stores have been primarily for the publishers own content, they haven't been without issues and are generally negatively received (UPlay being feature light but resource heavy and EA having many questionable marketing tactics), they have not received the vitriol of the Epic store, and in the case of Origin has the advantage of the Origin Access programme acting as a sort of Netflix for games.  Of course, with the DRM free philosophy of GOG, and their favourable regional pricing, whilst still being feature light (only featuring cloud saving for 29 games in the catalogue) players have generally been more positive about that platform.

Whilst these are the most popular stores, there are a number of others which also have their own launchers.  Following the acquisition by Amazon, Twitch began to offer games for free each month to Amazon Prime subscribers, Discord recently launched a store and, although opened in 2013, indie distribution platform Itch.io is becoming more popular, and actually saw over 100,000 new games listed in 2017 vs just over 7500 on Steam.

For consumers, each of these stores offers a different experience ranging from regional pricing strategy, to community features, reviews and access to user generated content such as mods.  Steam has always been ahead of the curve on many of these, partly from being first to the market.  Unfortunately there has been an increase in games which are non-functioning, asset flips and pure money grabs.  The removal of the Steam Greenlight programme is something which has fuelled this, you only need to look at the new releases page of the store to see the effect this removal of a curation system has brought, with numerous sex games and low quality projects released every week.

Moving back to the debate of Epic vs Steam, this has really garnered traction due to a few games deciding to completely pull their Steam releases, including Satisfactory, Metro Exodus (which had offered pre-sales on Steam which were honoured) and The Division 2 (and all subsequent Ubisoft titles).  This, along with gaming now accounting for over 50% of the entertainment spend in the UK with over £3,500M being spent on gaming in the UK alone in 2018, compared with £3,300M being spend on music and video combined, giving the gaming industry a larger voice in the mainstream media.

Epic has come under fire for a variety of reasons, partly due to the decisions of publishers and developers to move away from Steam having used that platform to gain exposure, but also for lacking many basic features.  As yet, the Epic store has no community features to speak of, and is a rudimentary launcher.  There is no way to contact developers for support, with many people turning to the Steam forums for assistance, and no review system, with a refund policy which was not in favour of consumers, although this has now been brought in line with the Steam refund policy of a request within 14 days, provided the game has been played for less than 2 hours.  

There is also the question of convenience,  I currently have almost 10 different pieces of software on my computer which allow me to purchase, download or launch games.  This leads to extra hard drive usage, and also losing track of purchases with the potential to purchase game multiple times in multiple stores.  It also causes issues for people who have their computers set up to act as consoles in a sense, with them connected to a TV and set to launch by default into the Steam Big Picture mode.  There are of course ways around this, by adding non-Steam games to the launcher, but why go to that extra effort if you can just buy the game on Steam?

As you can tell from the majority of my content, I spend most of my time playing indie titles.  This is somewhere that these emerging stores really come in to play.  When you have been working on a game for perhaps a number of years without any pay, every penny really does count.  Each sale can be the difference between you being able to continue the project, having to work another job alongside or being able to hire additional team members to help with tasks like translations and QA.  

If we take an arbitrary value of £10 for an indie game and look at a few different scenarios across a few of these platforms.  
  • A game developed in Unreal Engine and released on Steam or GOG will see £3 of that taken in commission by the store and a further 50p will go to Epic, giving the developers £6.50 of your £10 (before any taxes and operating costs are deducted).  
  • When released on the Discord store the developers will get £1 taken in commission by the store and the same 50p royalties to Epic, giving the developer £8.50.
  • When released on the Epic store, that game will see a marginally higher £8.80 due to a 12% commission and a waiving of the Unreal Engine license fee*.
  • When released on Itch.io the developer chooses how much to give to the store in commission with a maximum 90/10 revenue split in favour of the developer, meaning there is potential to receive £9.50**.
  • Unity games would receive £7, £9, £8.80 and potentially £10 in the same scenarios***.
* On paper this is actually a change in the revenue split with UE games paying 7% in commission with 5% in royalites and games developed in other engines paying 12% commission
** Itch.io also permits overpayment by the players meaning that if I felt the game was actually worth more than £10 I could decide to pay £15.
***It should be noted that Unity carries a license fee based on the number of seats in the organisation while Unreal Engine is free to use, however carries the royalties.  Unity fees are currently: <$100k annual income - Free; $100k - $200k annual income - $35/seat; >$200k annual income - $125/seat although these higher plans come with various benefits.

With the potential to make more money, it's easy to see why these alternative stores are popular with developers, and are making me think about where I am wanting to spend my money and the ways I can best support these smaller teams.  Itch.io in particular is a store which I have a great opinion of, whilst it is full of a lot of game concepts and tests, there are also a number of game jams held throughout the year which have resulted in games such as Machiavillain, Evoland, Superhot and Surgeon Simulator.  In my experience, a lot of developers use this platform to test out their projects and ideas, and to gather a following before moving to Steam or Kickstarter, such as Meeple Station, Snowtopia and Creo God Simulator (due to hit Steam Early Access soon) and, whilst sometimes feature light or buggy, gives players a chance to really be involved in the development journey in a different way than the Steam Early Access programme due to the smaller communities.

Am I going to be getting rid of Steam any time soon?  Of course not, but I am going to be doing more in the way of shopping round to get better prices, experience platform exclusive games, such as Satisfactory and The Settlers which are both due out later this year, and watching to see how these platforms grow and develop over the coming months and years.  I hope that I've covered some of the main points and some of the pros and cons of having a variety of stores.  I think that we are in a pretty amazing time for gamers, where not only is gaming no longer seen as a niche activity you do on your own, but is becoming more and more about building connections and communities and also where there are these possibilities and opportunities for anyone who has the time and inclination, can develop and publish a computer game.

I would be really interested to see what you all think of this issue, please leave some comments or come and join the Discord.



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