'My Word Means Something': Indie Dev Elaborates On His Viral Decision To Reject Epic Store Exclusivity

Darq

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.

What Happens After An Indie Says No To Publishers

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.

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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.”


Comments

    Can I just say this article has been great. Explains the event, subsequent discourse caused by event, and avoids the trap that much of the recent coverage by some of opinion pieces or that seem to ignore part of the story wilfully.

    We need more articles like this. A lot of people don't seem to understand why there's backlash against what Epic is doing and dismiss it as either people not wanting multiple launchers or just general hate against something different. This outlines the core issues with why Epic's exclusivity approach is wrong and needs to change in a logical and well thought out manner.

    The part that got me was Epic tweeting about how good sim shipping is while telling devs there will be no sim shipping if they wanna be on Epic.

    The man made a public promise and kept it. That's to be commended. The comment "...Support devs who keep their promises and stand up against evil.", yeah, nah. The dev that decides to take financial support and a greater cut of profits from selling their game exclusively - that's not evil. Get out more.

    And the quote: “As for harassing developers and sending them death threats for accepting exclusivity deals: there’s no excuse for it.” that's the takeaway people.

    Sure.. and I'm glad people are rewarding him with sales.

    But this is also a solo developer, with zero previous programming experience, who one day decided he wanted make a video game and spent his spare time learning how to do so.

    That's an inspiring story on it's own. But he doesn't have staff to worry about (anyone with a heartbeat who runs a business will relate to this). He has no real overheads as he's working from home. He's so young, does he even have a wife/kids to provide for?

    All I'm saying here is that mitigating risk by taking an Epic deal shouldn't be something we look down upon. Bombarding the studios who do take these deals is pretty disgusting. The majority of sensible business people would take a deal like that. And the fact that this is available as a lifeline for indie devs would be a huge relief for many of them.

    I know this is against the hivemind EPICBAD thinking, so downvotes below and to the left :)

      To counter, I don't think anyone has really raised any ire about Oddworld going Epic as they were honest with the consumer base (we wanted the money).

      Its others, whether yanking rugs at the last minute (Metro), being dicks about it (Ooblets), or trying to say its 'better for the player' (Borderlands) that have caused the mass uproars against devs and publishers.

      The studio has three staff listed, which obviously isn't much but is staff none the less.

      The positive reaction to the Oddworld announcement shows that the benefits to developers going to Epic exclusively isn't the core issue and the reasons people have been angered by other tiles is well documented and has more to do with crowd funding, previous promises, existing preorders, pulling titles up to a week from release and condescending remarks.

      You can call it a hivemind to diminish those who feel a particular way but it's a debate with legitimate arguments on both sides and you will find that most people will agree that taking it too far with inappropriate behaviour isn't acceptable.

        People don't like it by nature because it's anti-competitive. Being forced to buy from one reseller gives them free reign to charge whatever they like. If you want a particular game, It's the difference between being able to shop around for a good price via numerous first and third party resellers, to being forced into one price point on a platform that offers zero value proposition.

        Under Australian consumer law, this is third line forcing, and by definition anti-consumer. So Epic are no way in the right here with hefty undertones of greed.

    Opinions about Epic aside, the developer definitely knew what the response to him rejecting EGS would be and is capitalising on it. He would have been hoping for the kind of response that AMA gave: “Not usually a fan of this type of game but will buy it to support you stance against Epic” and so on.

    All power to him for the power-play and working it into a successful marketing angle, it’s definitely a smart move, but to say he “never intended to become the face of the Epic Store exclusivity controversy” all the while cashing in on the karma points is a bit disingenuous.

      I just noticed that he even prompted such a question in the AMA preamble. If he didn’t want to get involved he wouldn’t have even mentioned it, let alone prompt people to ask it as the second “here’s things you can ask me” point. He was smart and calculated about this.

      Or some people just have principles? The game had been a thing on Steam for some time, it was in the top 50 wishlisted games, so it clearly already had eyes on and a following, and the developer clearly knew that taking that option away from people would tarnish his name going forward. Some people just like to stick to their 'word' ... as far as I can see the only people 'cashing in' on anything are the people who take the easy exclusivity money, everything else be damned (including belittling people who hold concerns over such matters).

        Note how I never said he should have taken the deal, or said anywhere that he shouldn’t stick to his word. I think he did the right thing by refusing the deal. Might want to read my comment again where I say he played it smart.

          A bit late replying to this (haha, sorry about that). Anyhow, the point I took umbrage with is how anyone would see what he did as 'playing it smart' or 'cashing in on karma points', rather than simply 'doing the right thing' (which is exactly what I think he did in this instance).

          When someone takes an exclusivity deal with Epic then it's often seen as: oh, they are a struggling developer with families, etc, it's *perfectly* fine that they take the money and ignore the fact that there were telling people for months that their game was going to be out on Steam or another platform such as GOG (or the promise of keys for those platforms with a kickstarter, etc), only to turn around at the last minute and say, 'too bad, so sad'.

          But when someone says they don't want to fall in line with that and disappoint people, and possibly tarnish their name going forward (especially as a first time developer), then it seems to be seen by some people as: oh, what a goody two shoes, look how he is taking advantage of the situation. He knows this is going to make him look good in the eyes of a lot of people, cashing in on karma points. Smart move, I guess. Good for him/her.

          I think it's more nuanced than that. I've been on this planet for some time, and I've come across all sorts of people ... I've known kinds that could fit into either category I mentioned above, be that taking monetary advantages where possible (despite it being a detriment to others), or mostly doing the right thing, even if it means they disadvantage themselves somehow (although in the case of this developer choosing to stay on Steam, it could very well end up meaning more sales and coming out of it with a better reputation than most). I know the type of people I prefer to associate with or put my trust in ... but that's just me.

            A bit late replying to this (haha, sorry about that).

            Me, too. Soz.

            Anyhow, the point I took umbrage with is how anyone would see what he did as 'playing it smart' or 'cashing in on karma points', rather than simply 'doing the right thing' (which is exactly what I think he did in this instance).

            I think “doing the right thing” would have been rejecting the deal and honouring his commitments to multi-launcher distribution, which he did. In my opinion he did cash in on karma points by advertising the fact that he rejected Epic on his iAMA. I don’t think that’s a bad thing in itself, it’s the fact that he’s trying to remove himself from the anti-Epic discourse while still benefit from it that feels a bit dishonest.

            But when someone says they don't want to fall in line with that and disappoint people, and possibly tarnish their name going forward (especially as a first time developer), then it seems to be seen by some people as: oh, what a goody two shoes, look how he is taking advantage of the situation. He knows this is going to make him look good in the eyes of a lot of people, cashing in on karma points. Smart move, I guess. Good for him/her.

            Same as what I said above: I don’t think the decision to reject Epic was taking advantage of the situation. I think publicising the fact that he rejected it on Reddit was taking advantage of the climate of unrest surrounding EGS, but I don’t mean that in a negative sense - I think it was a smart business move.

            The only thing I took umbrage with was his insistence that he never intended to be a poster child for anti-EGS sentiment, when he set himself up to be that, at least to some degree, after he advertised the fact he refused Epic and prompted people to ask him about his reasons.

            In summary, my opinion is:

            Quietly rejecting EGS with no statement: good.
            Rejecting EGS, making statement about why and benefiting from anti-EGS climate: fair enough, smart.
            Rejecting EGS, making statement about why, benefiting from anti-EGS climate, claiming to not support anti-EGS climate: ehhhh feels like trying to have your cake and eat it, too

    This raises an interesting point.
    How many developers will now refuse an exclusive contract with epic in fear of the backlash?
    As others have said sending death threats to developers is never ok (those people should be charged with a criminal offence) and I will never fault someone trying to make some money for them and their family / workers. But I do wonder now if all the negativity will have a cooling effect on the epic store.

    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.”

    In other words "we focus on games that will make us the most money".

    hugely popular online store.

    This might be the only point of contention in the whole article :P

    I think most people are pretty accepting when devs are upfront about working with Epic. When they offered to help Telltale for the final season of TWD, that was a completely valid and legitimate reason to collaborate with their storefront, and considering Telltale was in dire straits, I don't think anyone held it against them.

    On the other hand... that Ooblets dev being all self-righteous... calling people toxic just for disagreeing... I would've bought the game even on Epic, but I'm not so sure now ._.

      Pretty certain the “hugely popular” part was said in jest

        I think it was more to depict the offer as a "golden ticket" to then counter after, but it did make me chuckle >:)

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