Consoles aren’t really part of this conversation, since they are closed ecosystems. It’s not like you could get God of War from anything other than the PS store.
PCs though… there are so many options. The giant is certainly Steam, but there are others around. Important term to remember here, there are storefronts where you buy the game, and Content Delivery Networks (CDN) that allow you to download the game. Let’s look at the options first.
GOG used to be solely about retro grames, but it’s a solid spot for some indie games, and things a bit out of the ordinary. Built in CDN.
Green Man Gaming often has massive discounts with coupons, and integrates easily with Steam. No CDN here.
Origin is used solely for EA games. CDN included. It’s own by EA though, so it’s the devil. Not a whole lot of choice here if you want to play an EA game online. Steam will even redirect you here. Probably the worst UI and overhead of all the services I’ve used.
Blizzard has a launcher/storefront where they’ve started to include Activision games. As a CDN it’s hard to compete with the download/install options, and the UI is extremely clean. Makes you wonder why EA can’t do this…
ARC/Trion/Daybreak launchers all follow the same model as Blizzard but with a whole lot less money. Every MMO seems to have it’s own launcher, but the ones that cover multiple games are the interesting bits. In general because of the currency that can be shared between the games on offer. They are serviceable.
Discord is about to launch their own game store to compete directly with Steam. Sort of makes sense, given that most PC games have a Discord account in the first place. The UI is similar to Steam (grey everywhere). It remains to be seen what type of catalogue will be present.
Epic Games recently announced they will do something similar to Discord, but went into much more detail regarding the financials. Epic will only take a 12% cut, have no forums, and a focus on review bombing.
Steam dominates for very simple reasons.
- The damn thing works. Full stop. I’ve never had it crash or fail. Every other CDN has crashed at least once, if not multiple times (looking at you Origin).
- It has a massive catalog, built over years. For pretty much any game, if it isn’t on Steam, it’s likely not available elsewhere. Exceptions apply to publisher-owned platforms (Origin/Blizzard).
- It has sale events that feel like you’re getting stuff for free. Who doesn’t like the holiday sale, where you can get games at 50-90% off?
- Players have had it installed for years, so there’s a high level of familiarity with the system for people who have disposable income.
- Simple refund process
It sucks for a similar set of reasons
- It takes a massive share from developers … 30%+
- It has so much crap, it’s almost impossible for the average player to find something “good” without depending on curated lists
- It has forums, which developers need to manage without any administrative tools. One bad post from someone with 5 minutes of gameplay can derail an entire game.
- Review bombs are common place, and Valve has done a poor job of managing it
- Steam opted to stop curating any content that wasn’t deemed illegal. Gaming bloat/cloning is prolific.
- It is the primary enabler of Early Access gaming, which is next worst trend after loot boxes.
For many players, the pros outweigh the cons. When you look at gaming as a whole, Steam has opened up the entire globe to the concept of digital downloads and effective CDN management. As a piece of technology, what it’s done is incredible.
As a service to gamers, it’s provided many more eyeballs on games than ever before. It embraced Web2.0 before it was a thing, allowing the consumer to provide feedback to the developers and to other prospective buyers. There are plenty of games I never would have found if not for Steam.
For developers, it provided a relatively low cost deployment option when physical media distribution costs were so high. More things could be shipped. The major downside to this is there is a significant amount of gamers who are toxic and can derail any developer with minimal effort.
But…the world Steam was built to address doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s implemented the change it set out to push through. PC gaming is prolific. Indie developers are all over. CDN are common. The technology hurdle is solved. The next hurdle is the economic management of a new gaming culture.
If Epic can actually get a store front and CDN working, at less than half the cost of Steam, with no forums, and a managed review section, better developer tools… that’s a hell of an incentive for a developer to swap over.