Developer Epic Games has been shaking up the industry in more ways than one since launching the massively popular and influential Fortnite in 2017. Starting last December, the company has been using its newfound wealth from the battle royale hit to fund its PC marketplace, the Epic Games Store, which offers game developers a more generous 88-12 percent revenue split than the competition.
In addition to that, Epic has been paying out large sums of money to developers to launch their games exclusively on its store, creating a particularly heated point of contention between PC game fans and the company. As a result, the store has grown to 85 million users, thanks largely to Fortnite’s active player base, Epic announced today at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. (The software used to launch Fortnite on PC also contains the Epic Games Store, making users of the game also registered users of the store.)
Critics and gaming fans, particularly those who are loyal to Valve’s competing Steam marketplace, take issue with Epic’s strategy of securing exclusive games because of the belief that it injects the worst element of the console industry to a Windows ecosystem that has largely escaped the platform wars between PlayStation and Xbox. Epic Games Store chief Steve Allison says the company hears the criticisms and is working to address them. In fact, Allison says exclusivity on the Epic Games Store will eventually disappear.
“I don’t think we plan to do it forever. I expect that we’re already seeing the ecosystem come to life, from a sales and users perspective,” Allison told a GDC crowd today at his Q&A, alongside fellow Epic employees Sergey Galyonkin, director of publishing strategy, and Joe Kreiner, head of business development.
“We’ll probably do it for a while,” Allison added. “It’s about pushing the business model and helping people thrive. Hopefully, people just come eventually or the industry moves down to match us. But the answer is yes, we will at some point go to zero or very, very few exclusives per year. Definitely not going to be doing it at the scale we’re doing now.”
Just yesterday, Epic announced a whole new slate of PC exclusives, including Control, Remedy Entertainment’s new game, Solar Ash Kingdom from indie favorite and Hyper Light Drifter studio Heart Machine, and a trio of previously console-only games from French developer Quantic Dream. Just a cursory look at the PC gaming subreddit community will make clear that some consumers, admittedly a particularly vocal subset, are not at all pleased. “Stop advertising your game on Steam if you are going to make it an Epic exclusive,” reads one multi-thousand comment thread. “How to stop Epic exclusivity: Don’t ever buy the game,” reads another.
One touchpoint for the controversy is Deep Silver’s Metro Exodus, which was, as the Reddit thread above references, advertised on Steam and then pulled when Epic secured the exclusive PC rights to the title. Customers who preordered the game still got a copy distributed through Steam, but Valve sent out a rare public statement calling the move “unfair.” Some PC gaming fans have been enraged ever since.
More recently, those in the community who find Epic’s strategy distasteful have been claiming Epic is using its store to spy on users because of its connection to the Chinese government — Epic received a substantial investment from the state-controlled tech giant Tencent back in 2013. After some users began digging into the underlying software infrastructure of the store, Epic felt the need to deny the charge, with CEO Tim Sweeney personally wading into the Reddit comment sections on the topic to try to calm the critics.
As to the Metro Exodus situation, Allison and Kreiner told the GDC crowd today that the company would certainly not ever do something like that again. “We knew there was going to be some pushback there and it wasn’t an ideal solution,” Kreiner said. “We want to definitely avoid that in the future.” Allison, in a follow-up response, said, “It felt way worse and was bigger than we thought [it would be] and we got together and said, ‘We’ll never do this again this way.’”
As for what Epic is going to do to win back PC gaming fans that feel like it’s trying to drive a wedge into the heart of the community, Allison says Epic and its community relations team are hard at work. “We’re trying. Tim Sweeney is in the middle of those conversations. He tries to engage with folks,” Allison said, adding that Sweeney is often downvoted in threads to the point where people aren’t seeing his responses. “Hopefully, as we get more traction and people live with the store for longer, the sentiment will shift.”
“We respect everyone’s feelings. We just want to have two-way conversations,” Allison concluded. “We’re definitely not making spyware, and we’re definitely not run by China and we’re not trying to build an empire. We’re trying to help developers.”