Tails

Yeah, I’m still mulling over the Epic Store, sorry about that.

Anyway. It’s a few weeks ago now but Epic were out there saying that the latest Metro game had a stronger launch week than the last Metro game managed on Steam. Obviously this is incredibly vague and doesn’t really tell us much about anything – we don’t know how Metro sold in its first week on Steam, we don’t know how many copies it shifted on Epic’s store. We don’t know the fate of every other game selling on the Epic Store either.

It’s a great soundbite and makes for a lovely headline but it’s largely an empty, vague statement. But okay, this is as much a PR fight for Epic as it is cementing their store as a place that can shift copies of videogames. I’ve no doubt we’ll see a lot more handwave-over-the-details stuff in the months to come and to be fair, it’d be really strange if Epic didn’t take these opportunities to big themselves and their store up. Business is very business, after all.

It’s all fairly business as usual stuff for a store establishing itself anyway. To begin with, you control the flow of new games tightly. You see this at the start of a console generation and it’s why the galaxy brain business folk rush out and tell you that you absolutely must put your game on this console’s store because with no competition, copies just virtually fly off their virtual shelves.

(Invariably the galaxy brains are largely unconcerned about the fact that if you’re a year away from launch or something, these magical conditions that make a store a must be place to stash your game will be long gone. I’m not being cynical here, just once you’ve been around the block a few times it’s not exactly difficult to spot the patterns. And also that they’re patterns precisely because they work.)

I wouldn’t go as far to say that this is the easy part of building a store, plenty of stores have struggled to begin with on this sort of thing. It’s also something that you can only really do with enough money to throw at it. It’s not easy. However! It is easier than the next steps Epic need to take with their store precisely because you can throw money at it and mitigate a lot of problems with PR guff

That’s not something that works in the long run.

I expect Epic know this. Part of the logic behind buying exclusives at this early stage is to kick the larger problem of what next down the road for a bit. Covering a studio for one year of sales or whatever means nobody has to worry too hard about what happens to the game between now and a year from launch. The thing is, for anyone not having this mitigated by Epic’s moneysack – what next is the most important part. How good is the store at shifting copies of games in the long run? Do we have a tail here or do games just sink?

Ensuring a long tail is a very difficult thing to solve and something Valve, currently, do better than pretty much any other store at. That’s not to say someone’s game won’t sink on Steam, the long tail of sales can’t be cut short or disturbed by an algorithm change or whatever else. I’m definitely not arguing this is a solved problem but it is important for the bulk of us selling videogames because, bluntly, we need to sell videogames and the longer we can do that, the better.

There’s lots of ways that Valve push games out there in the long term. The most obvious one is with hugely anticipated store wide sales. Nearly every game is on sale and retooling what takes up the most gawped at store space gives games another shot at bumping their sales up. It’s not anywhere near as simple as that in practice but that’s waves hands why Steam sales exist as they do.

I’m not going to turn this into a list of things Valve do to boost visibility over time but suffice to say, it’s a lot. They have to work at this, absolutely have to. If they didn’t then Steam would be in the same boat as any number of other stores you can think of that haven’t invested anywhere near as much time, manpower and money into ensuring as large a spread of games as (currently) possible can make money sometime after launch.

Perversely, Valve’s efforts here buy Epic a lot of time and space. Worried about what happens when you’re a bit further down the store page (if anyone can see you at all)? Worried about how you’ll sell copies on the store as more and more games battle for eyeballs? Don’t worry! 12 months from launch you can sell your videogame on Steam and benefit from the past fifteen years or whatever of Valve’s efforts to make older games not just visible but viable.

Thanks to Valve, Epic get to have their cake and eat it. Epic can work to ensure games get to have a good spot on their store’s front page at launch, they can offer developers a good chunk of cash to make sure developers (or publishers, whatever) don’t have to worry about whether Epic have solved any visibility problems beyond an overcrowded front page at launch. And like I say, no matter what – there’s always Steam for once the money and visibility runs out. Hooray!

Which is a lot of words to say that the hardest, most important thing we need to know about the Epic store is currently unmeasurable. We’re a good way away from the old times where a game makes all its money at launch (some still do, natch) so the biggest test of Epic’s storefront is ahead of us.

If I put my game on the Epic store today, will I be able to still sell copies there in three, six, nine twelves whatever months from now?

We just don’t know.

Personally, I suspect Epic won’t have even got close to sorting this before the first wave of exclusives are set free. We’re at least six months away from their store having most of the features Epic would need to even get out the starting blocks, we’re at least six months away from the store being anything but bare bones according to Epic’s own roadmap.

Whilst Epic can obviously learn from what Valve have done so far, it’s taken Valve a lot of years, a lot of mistakes, a lot of experiments to vaguely sort some sort of long term sales issues for as many people as they have. Nothing Epic comes up with in the next year will come close.

I largely suspect Valve know this too. They know just how much money gets bounced around for videogames on Steam. They know how much work improving this by even the smallest amount is. And they’ll have some idea of the gargantuan amount of work Epic will need to put in.

This is partly why I think (outside of the usual big business “I’m good, me” and the kneejerk neolib rhetoric that all competition is automatically good competition) Epic aren’t putting much pressure at all on Valve for just about anything beyond the call for Valve to lower their take.

If the Epic store is to succeed, Epic need Steam and they need it for a pretty hefty amount of time to provide a buffer whilst they get their own stuff in order. And during that time, Valve weren’t going to sit still and just leave Steam to stagnate anyway (and bonus, whatever Valve roll out Epic can say “hah, see, we made them do that!” even if it’s been on the cards for a while).

It’s going to be a pretty exhausting year or so in games and whilst I doubt Epic will have their house in order any time soon, there’s going to be a lot of business bullshit for people to wade through. And me? I’ll still just be selling my game on Itch and Steam anyway because like the bulk of developers out there, I’m not in the crosshairs for a mound of cash. And all of us will still be the last thing people consider when they talk about the stores.

Like I just did there.

As I say, exhausting.