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Rami Ismail: “We’re seeing Steam bleed… that’s a very good thing for the industry”

We spoke to Rami Ismail about why the competition between Valve and Epic is healthy for the industry

The Epic Games store has shaken up the industry considerably. After its outstanding success with Fortnite, Epic decided to open its own PC game storefront, one that is seriously challenging Steam.

Epic has won over many game developers by offering them an 88% revenue share – compared to Steam’s 70% share – while customers have been attracted by being able to bag iconic indie games for free, such as Super Meat Boy and What Remains of Edith Finch. Not only that, the Epic Games store is bringing the long awaited Journey to PC and was also the only PC storefront that Metro Exodus was available on at launch. Not a bad track record for such a young platform.

At Yorkshire Games Fest, we met with Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail to talk in detail about the rise of the Epic store, and what it means for indie developers and the industry as a whole. Ismail is one half of the indie studio behind the bombastic plane arcade game Luftrausers, and monstrous action roguelike Nuclear Throne. He’s also responsible for the collaborative Meditations project – a collection of minigames that gives you access to one game per day for a year.

We picked his brains about the showdown between Valve and Epic, how a new competitor will affect the industry, what makes Epic appealing to indies, and the impact of having two highly competitive PC marketplaces in the industry.

PCGN: What are your thoughts on the arrival of the Epic store, and how do you think it will impact the industry?

Rami Ismail: Thank fuck. No, seriously. The one thing that will always stifle innovation is monopolies. Even though Steam has been relatively benevolent about how they deal with games and how to deal with their teams, it’s never healthy to just have one player. Even though there’s been a lot of Steam competitors over the years, they’ve always been hampered by the fact that Steam has effectively infinite resources. They have infinite money. You can’t compete with that – unless you’re Fortnite.

Now we’re seeing Steam bleed and, in a way, that’s a very good thing for the industry. Even though I wish Valve no harm – they’re a lovely company with amazing people – structurally it’ll be better for us as an industry to have this competition.

I’m not saying that Epic Games is doing everything right because there are things that are absolutely questionable about what they’re doing. They take a lower developer cut, but then you have platform-crossing fees for some countries and not for others. The balance of their decisions creates interesting opportunities for some developers and shuts down opportunities for others.

One of the biggest problems with Valve is that they’ve always tried to balance everybody. Which, if you’re the only player that’s the right thing to do. But it also means that they’re not good for everybody. They were acceptable for everybody with their 30% cut and the forced community features. As an indie game developer paying 30% to then have to manage the forum is not the best deal. I just want people to buy my game and the Epic Games store does that.

There’s this interesting thing where a lot of people say to me, ‘Oh so you’re anti-Valve’, and I’m not. I really want Valve to continue existing because if they disappear then it’s just Epic and I disagree with their decisions as well. That’s the curse of running major platforms – you will always piss people off, and you have to be comfortable with that.

Valve opened up about changes it was making to revenue share with games that hit certain thresholds of success. It looked like this decision revealed Valve’s primary concern about trying to make the next Fortnite happen on Steam.

Which it won’t. It was oddly naive and a very harmful PR move for Valve. You immediately antagonise every developer in the world that doesn’t hit those numbers. I think the Epic Games team would have loved that. I honestly don’t know if they moved their announcement forward because if I was Epic, I absolutely would of gone like, ‘Wow, I think Valve has shot themselves in the foot. Lets announce now’.

The honest truth is that 30% [revenue share] has never been reasonable. 30% on consoles is hard to accept but at least there’s the QA, the hardware, getting the console into people’s houses.

It makes no sense, it never made sense, and Valve clearly realises that but they also didn’t want to just drop their revenue by 10%. Epic just went for it and I think that’s a very good move in the industry. I think the more developers see their own revenue, the more interesting the games they make will be.

If you drop the cut for an indie game by 20%, then yeah, we’re going to take more risks. There’s not an indie who’s going to be like, ‘Wow, we’re going to keep that 20% and buy a new Tesla’. We’re just going to make games; it’s the only thing we do, we spend our money on making more stuff. So giving developers more money, I’m all for it.

Obviously it has to remain sustainable because I don’t want Valve to operate at a loss. I don’t want Epic to operate on a loss. I don’t want itch.io, who already do 0% if you choose to, to operate at a loss. I want it to be a healthy ecosystem, but I also think it should be as fair of an ecosystem as possible. Maybe there’s a balance between where Epic is and where Valve is, where every consumer in the world doesn’t have to pay platform fees, and every developer in the world will get as much percent as possible without cutting too deep into the market.

When it was announced that Metro Exodus would become an Epic store exclusive, Valve left a message on the Steam page, saying that it felt “unfair to Steam customers.” What’s your perspective on that?

The only thing I will argue in Valve’s favour is that it was a game that was up for pre-order that was pulled, and I think being transparent about that messaging is important. I grinned at the message because it looks like it’s unfair. But Valve arguing anything being unfair, with the position they’re in, they just got out-businessed. I’m sorry, sucks to be you.

There’s an entire generation of indie game developers that got wiped out because of an algorithmic change in Valve’s recommendation algorithms and they said, ‘Well that’s just what the data said’. Well here’s what the data said, it said that Metro Exodus is not on Steam because the deal Epic gave them was better. To call that unfair, but call all they do just data, it couldn’t have been a funnier statement from that perspective.|

I think Valve coming to terms with the fact that they’re not the only one, they’ll make some misses, but not always. Valve experiments and I appreciate that about them, that they’re always willing to try things where people feel, ‘Well, that seems like a bad idea’. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. You can tell that they’re a game developer at heart. They’re iterative and that’s sometimes for better, sometimes for the worse, but I’m glad they’re around. I hope they stay around because seeing them iterate through the problem of, ‘Shit, we have a competitor now’ – hopefully it’ll be hilarious.

It seems some people are struggling with the idea that Steam is no longer the place where all of their PC gaming happens. Do you think there are some industry and community growing pains there?

I think that’s what’s happening. You’re seeing two things happen at the same time. The first thing is, clearly it’s very profitable to run a marketplace, more profitable than making a game. Any company that makes a game that hits a certain cultural mass is going to turn it into a launcher because why the hell not? It’s free money.

Blizzard has done it with Battle.net since the start, now Epic is doing it, Bethesda is doing it, everybody is doing it, and it makes a lot of sense. Honestly, I see a lot of people complaining about not having a launcher that’s just going to pull itself apart again.

Valve made itself the one-stop shop by basically offering every developer free keys for their games. If you sold on your website, you can offer free Steam keys, if it sold it in the Humble Bundle you’ll get a free Steam key, you sold it on itch.io you get free a Steam key. They started locking that down a little because a lot of people are abusing that system. That means that everybody just had all their games on Steam because you got free Steam keys.

But Steam was not just a game store. It was also your shelf, where all your friends are, where you keep your achievements, and all of these things are retainment strategies. They’re like a free-to-play business 101. How do you keep people coming back? Well, you give them something they value that they don’t get anywhere else, you give them access to their friends and the social circles they don’t have anywhere else, and you make sure that every now and then there’s something that forces them to boot up the app, like a Steam sale. It’s basically free-to-play game design. That’s what Valve’s been doing and they’re very good at it.

Now, you’re seeing the argument that Discord has overtaken the social functions in Valve. You’re going to see, presumably similar to the mobile market before, some overarching achievement system that will work in the game with a game account rather than in your store platform. Because Bethesda are obviously going to link their achievements internally.

News: Epic posted a roadmap with planned features for the future

Uplay already does it with Ubisoft games where you have your internal achievements here. That’s going to be how things are going to go because you want to be able to compete with your friends on Steam from the Epic launcher. You want to be able to compete with your friends on Xbox who are now bringing the Xbox Live to Switch. You’re seeing these things being separated from the platform and turned into a new paradise.

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You’re now less segregated by what platform you use and more about what game you’re playing, and I think that’s healthy. There’ll be some adjustment pains; people will be a little upset about it. Honestly, I will not be surprised if you see some sort of like achievement importer where your achievements from the Epic store can just load into Steam. Achievements from Steam can just be loaded into Epic, if Epic does achievements. You’ll see that, which is great – let’s go.

We guess that’s on the developer’s part, from the willingness to embrace things like cross-play and interplay between platforms.

We’ve been wanting to do that for decades from the early Nintendo days – this conversation is not new. Whenever you did a game that was on two platforms you wished that people could play together. The industry has always been segregated by stores, so maybe it’s time we stop doing that – instead of segregating by store we segregate by games.

If you have an achievement in a Bethesda game then all your Bethesda games recognise that, appreciate that, honour that. We’ve seen that in games like Mass Effect what that power can do. Your save game of Mass Effect loads into the next one. This will be on the publisher basis and I think that’s actually fine. It does create the new question of what happens with archiving when a publisher goes out of business or gets sold. Those are two separate questions that we’re going to have to answer.

Read more: Check out our list of the best Steam games

But I think the rise of Discord shows that people are ready to decentralize. I see people complain that, ‘I have too many launchers on my desktop’. Have you seen Quake 2? Quake 2 had six different icons on your desktop, like multiplayer, death match, whatever. This is not new, it’s fine.

Co-authored by Jeremy Peel and Rachel Watts