Epic Games remains steadfast in its quest to drive down game store fees and build its “metaverse” vision, but the might of its Fortnite, Unreal Engine, and Epic Games Store operation wavered this year. Epic laid off over 800 employees in September, and pawned off beloved music marketplace Bandcamp after acquiring it only a year ago. Steam, meanwhile, kept posting wins.
Last year, I pointed out how many big publishers came crawlin’ back to Steam after trying their own things: EA, Activision, Microsoft. This year, for the first time ever, two Blizzard games released on Steam: Overwatch and Diablo 4.
That’s a big deal! Blizzard’s Battle.net has been its own PC gaming fiefdom since before Steam, which has always earned it a pass even among those who otherwise reject any non-Steam launcher. But here we are—never thought I’d see the day.
Steam also got 2023’s award winningest game, Baldur’s Gate 3, and alongside GOG had it exclusively for a month before the PS5 release (not counting its years in early access). It also housed Starfield and most other heavily marketed PC releases this year, and at the same time continues to be the primary vehicle by which relatively unknown new games become phenomena. Lethal Company was a big one this year, and we loved Battlebit Remastered and Pizza Tower. It’s the best way for us to get games from small developers in China, too: The Wandering Sword earned some buzz this year, for example.
Valve’s VR efforts have cooled—the all-in-one Meta Quest 3 is the headset to get right now—but the Steam Deck has been a great success by all appearances. This year saw the release of a new OLED version, and people are literally inhaling the things. (And if Valve does still see potential in VR, it could perhaps combine its Steam Deck R&D with its VR headset R&D to make its own standalone goggles one day.) The Steam Deck has even made Steam better for desktop users, with continued controller support improvements and the new overlay.
Epic had some big wins of its own: Alan Wake 2, which Epic funded and published, was a critical hit, and I’m thankful that someone’s keeping Remedy making games (Epic’s deal with them includes another project, too). Fortnite’s throwback season was a huge success, and it just got a surprisingly big Lego survival mode, as well as a fun racing mode from the Rocket League developers. Epic also got to conclude the year with a big legal victory over Google.
(Image credit: Remedy)
But a few years after Epic posed its ultimatum to the world’s digital game stores—lower your fees and allow third-party payment processing or no Fortnite for you, in short—Steam appears to be as strong as ever, while the Epic Games Store remains somewhat of a nuisance.
I can get behind Epic’s aversion to algorithmic recommendations and preference for keeping its store feature-light, but given those things, you’d hope the software would feel light, too. Instead, it takes longer to launch the Epic Games Store on my PC than Steam, and it isn’t nicer to use. The library should frankly just copy Steam’s format with a sidebar and categories—it’s better.
After a burst of energy at the start of the decade that seemed to foretell a new era of PC game distribution, things have settled into a status quo that looks a lot like the old one. Cloud streaming hasn’t taken off, GOG is still waving the DRM-free banner, and itch.io remains a valuable kitchen sink of indie and experimental games.
(Image credit: Rockstar Games)
PC Game Pass is now the biggest wild card. For the moment, Microsoft’s subscription service is an add-on to the digital distribution model we’re used to, not a Netflix-like revolution. At least one big exec, Take-Two’s Strauss Zelnick, hasn’t been convinced that subscriptions are the future. But it is certainly notable that the proud new owner of Activision Blizzard, and many other major developers, is pushing so hard to make the subscription thing happen.
Speaking of Rockstar parent Take-Two, another thing hasn’t changed: Grand Theft Auto 6 was announced for consoles with no mention of a PC version. It will surely come to PC sometime after its 2025 console release, but which store or stores it hits first is a small question mark. Rockstar very briefly made Red Dead Redemption 2 exclusive to its store and the Epic Games Store when it came to PC, so it isn’t isn’t a given that one of the biggest games of the decade will come to Steam first.
That’s probably a late 2025 or 2026 problem, though. For now, for better or worse, Steam remains securely at the center of PC gaming.