...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.
IF RAGE2 IS EXCLUSIVE, THEN BABY, YOU’VE GOT YOURSELF A TREND
THE SPY The Spy laments this present period of hose-waving.