Note: After proofreading, I feel the need to point it out: I’m expressly NOT including the topic of DRM in this post. That’s another topic altogether. Thank you.
Everyone and their dog is currently outraged over Epic’s new gamestore, with Borderlands being the latest to fall victim to try and alienate their customers for a quick wad of cash. A lot of people are making points about why they don’t like to buy on Epic’s store and many of those points are entirely beside the point. I say point a lot, because that’s the point. And points go on to form highscores.
Back on topic, we should go take a few steps back. Why do customers attend stores? Because those stores provide value (a license to a game) in exchange for money. It’s as simple as that. In doing so, the store (Steam, Epic, GOG, Humble, Itch, physical stores) should put as few hurdles as possible to attracting and keeping paying customers, right? Well, in a perfect world, maybe. Meanwhile, in this world, there are a few things to consider as a customer, and you might not like all of them:
How many titles does the store offer?
Without having any solid figures, I’d say Steam wins this one hands down. I myself have as of this writing 723 titles on steam, many many of those from many many cheap bundles that I continued to activate and then never played. Steam has a lot of titles to offer, in ranging quality from OMGWTF-this-is-the-worst to titles that you can enjoy for hundreds of hours. Some may argue that the lack of curation on Steam is what gives it its breadth, but it’s also its biggest weakness because it means that a lot of ‘trash’ games also go on sale there. Personally, I don’t think that’s a big issue. The bargain bin in my local supermarket has an equally bad signal-to-noise ratio. It’s just a thing that inescapably happens.
How available are the titles?
In this regard, any online store easily wins over physical stores. They can simply sell thousands of copies because there’s literally no need for storing thousands of boxes. The stores “only” need to store one copy of the installer (possibly made redundant through a CDN so not everyone needs to download from a single server halfway across the globe) and can deliver that to every customer. Physical stores usually only have a few copies on the shelves.
What are they actually selling?
In this regard, I can only really talk about GOG and Steam, and Steam really isn’t shining on that one. Steam is only selling you a very limited license. You are basically only allowed to download and run the game as long as Steam says so (Steam “Subscriber Agreement” Section 2 as of April 4th, 2019. If Steam terminates your account, poof go all your purchases. If Steam goes bankrupt, you can’t play your games anymore. If Steam tomorrow changes their ToS to “everyone must stream their games from our servers and can’t install them locally anymore”, there’s little you can do about it.
On the other end of the - online distribution - spectrum, we have GOG. When buying a game from GOG, you can download the installer, and keep it on a storage medium until you need it. I actually have a USB harddisk where I regularly download my entire GOG library to (with a tool called lgogdownloader). If GOG goes belly-up, I can still play all games I ever bought from them. The same holds true, of course, for games with an actual physical install medium. Just hope that it’s an actual install, and not just an “installer” which then downloads the game from the Internet. That’ll rot away quicker than anything else.
What do the stores bring to benefit the customer?
Here, we get into real hard terrain. My thoughts above are pretty much just my own observations, and I probably don’t know a lot of things about all the stores, even more so than I left out for this. But just to be clear on this: A store is a place that should serve the customer. Never the other way around, and never anyone else. So consider my bullet points (points again!):
- Physical / GOG
- These put you in control of the game. There’s no way for them to reach and revoke what you have. None can reach out into your harddisk and delete games or prevent you from running your games. In this regard, they provide the ultimate service to customers: You actually GET what you pay for.
- In addition, GOG also provides polish to older games, out-of-the-box functionality for DOS games and synchronizing of savegames across installation via GOG Galaxy. Neat.
- Despite the whole “licencing” shortcoming from above, Steam provides a huge ecosystem of gaming related services. That doesn’t make the terrible licencing any better, but the services are nothing to sneeze at: Game matchmaking, VAC, Savegame synchronization (like GOG also has), Steam Workshop (for better or worse), discussion forums, Steam Link and Steam Controller hardware (like it or not, they do provide it), Steam Play / Proton for Linux gaming and probably more that I don’t know of.
- This actually IS a big plus for customers, if you can live with Steam having the ability to just nuke all your purchases for stepping out of line of their terms of service…
- Paid exclusives. They literally pay developers/publishers so they only release their games on the Epic store (for a limited time). In my opinion, that is not a benefit to customers. I understand that they want to become serious competition to Steam, and I honestly wish them well in this regard. But I don’t think that’ll work by forcing customers to their store. They should start making an actual competition in terms of value for customers, maybe cooperate with Nexus mods for a SteamWorkshop-competitor, or providing an alternative to Steam Link (EDIT As AdmiralDock pointed out in the comments below, you can stream any game to Steam Link by using the “Add A Non-Steam Game” option in the Steam Client) that lets you streeam any game, not just Steam games, or provide customers with an actual COPY of the game, not just a licence, or maybe make plush pandas come out of your DVD drive, ANYTHING really, that is seen as a positive by objective consideration.
You may have already guessed it, but for me, Epic lies even below Steam on my list of favorite stores to buy from. But in the end, everyone needs to decide on their own what’s important to them. For me, the consideration “What happens if the stores shuts down” is always a big one. Noone is safe from that, as the shutdown of Microsoft’s ebook store and eradication of customer’s libraries shows. If it happens from Microsoft, what makes you think anyone else would be safe from it?