Gaming 13 January 2019 | 11:41

The significance of gaming’s store wars

13 January 2019 11:41

First, have a popular product – and then you can really start to make something of it. Back in 2004, Valve had Half-Life 2, the sequel to one of the finest and most influential computer games of all time, and millions of desktop warriors were quivering in anticipation of its release. But then Valve did something that was, for the time, quite radical and, for many gamers, quite aggravating. It insisted that anyone who bought Half-Life 2 – even if they had bought a copy on disc – would have to download the company’s online client to play the game. That client was called Steam.

Half-Life fans may not have liked it, but what choice did they have? Steam imprinted itself on to heaps of hard drives, and then grew and grew and grew. It is now the portal through which most PC gamers access, buy, discuss, update and play their games. Other portals have sprung up over the years – including the retro-focused GOG – but Steam towers above them all, with revenues of $4.3 billion in 2017.

But now another company with a very popular product is trying to invade Valve’s territory. Epic Games are the makers of Fortnite – a game which is thought to have made, by itself, at least $2 billion last year – and they recently established a shop to sell not just their own wares, but also, like Steam, the wares of other companies. You can see how eager they are to triumph against the long-serving competition. Epic has promised game developers a fuller share (88 per cent) of the proceeds than they currently get from Steam (70 per cent), and they’re also luring in customers with a series of free titles. The current freebie – which I can recommend – is What Remains of Edith Finch.

Another, perhaps crucial, part of Epic’s strategy has been revealed in the past few days. The mega-developer Ubisoft will no longer be selling its upcoming The Division 2 on Steam, but will be selling it on the Epic Games store. Judging by its predecessor, The Division 2 is unlikely to be another Half-Life 2 or Fortnite, but it is still a big title from a big company – and it adds up to a big statement. The idea of exclusive titles, which has been used to sell PlayStations in the past and Netflix subscriptions more recently, is coming to PC gaming’s storefronts.

This matters for more than just PC gamers. Where Epic goes, Steam will surely follow, and then even bigger players are likely to get involved. There is already some speculation that Amazon is preparing to move into gaming’s next frontier – streaming. What you play, watch, hear and enjoy is increasingly determined by where you choose to keep your credit card details. The tech giants are the Twenty-First Century’s great cultural arbiters.