Four years ago, I wrote about the growing world of digital distribution. I lamented the seeming split in game distribution services and the notion that I would have who knows how many of these things running in the background. I also wondered just how many of these clients I would still be using. (Six. The answer is six.)
I didn't really intend to write about this topic again, but the relatively recent launch of the Epic Games Store presented an opportunity that was too good to pass up. Just how exactly have things changed in the last few years? The short answer is that the problem has gotten worse. The long answer is, well, the rest of what I've written here.
The Big PlayersSteam, GOG, Battle.net, and Origin are all still going strong. Each and every one of these platforms have had their successes and their difficulties, but they are nonetheless dominant forces on the market years after I had first written about them.
I could easily hammer out ten thousand words about the changes that have come to Steam, but I'll spare you from having to read that much. The platform's Greenlight program shut down in 2017, opening up the world's largest digital distribution gaming store to pretty much anyone with a hundred bucks and a dream. The amount of shovelware, clones, and asset flips appears to have exploded to the surprise of no one. We have, however, also seen several improvements: a new review system, a revamped client, and the possibility for plenty of good, hardworking developers to get their games out there without having to work through the cumbersome Greenlight process.
GOG finally launched its Galaxy client. It works well enough for something that's still relatively new and has focused on expanding features and, of course, adding more games. Battle.net brought in the first game from another company—Destiny 2—and soon followed it with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, making the platform more of a co-venture between Activision and Blizzard than solely a service for Blizzard's own games. Origin debuted a sort of premium subscription service and retired its On The House promotions that brought so many people to their platform.
Every single one of the big four have had their share of successes and failures, although some have been greater than others. Regardless, they've survived and continue to expand their libraries and feature sets. That's not the only thing that's expanding, though—competition has sprung up from every corner.
The New Kids on the BlockEpic Games has found success with Fortnite. Epic Games has found a lot of success with Fortnite. It practically prints money, and there's only so many games you can develop and only so many improvements to the Unreal Engine you can make with that big of a pocketbook. What's a developer to do? Why, launch your own digital distribution service for games, of course! The Epic Games Store launched in December of last year and has been steadily snapping up exclusive contracts for games like Metro Exodus, Rebel Galaxy Outlaw, and many others. Heck, they even managed to get Journey onto the platform—a game that was previously exclusive to the PlayStation ecosystem.
The Epic Games Store has surely been the most disruptive new player, but they're far from the only one. Discord, Twitch, Amazon, Razer, Bethesda.net, and who knows how many other companies have all started up their own websites, storefronts, and clients. The pattern has played out much the same: they'll secure some exclusives or good deals and hope to the high heavens that they succeed. Some have failed entirely and some have done okay.
There's more than just some new faces, though. Innovation is happening with the new guys, sometimes at a pace faster than the established behemoths can deal with. For example, an indie startup called Rupie plans to integrate a game store, royalty sharing service, and developer community all into one neat package. Their idea of a fairer share for developers was announced a full six months before Epic swooped in, and many of their ideas about game development are certainly interesting.
Heck, even adult gaming has gotten a little more respectable. Adult gaming giant Nutaku launched their own desktop client in November of last year, making it much less cumbersome to download more than your fair share of lewd interactive entertainment. The number of digital distribution clients, services, websites, and stores have exploded as compared to four years ago—and it shows no signs of stopping.
Conflicting Features and a Growing System TrayMy system tray is just as much of a mess as it was four years ago. Arguably, it's gotten worse in some respects. Two new clients (the Epic Games Store and Nutaku) have permanently become a part of my everyday life. If this were a decade ago, I would be concerned about the usage of my system resources. Thankfully, RAM, hard drive space, and processing power are a little more abundant these days.
A broader issue is the conflicts caused by all of these different digital distribution clients. If I don't want to be bugged by my friends, some of these clients offer an Invisible mode that lets me access my games while logging out of social features. Others, unfortunately, do not, forcing me to either shut them down or deal with requests to play games that I don't really feel like jumping into at the moment.
Downloads present a conflict, too. I have at least one game I'll boot up to play on each of these clients (often more). Most modern clients have the sense to halt or throttle game updates when you're playing a game, but these clients don't always pay attention to outside factors. I've sometimes found myself in the middle of a multiplayer game on one client that is being ruined by an automatic patch download on another. I've tinkered with settings on all of these clients in an effort to make things as convenient as possible. I'll still have to occasionally intervene when the operation of one interferes with that of another.
February 15, 2019: A Highlight of the InsanityOkay, okay. I've complained a lot, but I'm a games journalist. I have way more games come across my desk than the average person. I need all of these clients, but some gamers might not choose to install them. That's understandable—what bothers me won't necessarily bother someone else.
I think things are perhaps best highlighted with a hypothetical scenario. Suppose that you are an enthusiast PC gamer who likes to buy the big, popular releases on the day they came out. Let's take a look at a date from barely a week ago: February 15, 2019. A whole bunch of great games released on that day, but you'd need to have three separate desktop clients to actually play them:
- Far Cry New Dawn: requires Uplay (and possibly Steam)
- Metro Exodus: requires Epic Games Store
- Crackdown 3: requires Windows Store on Windows 10
Where do we go from here?Digital distribution was supposed to make things more convenient. In many ways, it has. I can't remember the last time I went into a physical store to buy a game—there's hardly the need to do so these days. Even if I were a console gamer, I could receive the latest and greatest games right on my doorstep on launch day (and sometimes even earlier). Patches, mods, and all sorts of other features integrated into these clients have made for a better gaming experience in many respects.
However, the competition between the various different players has led to a situation where anyone with a few hundred million in the bank is going to start up their own Steam-like thing. Their revenue share will go up and gamers will have yet another bit of digital detritus sitting in their system tray. It's gotten worse in the last four years and I can only see this trend continuing. I full well predict Humble Bundle to be next in the long line of storefronts cooking up their own desktop widget.
The competition is going to cause innovation, both on features and on price. That's good for us in one respect, yes. Paradoxically, it also means that we're going to have to juggle all of these different things at the same time. It's been nearly half a decade and all of the big boys seem relatively healthy. Things have somehow managed to be come more convenient and less convenient at the same time.
We may one day say see one of the bigger players fail. Pressure from competition has led to Steam lowering its rates and the Epic Games Store coming out with a lower cut right out of the gate. Ironically, I think that this pressure may eventually make some of the other players decide that the costs of running their own service just isn't worth it anymore.
Which digital distribution clients do you use? Would you prefer everything that you play to be on one storefront? Let us know in the comments below!