Steam has dominated the digital gaming market with little to no competition for nearly a decade, ensuring its place as the PC’s main distributor for good. Much of the platform’s success can be owed to its unique and innovative plethora of features in addition to its basic purpose of selling games. However, the rise of alternative platforms offering what Steam has and more are beginning to expose its shortcomings—and that could be fatal for the service if nothing is done.
One of the most pressing complaints against Steam is its confusing approach to curation, particularly as it affects smaller titles. Among popular AAA releases tirelessly promoted on the store’s frontpage are hundreds of worthy indies that go largely unnoticed each day, making visibility a problem for the developers who need it most. Perhaps this trend is to be expected of such a large platform—after all, it cannot be expected to specially accommodate every item submitted for sale—but it does create a problem for a growing number of developers, necessitating the existence of alternative distributors.
Similarly, Steam has also been criticised for its 30 percent cut of developers’ sales revenue, which again hurts indie developers the most; for many, losing such a significant portion of their profits is simply not a worthy trade-off, even if it means being hosted on the market’s dominant storefront. Even larger developers have been deterred by this policy which only recently saw publisher Deep Silver pull Metro Exodus from Steam, citing its unfair revenue split as a primary cause.
These issues have only resulted in the perfect conditions for competitors to capitalise on Steam’s failures, with new platforms such as the Epic Games Store priding itself on its tighter curation, support of indie developers, and meager 12 percent revenue split. Likewise, major publishers are quickly moving away from Steam as well, with Activision, Bethesda, and EA all selling their latest games through separate launchers. Steam is big enough to survive these relatively small losses, but with so much momentum gathering against it, its dominance slipping in the long-term is easy to predict.
Admittedly, Valve has shown some interest in fixing the platform’s shortcomings. In 2017, the company shut down Steam Greenlight in an attempt to crack down on low-effort asset flips, somewhat decluttering the storefront and making quality indies more visible; similarly, its revenue split was cut from 30 percent to 25 percent above a certain threshold, a small move that at least indicates a step in the right direction. Perhaps if Valve continues to listen to its users and takes similar measures in the future, it may be able to save Steam from any further losses.
Of course, this does not mean Steam is going anywhere anytime soon. Only the store with the most consumers will remain dominant, and given that Steam’s millions of users are largely unaffected by its troubles and only inconvenienced by the advent of competitors, it will take much more than a few exclusivity deals to take down the industry giant. Still, that Steam is facing any threat at all indicates an important shift in the industry, and one to watch closely as times change.