...And now the stores are at war.


It is a pe­riod of up­heaval. Epic Games, fol­low­ing a whiplash-in­duc­ing change of for­tune (from ‘might go up in flames’ to ‘the lit­tle Be­zos that could’), has won its first sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory against Steam. In­deed, per­haps the first sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory against Steam.

That is to say: the store wars have be­gun and it turns out that the thing that Valve’s pre­vi­ous com­peti­tors were miss­ing was a money hose of Fort­nite’s girth and through­put. A money hose suf­fi­cient to of­fer de­vel­op­ers a more gen­er­ous cut of sales, to se­cure a raft of de­cent ex­clu­sives, and pre­sum­ably to hire ac­tual hu­man be­ings to do the cu­ra­tion and sup­port stuff that Valve would rather de­fer to a the­o­ret­i­cally ex­cel­lent robot.

The Spy would like to pause here to ac­knowl­edge Dis­cord, which is of­fer­ing an even bet­ter cut for de­vel­op­ers, and is pre­sum­ably pay­ing for this with - if not a money hose - an at­ten­tion hose.

For The Spy’s pur­poses, it doesn’t mat­ter tremen­dously if Epic or Dis­cord are ca­pa­ble of un­set­tling Steam’s mo­nop­oly. It doesn’t even re­ally mat­ter if they’ve made Valve bleed. What mat­ters is that peo­ple think it’s hap­pen­ing, from the an­gri­est Ar­ti­fact re­view­bomber to the most de­tached pub­lish­ing exec. And with that thought comes an­other in­evitable wave of me-too dig­i­tal down­load stores and last-ditch at­tempts to make pub­lisher brands mean some­thing again (or some­thing good, at any rate.)

Case in point: the Bethesda Launcher. Hav­ing de­buted with Fall­out 76, ru­mour has it that Avalanche’s forth­com­ing Rage 2 will also be ex­clu­sive to Bethesda’s down­load ser­vice. This stems from third-party key re­tail­ers that have spec­i­fied that they’re not go­ing to have Steam keys to dis­trib­ute – only Bethesda codes. And if Rage 2 is ex­clu­sive, then baby, you’ve got your­self a trend.

It feels in­evitable that Bethesda will be look­ing to pull an EA (or a Ubisoft) and de­tach them­selves from Valve. But should it be? The Elder Scrolls se­ries by it­self demon­strates the ben­e­fits of col­lab­o­ra­tion – doomed ex­per­i­ments with paid-for mod­ding notwith­stand­ing, there’s a lit­tle cor­ner of Valve’s money hose that will be for­ever Skyrim.

The peaks of Bethesda’s re­cent out­put would be worth sign­ing up for a new store for – Dis­hon­ored, Prey, and so on. The troughs, how­ever, are not. Fall­out 76 would be fight­ing for its life right now even if it wasn’t launched on a plat­form that would some­times for­get that it ex­isted and force you to down­load it again. Sim­i­larly, Rage 2 might be great but The Spy doubts that it’ll shift au­di­ences by it­self: no­body’s cry­ing out for a sort-of-se­quel to the game id made be­fore it was good again, by the peo­ple who make of­ten-un­der­rated open world games.

Need a hero

It’ll take a new Elder Scrolls, The Spy sus­pects, in or­der for Bethesda to make this par­tic­u­lar fetch hap­pen – and we know there’s one com­ing, so, god damn it, the pub­lisher might ac­tu­ally pull it off. But it’ll be a long, slow, ir­ri­tat­ing process driven by bull-headed de­ter­mi­na­tion to make lots of money, a bit like the DC cine­matic uni­verse.

And there re­mains the ques­tion, unan­swered in this time of change, about what au­di­ences ac­tu­ally want – other than to pay less money for things, that is. Here’s a wild guess, then: the store wars will be won not by ex­clu­sives, but by dis­counts. Spy out.

The Spy


THE SPY The Spy laments this present pe­riod of hose-wav­ing.

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