In late July, Wlad Marhulets, the solo developer behind just-released horror game Darq, received the golden ticket: an email from Epic Games asking if he’d like Darq sold on their hugely popular online store.
It’s a deal a lot of other game developers have taken. Steam’s game store takes 30 per cent of games’ sales and gives developers 70 per cent; Epic takes just 12 per cent. Epic also offers a cash advance to devs. Despite those favourable numbers, the downsides have been huge.
Epic often asks smaller studios for the exclusive right to sell their games, to the great chagrin of some gamers, who loathe the store’s lack of features relative to Steam and its upstart, money-fuelled entry into the PC marketplace. Some just call the whole store “evil”.
And after Ooblets developer Ben Wasser announced that the game would be sold exclusively on the Epic Games Store, and not on Steam, where fans had excitedly preordered the game, Wasser was attacked by what he called an “internet hate mob.”
He’s not the only one. Metro Exodus, Borderlands 3 and other games’ exclusive deals with Epic Games have incited bubbling-over ire, too.
A few weeks ago, a gaming GIF made its way to the top of Reddit. "I rejected 12 offers from major publishers," the title, a quick showcase of gameplay from psychological horror adventure DARQ, read. According to developer Wlad Marhulets, the publishers that initially reached out were fairly blunt: accept their help, or your game will be a guaranteed failure.
After all this, Marhulets’ golden ticket was looking more like a red mark. It didn’t help that the email arrived the the day before Ooblets’ exclusivity announcement, although Marhulets said in an email that his decision was “not based in fear.” After asking whether Epic Games’ offer necessitated exclusivity, and hearing that it did, Marhulets turned down the deal before even discussing money.
Darq had been on Steam since November, 2018, and is also for sale on GOG. The horror adventure game was within the top 50 most wishlisted games on the platform before launch. “I felt going for an exclusivity deal would show that my word means nothing (as I just had promised the game would launch on Steam),” wrote Marhulets on Reddit. The positive response from fans was huge.
In a Medium post, Marhulets explained that he “never intended to become the face of the Epic Store exclusivity controversy.” Noting that accepting Epic’s offer might be right for other game studios, he expressed concern that bringing his game exclusively to Epic’s store would “forever ruin the credibility of my studio.”
Marhulets also says he wishes that the Epic Store would let indie devs, and especially those with smaller teams, sell their games on their platform non-exclusively. Marhults posted an email exchange with an Epic rep saying that “We aren’t in a position to open the store up to games that simship,” shorthand for “simultaneous shipment.”
“I wish there wasn’t a double standard and indie developers were given an equal oportunity [sic] to sell their games across multiple store fronts, so the players can enjoy what they seem to want the most: a choice,” wrote Marhulets.
Reached for comment, an Epic representative told Kotaku that “We work with developers and publishers on a one-on-one basis and every situation is unique. We have a number of games from independent developers that are exclusive to our store, as well as a number of games that are available on other digital storefronts, including Steam. We have very limited release bandwidth and are definitely prioritising games with opportunities for exclusivity and therefore significant Epic dev/marketing assistance. We consider many other factors as well, so there is no set formula.”
Marhulets said he “I never intended to become actively involved in the exclusivity discussion / controversy,” but wrote his Medium post to ensure his comments on Reddit weren’t taken out of context. He described all that’s been going on as “a lot of pressure.”
Darq’s Steam comments are dominated by grateful messages from fans and some derision for Epic. “I purchased a copy of DARQ to support this fine developer’s ethical business practices. Thank you for keeping your promises and taking a stand against store exclusivity. The world needs more folks like yourselves,” wrote one.
“Support devs who keep their promises and stand up against evil. It also happens to be a great game so ... what are you waiting for?” said another.
“I intend to work in this industry for a long time and it’s important to me that my customers have the confidence that my word means something,” said Marhulets in an email. “As for harassing developers and sending them death threats for accepting exclusivity deals: there’s no excuse for it.”