Following news that Metro Exodus would be joining the Epic Games Store exclusivity programme, publisher Deep Silver came under significant fire from all sides of the gaming community for its decision. Some of these criticisms were very valid, from concerns over the Epic Games Store’s security to pre-order conflicts to regional difficulties. Deep Silver’s decision, however, was inspired due to it wanting greater value for its game; single-player games are not blessed with an evergreen shelf-life, and they need to find ways to survive. Leaving Steam was sacrilege in the minds of fans, but really, Deep Silver was merely ridding itself of a one-sided commercial relationship.
Steam—despite valiant efforts from storefronts like GoG and Green Man Gaming—wields enormous commercial power in digital PC gaming, a portion of the market that accounts for 25% of game revenue. Of this 25%, Valve refuses to share how much software Steam has sold. Valve has shut down efforts to get conclusive data from its platform for years which should leave consumers with one question: “why?” Much like the high-street of twenty years ago, Steam is slowly encroaching over the market, leaving little gap for competition. Unlike the high-street, Valve has ways to ensure this information does not make the light of day.
While consumers consistently hear the same rhetoric in publisher financial reports and gaming expositions that single-player gaming is economically strong, the fact this platitude needs to be consistently re-stated implies that single-player games are not on the same level as multiplayer titles, financially-speaking. No publisher or developer comes out and states that multiplayer games are in a good spot or are financially doing very well; the medium’s success is obvious. The question is as follows: why do publishers feel the need to consistently defend single-player games? The fact that publishers of varying sizes jump to this defence without provocation speaks volumes for their own insecurities about single-player titles.
To make a complicated story a little simpler, the Metro Exodus shift to the Epic Games Store came from one reason: Epic Games offered a better split in revenue. On Steam, developers typically receive 70% of revenue, whereas Epic Games offers a more competitive rate of 88%. On paper, this split means Epic Games offers the better deal for single-player studios. Single-player games cannot enjoy the re-sale value and “games as a service” privileges of their multiplayer counterparts, so ensuring this small window of sales is utilised to its maximum potential is huge for a studio’s financial success.
More sales, in theory, means more re-investment, leading to long-term returns for the consumer. The trend the single-player community sees of content being rigidly vetted, cut apart, and sold with essential parts missing as downloadable content is an attempt to keep the medium afloat; while these practices are inexcusable from a consumer point-of-view, they are symptomatic of publisher anxieties regarding the long-term future of single-player titles. By maximising returns in initial sales, shareholder and publisher anxieties may be mended, at least partially. Epic Games offering a better cut for developers and publishers is a proactive way of preventing the industry’s more insidious business practices.
In raw figures, solely single-player games cannot match the grossing figures of multiplayer titles. In a year where single-player games seemed to dominate, Steam’s highest-grossing titles featured only three single-player titles in its top twelve. The rest of the titles were there due to their multiplayer components ensuring financial returns. Of course, the console market is blurred by its own fantastic single-player exclusives, but in the world of PC gaming, multiplayer dominates. On storefronts like Steam, single-player is in the peripheries.
Why, then, are people defending Steam so valiantly, especially if single-player is secondary on the platform? The storefront has become synonymous with modern PC gaming, encroaching on monopolising the entire concept of digital downloads. While Steam has a litany of its own issues, much of its ardent defenders come from the platform’s symbiosis of storefront and community. By embedding Steam profiles, curation lists, personalities, groups, and the entire fabric of purchase within community, any attack on Steam is unconsciously viewed as an attack on its community. Metro Exodus is currently being review-bombed on the platform for its choice to go to a competitor which, on the surface at least, just comes across as plain old devotion. By embedding its community so tactfully into the act of purchase, Steam has built up its own intimidatory force against the act of competition. In the long run, this will starve developers of options.
Competition is not a bad concept. Video games are, inherently, competitive. Ever since the first “console war” of 1976, tribalism has followed gamers’ wallets and attitudes. Analysts and observers are likely to be unsurprised that this same tribalism has transferred into the realm of digital storefronts, but competition provides fruits for developers, publishers, and players themselves. Exclusivity can be a short-term patch to foster competition, ending in an ecosystem of storefronts that is not dominated by one con-rod apex predator.
Overall, Koch Media, 4A Games, and Deep Silver could have handled the Epic Games situation better, but in the long-term, having storefront exclusivity and actual competition for Steam may benefit the single-player market. Single-player games cannot compete with the free-to-play behemoths of this world, with titles such as Apex Legends and Fortnite assuring long-term returns on investment. For single-player developers, they must go where the best deal for themselves is, a place where their work is valued.