Ever since Epic Games launched their very own storefront at the end of 2018 there has been a vocal opposition within the gaming community. A multitude of different justifications have been put forward for this – the fact that the store does not offer user reviews, the aggressive poaching of new releases for Epic exclusivity, and sought after features that consumers had become accustomed to not being present at launch, to name but a few – however, what has fascinated me has been the sheer intensity of the voices that object to its presence. It does not strike me as a problem that is merely down to a preference for Steam as a storefront, but instead points at perhaps a more emotive issue for gamers.
The problem with the Epic Games Store, I believe, is not anything inherently wrong with the Epic Games Store itself but instead arises as a result of the uncertainty that is present with digital ownership. From a legal standpoint, purchasing a game digitally in most countries does not give someone ownership of the game itself but, instead, offers them the right to access the licence of said game. This is a somewhat troubling position for those who have invested a significant amount of money and time into building a library of games on a single storefront. Steam has long been the go-to storefront – for many, the only storefront – for those wishing to purchase games and arguably the Epic Games Store is the first substantial threat to Steam’s utter dominance within the market.
Quite rightly, there are those that may be apprehensive about the idea of there being a viable competitor on the market, as that competition brings along with it risk. What if the Epic Games Store were to surpass Steam in the near to distant future? What if, god forbid, Steam were ever faced with financial difficulty or made a conscious decision to go in a different direction as a business? There is no definitive answer to the question of what would happen to their purchases should this happen. Consumers within the video game industry are arguably best positioned to be aware that digital ownership is, at present, a mere illusion of ownership. Whilst those who purchase albums, books or films digitally may not fully appreciate the frailty of their access to their digital goods many gamers have faced the brunt of licencing issues (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), disputes that have occurred internally within a company (P.T), and even political issues (Devotion) playing a role in a game becoming inaccessible.
Ultimately, however, competition inevitably benefits the consumer in the long run. The Epic Games Store being a viable alternative to Steam places pressure on Steam to adapt, improvise and improve their service for both consumers and developers. You do not need to look very far to see some of the benefits that have arisen since the Epic Games Stores launch. Over $2,000+ of free games have been offered to consumers as of May 2020 and developers have taken home more of the profits generated from their game as the percentage taken by Epic’s storefront is magnitudes smaller than the cut taken by Steam (12 percent as opposed to 30 percent). The complacency that Steam has often faced criticism for in the past is no longer an option. They must fight for their position in the market and, even for those willing to die on Steam’s hill, that is a good thing as it fosters innovation.
Whilst this is an issue that has been particularly prevalent on PC it is not one that is exclusive to the platform. With Xbox releasing an all-digital version of the Xbox One S in 2019 and the Playstation 5 reveal showcasing that there will be a digital only offering on launch the consumers position in regards to digital ownership is only going to become more important. Subscription services such as Game Pass and PS Now may render this issue irrelevant by the end of the decade. It is not hard to see the influence that subscription services such as Spotify and Netflix has had on ownership, both physical and digital, in their respective mediums – however, for the time being, the uncertainty that digital ownership brings is an issue that deserves more attention – and I believe that, at least to some degree, the aversion to the Epic Games Store has been somewhat influenced by this problem.
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