A Lie of Epic (Store) Proportions?

You’ve probably heard the claim. “The Epic Store is good for developers”, it goes. “We take less of a cut, so the people making the game get more.”

On paper, that sounds like A Very Good Thing. One has to wonder why such a simple conceit has eluded the market for so long in order to drive competition – taking a little less to get more games on your platform. And the ideal is noble enough too – we know how hard and how stressful developing video games is now, with BioWare struggling and numerous infamous cases of “Crunch Time” having come to the fore.

In reality though, I wonder if Epic Games’ claim is nothing but a convenient marketing stunt, or maybe even a lie.

I began to realise this when Deep Silver, who are publishing Obsidian’s new title The Outer Worlds, signed up for a full year of Epic Store exclusivity. This was happening at a time when Obsidian staff were elbow-deep in the Steam backend, sorting out achievements and community stuff. The vast majority of Obsidian learned of this Exclusivity Deal the same way everyone else did; when Deep Silver announced it.

And Deep Silver know a bad idea when they see it.

Still Worst Game Of The Decade.

But it’s become more pertinent now Borderlands 3 is confirmed to be having six months of Epic Store exclusivity – again, according to Randy Pitchford (and we all know how honest he can be), this was not a decision made by the developers, Gearbox Software, but rather the publishers – 2K Games. Once again, if you believe Randy on this, the developers got no say in this.

So much for being “Good for Developers” – particularly when it turns out in a growing number of cases, the ‘Developers’ in question aren’t even involved in these discussions.

Which then also begs the question – if Epic Games is paying for these exclusivity arrangements, who is actually getting the money? Would this matter if, as Epic claims, a smaller cut on their end means more money trickling down to the development teams and studios? We’d all get behind the people making our software/games having a bigger paycheck, right?

Well… that assumes you ignore how the industry treats individual developers on the whole.

People forget that unless you’re truly “Indie”, most people working at these development studios are on a fixed annual wage. In the UK, the average is between £24k and £32k, but in the US – with a higher cost of living – that’s often closer to $70-$80k a year. These aren’t inherently fantastic wage packets either; most of the people you’re looking at in the credits probably worked a lot of unpaid overtime as well, as well as getting into that whole “Crunch Time” thing.

So many work with the hope/expectation of a bonus at the end of a project. Sadly, we also know how this goes – with numerous examples of performance-related caveats tied to those bonuses. The most common examples were related to Sales Performance (This game has to sell 2 million copies in a month or no bonus for you!) – which is often not even related to the developers and a matter for marketing – or Metacritic Averages (This game has to be an 80 or higher in a month or no bonus for you!), which can always be scuppered by a single rogue review score.

Obsidian know this all too well.

By a single point.

You think having paid millions of dollars out to publishers like UbiSoft, 2K Games and Deep Silver that a single penny of that money will see its way to the people who bust their asses day in, day out, so we can have video games to play? Or will it, as I suspect, end up lining the pockets of executives and managers who are often on paychecks in the millions – and sometimes tens of millions – of dollars a year?

In the end, for all the bravado, Epic Games isn’t making life better for the developers here.

We know this because no-one is taking a sledgehammer to UbiSoft, or Deep Silver, or 2K Games. They’re on Twitter, venting their anger and frustration at the developers themselves. This gives their social media teams, again not on a massive wage packet themselves, even more work and probably hurts them even more in the long run, having spent months carefully cultivating and promoting a video game only in the end to spend months being called horrible names based on a publishers decision, likely based on greed.

And in the day-to-day, people will always blame the studios. They’re the people usually pushed as the leading names, not the publishers, so these outside decisions leave the studios in question high and dry, dealing with a public relations fallout not of their own making, and not knowing the long-term reputational damage that such actions may have caused them.

So stress, more angry gamers, more stress, even more angry gamers, even more stress…

I GET THE JOKE NOW!

If they’re not even getting any of the exclusivity money either – and so far, we’re seeing few of these teams are seeing anything – then we have to concede that the whole premise of the Epic Store is a lie. Rather than make it easier for developers, it’s making things more difficult. They’re getting nothing whilst their publishers swallow up the cash and run off with it.

Good for Developers? No. Good for Publishers and Big Companies who can find any number of ways to screw their staff.

I DO want competition to Steam; most people do. Steam isn’t a good place anymore. It’s bloated, it’s easily manipulated, it’s more than toxic in some communities – I’d even say in spots it is radioactive. It’s no longer user-friendly, it eats up memory and it’s generally been a long time since we all gave Valve a pass because of its game pedigree – it doesn’t make games any more (and the mod workshop for Left4Dead 2 has been a trainwreck for years, so trying to get more out of what they do have is a near-impossibility).

I agree fully that yes, we absolutely need alternatives to Steam.

But if this is the alternative – I say no. The Epic Store is predicated on a fantasy ideal that doesn’t work in the real world. The ONLY way Epic Games could ensure this is to act as the publisher for every studio on its platform, which… well, that’s never going to happen, is it? At that point no third-party publisher would touch the Epic Store. Why give your studios ideas?

More than that… you’d be creating another monopoly, like Steam, and they’d have carte-blanche to dictate how things would be. Eventually that exclusivity money will dry up, and Epic Games could very easily start taking a larger cut – or adding in additional costs, because let’s not forget that all that bandwidth they’ll need and all those server farms they’ll require will cost money at the end of the day. Then you’re kind of back where you began. Nothing changed, you just installed a New Dark Overlord and that was that.

Things do need to change. But I don’t believe Epic Games is the company to do that.

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