A decade ago, EA pissed off a lot of people. That’s normal for EA, but this move in particular earned the publisher some lifelong enemies among PC gamers: After releasing the first two Mass Effect games on Steam, EA announced that Mass Effect 3 would only be available on its proprietary client, Origin , blaming Steam’s “restrictive terms of service.” Instead of sitting in a neat stack in our Steam libraries, the trilogy was split between two launchers. It was a crime against PC gaming as far as many were concerned.
Eight years later, in 2020, EA finally released Mass Effect 3 on Steam. Perhaps overcompensating, it then released Mass Effect 3 on Steam again in 2021 as part of the Mass Effect Legendary Edition. If there was any doubt that the publisher’s Steam holiday is over, it killed Origin this year. Granted, Origin was immediately replaced by the EA app, which is the same thing, but the point stands.
EA crawled back to Steam, and it’s not the only major publisher to do so:
- After sequestering the Call of Duty games on Blizzard’s Battle.net for some time, Activision returned to Steam this year with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Warzone 2.0.
- Microsoft started releasing games on Steam again in 2019, after failing to make the Microsoft Store important. (Although it has found success with Game Pass and the Xbox app.)
- After a couple of years of Epic Games Store exclusivity, Ubisoft finally brought Assassin’s Creed Valhalla to Steam this year.
- Take-Two also played with epic exclusivity, but only for short periods: Borderlands 3 was on Steam after six months, and Red Dead Redemption 2 was exclusive to the Rockstar Games Launcher and EGS for just one month.
Steam has also recently welcomed notable newcomers. For a while, we wondered if Epic’s relationship with Sony would mean that previous PlayStation exclusives would favor the Epic Games Store when they trickled onto PC. Epic apparently made an offer, but Sony didn’t pick a side: God of War and other PlayStation-published games are on both Steam and EGS.
It’s good to be Gabe
Maybe things would actually get worse if EA, Microsoft and others haven’t annoyed us by pushing their own stores and launches. A decade and change ago, it seemed like Steam was on its way to becoming synonymous with PC gaming, with only a few companies, like Blizzard, able to succeed outside of Valve’s ecosystem. As influential as Valve is today, it didn’t end up being the “Xerox” of PC gaming, which I think most people would agree is the best. The reaction to Microsoft’s amassing of key studios suggests that PC gamers don’t like to see too much power consolidated in the Seattle Metropolitan Area.
If Valve was nervous about the sudden competition it faced over the past decade, and the departure of these big franchises, we certainly couldn’t tell on its face – but then again, the company’s calm demeanor has always been hard to read. When Epic CEO Tim Sweeney posed the Epic Games Store as a direct challenge to Steam’s 30% revenue fee, for example, Valve hardly flinched. It eventually reduced its cut, but to 20% instead of Epic’s more generous 12% and only for the biggest publishers, pissing off many indie developers. And yet Epic still has to spend a lot of money to acquire notable exclusives, with the new publishing wing currently funding two Remedy games, one of which is Alan Wake 2. (Don’t get me wrong, I think that’s a great thing, because I always want more Remedy games.)
It feels premature to say that the era of the Steam competitor is over, but I think PC gaming has quietly (and sometimes loudly) supported a Steam monopoly. For all the virtue PC gamers and this publication preach about the platform’s openness and freedom of choice, I think it’s also understandable that so many of us value the predictability, convenience, and centralization that comes with Steam’s dominance.
Valve’s continued relevance hasn’t always felt so secure: the 2010s were full of controversies and blunders big and small, like the steamy Steam Machines program, Artifact’s fiasco, semi-frequent confusion over Steam’s adult games policy, and the mild dud that was the Steam controller. But lately Valve has been on a bit of a roll, with its hardware efforts looking notably more fruitful: It’s still our favorite VR headset, and the Steam Deck has been a minor triumph this year. I don’t have a use for one, but it’s nice to see Valve’s long, slow effort to build a Linux-based lifeboat for PC gaming finally becoming practical for the common person.
And Steam itself, once a destination only for publisher-backed games, is now a destination for cool, weird stuff like Cruelty Squad (opens in a new tab) alongside mainstream hits, which now include games like Marvel’s Spider-Man and God of War, which at one time we didn’t expect to see on PC at all. That’s partly because of the health of PC gaming in general: It’s a very good time to be playing games on PCs, on Steam or otherwise. But let’s be honest: mostly on Steam.
(Apologies to the author of the entertaining Gawker essay ‘They always come crawling back (opens in a new tab)‘ for borrowing the phrase at the center of their observation about human behavior to discuss the business plans of video game publishers.)