'It Wasn't Meant To Be This Lightning Rod': Valve Developer Looks Back At Company's Epic Store Exclusivity Comments

Image: Metro Exodus

When Metro Exodus was made an Epic Store exclusive just two weeks before its launch, Valve added fuel to the fire by appending a note to the game’s Steam page that called the move “unfair to Steam customers.” A Valve developer has told Kotaku that it wasn’t expecting the vitriolic reaction that followed.

It’s as inevitable as weather. A developer announces that their game will be temporarily exclusive to the Epic Games Store, and a rage tsunami bursts down their doors. Recently, developers have even taken to preemptively begging that people call off the harassment mobs, to little avail.

One of the first examples of this was when Metro Exodus made the move to Epic’s store, a decision made so late in the process that it already had a listing on the Steam store where Valve had already processed preorders for the game.

Speaking to Kotaku during a Valve event in Seattle last week, Steam business developer and designer Nathaniel Blue said the company did not intend to legitimise the backlash to Metro Exodus’ Epic store exclusivity when it put a comment on that Steam page. The use of the word “unfair,” he said, was meant to reference the timing of the announcement rather than the entire concept of exclusivity.

Image: Epic Games

“I don’t think that was our intent to upset people,” Blue said. “It wasn’t the intent of the message. It was more about the timing. The game was about to launch, and then it was [exclusive to the Epic store]. So that was the only goal of that. What came out of that was not what we expected. It wasn’t meant to be this lightning rod.”

Unfortunately, it nonetheless functioned as one. At the time, Valve said it felt that “the decision to remove the game is unfair to Steam customers, especially after a long pre-sale period.” This helped kick off a series of Steam review bombs and harassing messages to individual members of Exodus’ development team, including original Metro book series author Dmitry Glukhovsky, in the following days. The tactics people used on Exodus have since been repeatedly deployed against other developers who’ve taken their wares to Epic’s still-barebones store.

Faced with that information, Blue pointed out that Valve has since opted to keep quiet about subsequent Epic store exclusives.

“I don’t know that we’d go back in time and change it necessarily, but I can say that in the future we didn’t say anything,” he said. “In the future we didn’t continue to do that because our goal is not to upset the community or light anyone’s hair on fire. Our goal is to get developers close to customers, have a really valuable place for people to play games, and stay focused on that.”

It’s worth noting, too, that while many of the harassment tactics used against Epic store developers now transcend Steam and spill over onto Twitter, Reddit, Discord, and other platforms, Steam review bombs and irate Steam discussion threads remain part of the process—an arguably effective one at that. Borderlands 3 got review-bombed hard after its Epic exclusivity announcement, only for Valve’s recently deployed anti-review-bomb system to take multiple days to flag the reviews as “off-topic” and remove the results from Borderlands games’ scores on Steam.

Valve has also done nothing about other games that have seen spikes in negative reviews in the wake of Epic store announcements. For example, Chivalry: Medieval Warfare’s main page is littered with reviews that mention Epic and are therefore, theoretically, off-topic. While not related to the Epic store, Steam review bombs and discussions proved especially effective recently in the case of Ion Fury, whose developer and publisher went back on a decision to remove homophobic language from the game after days of review-bombing over their initial decision.

Despite all this, Valve does not have any concrete plans for further disincentivising review bombs that it’s willing to talk about at the moment.

“It’s hard to tell players what to do or not to do in that way,” said Steam designer Alden Kroll. “I think our approach has been to try and improve the tools so that when players use it in a way we’re not expecting, then we can handle that elegantly so that it’ll hopefully not be as disruptive. But the thing that we find is, players are gonna try to use the things they think will be the noisiest. If we change that in one place, then it’ll move to another place, possibly.”

That doesn’t mean there are no changes on the way, however.

“It’s a work in progress,” said Blue. “We’re going to constantly work on reviews, because we want them to represent where games are at and the status of games as best as possible. If it doesn’t, then we’re like, ‘There’s something wrong we can work on.’”


Comments

    Nathan writes that review bombing is what made the developers of Ion Fury decide against changing the game, but he fails to mention that review bombing is also what made them decide to change it in the first place.
    But I guess it's okay when review bombing is used for something you agree with, huh?

      I mean... yes, it is OK. Fighting bigotry IS good. That's not about 'personal preferences', there are very definite right and wrong sides on that subject. Bigotry is wrong. Period.

      But it's definitely hypocritical to shit on the tools that were used to do that good, and only point to when tools were used for a bad cause, especially when it's the same frickin' game.

      That's just myopically one-sided, pursuing a completely different agenda where Valve can literally do no good in the author's eyes.

      Also irritating is how the second quarter of the article is focused on Steam's new anti-bombing features not being perfect straight out of the gate. Meanwhile, articles aplenty forgiving Epic for not being perfect straight out the gate, even though it can't even match the existing, proven, well-established features that shouldn't need to be reinvented.

      Like... where's even the illusion of fairness on this subject?

        Of course, you come out of nowhere and say things better than I could ever do. ;)

      Were the Ion Fury devs actually being review bombed initially? The reports of their original decision to remove the homophobic content seemed to indicate that it was in response to news coverage and forum posts. That doesn't mean review bombing didn't occur, but it wasn't highlighted as a reason for the change.

      Also, there is a massive difference between users leaving negative reviews on a game due to issues surrounding that game and campaigns to leave negative reviews on all games from a developer or publisher due to complaints about one game.

        The first few days of negative reviews were all "0.1 hours played" complaints about the OOB slur and the soap and the comments made in the discord.

          I'm looking at the review histogram on the store page, and while there are negative reviews before the apology from 3D Realms/Voidpoint, they are in the minority compared to positive reviews. It's also a tiny blip compared to the negative reviews after the apology, where they're outnumbering positive reviews for a few days. Given the massive difference in scale, it is not obvious to me that those early negative reviews are what triggered the apology.

          And again: complaining about content in the game or changes to the content in a game in a review is quite different to e.g. writing a negative review for Borderlands 2 because you don't like the way Borderlands 3 is being distributed.

    I dont think Valves comments had any impact on the consumer end... games where pre-ordered as a Steam product. The fact that they failed to deliver an advertise and sokd product as intended was their mess... then the proceeding games were repeat offenders by being Kick Starters (and other crowd fundings) that also promised in writing Steam Keys.

    Gamers dont like exclusives... cause they exclude. Valves roll in this has been irrelevant, this is the developers/publishers and Epics issue for failing to communicate with customers and honour previous commitments.

    What I'm wondering is what Valve are doing about Epic's claims to be "pro-developer" because despite being anti-consumer in many ways a lot of the problem comes down to developers signing on exclusively to Epic for their critical sales period. Epic has made it abundantly clear that they are weaponising the exclusivity contracts to specifically attack Valve despite the fallout it's causing to other storefronts and won't stop until Valve change their revenue sharing policies.

    It seems fair right? Epic's in there fighting for the little guy trying to make it big in the gaming world right? Well no, Epic know Valve aren't going to cave any time soon so they can keep getting away with it for as long as they like under the banner of helping devs while slowly starving out the competition. They're also not for all the devs either as several articles have shown that developers can be rejected because they aren't "suitable" for the store.

    The war between Epic and Valve is starting to become ugly and tiresome and it'd be kind of nice to know what both sides are doing to try and reconcile their differences so consumers can get their choice back and developers get a better deal.

      Epic has made it abundantly clear that they are weaponising the exclusivity contracts to specifically attack Valve despite the fallout it's causing to other storefronts and won't stop until Valve change their revenue sharing policies.

      I think that's really the political spin on it. That's a positive "for gamers" argument that jibes with their true goal.

      The fundamental reason why platforms that are not steam would use exclusivity is because Steam is in such a dominant position - virtually a monopoly - that there is a huge barrier to entry. They need to get people to install their client and buy something - to capture those users.

      The war between Epic and Valve is starting to become ugly and tiresome and it'd be kind of nice to know what both sides are doing to try and reconcile their differences so consumers can get their choice back and developers get a better deal.

      The best way for both consumers and developers to get better deals is if there is at least one other genuine competitor for Steam as a broad distribution platform.

        The fundamental reason why platforms that are not steam would use exclusivity is because Steam is in such a dominant position - virtually a monopoly - that there is a huge barrier to entry.

        Steams domination isn't a monopoly by any definition or scale, there is literally nothing about the service that came be labelled as such.
        Exclusives on the other hand are the core factor behind monopolisation.
        Your saying that Epic needs to monopolise the market so that it can compete with something that doesn't.

        The barriers Epic are facing aren't the result of monopolistic practices, the barriers they're creating are.

        The best way for both consumers and developers to get better deals is if there is at least one other genuine competitor for Steam as a broad distribution platform.

        This is true however Epic doesn't fit in to this category, it isn't engaging in a fair market like its competitors and is currently choosing methods of monopolisation such as exclusives and imperfect competition.
        Genuine competition would rely on the quality of the product/service in a legitimate challenge to Steams.

          So where else can I download and play Half Life 2 on PC? By your own definition of Epic's tactics, Steam started with a "monopolisation". I know that kids these days might not have been around then, but a bit of history never went astray before you start saying stupid shit. Steam is as much a monopoly a Microsoft was in the 90's.

            Since we're on the topic of saying stupid shit...

            That Half-Life 2 argument is like bitching that you can't play Microsoft's Halo games on Playstation.

            It's a vastly different thing releasing something on your own platform when you are the one who literally owned and made the fuckin' game to begin with.

              Are we talking about platforms or storefronts?

              Because PC plays Half-Life 2 just fine. We're talking about where to buy it, so it's not the same as saying you can't buy Halo on PlayStation.

            Well that hardly seemed necessary.

            I would've been happy to have the discussion but clearly your not interested, so might I suggest you actually learn what a monopoly is so you don't run afoul of your own warnings on saying stupid shit.

      You know as well as I valve could change their revenue model to match epics and epic would just find another excuse.

    I'd be interested to know what the sales of this game was like on PC because I doubt they sold as much as they would have done if it was on steam, I know epic pay to have exclusive rights but I wonder if it's makes up for a drop in sales.

      From anecdotal analysis I've seen, it doesn't, but ensuring sales helps the dev, and they always get a second bite at the cherry on Steam.

        That really is one of those developer benefits of exclusivity.

        If people don't buy from Steam after exlusivity ends, devs can say that the game sold better on EGS than Steam.

        If people DO buy from Steam after exclusivity ends, devs get two bites of the cherry and can say limited exclusivity was good for them.

        Devs win either way! :D

        Customers? Who cares about customers? They're all gamers, after all, and if everyone in the the industry /media can agree on anything, it's that they hate gamers.

          I dont think the dev's do win either way Transient. The decision to not sell in the biggest market place has to have an impact on sales. You're deliberately limiting your customer base by being exclusive, its part of the decision to sell that way.

          Long story short, they gain no actual benefit from EGS, its just insurance against failure. Its an advance, not a bonus. You pay advances back. All they are doing is selling through one store and not another. The short term gains of their advance will most likely lead to less sales overall, particularly in the launch window when they make the most profit per sale. Short term gain, long term pain.

          That has to be bad for business. Sales a year later should be at a reduced price, and hence a reduced profit. What will gamers do if these exclusives are sold at full price once available on Steam? Steam is still going to want to make a profit, but will know they are trying to flog a year old game. Which are usually heavily discounted by that stage.

          I sure as hell wont want to pay full price for a year old game. If I did, I'd be looking around for new releases, not something 12 months old. And none of that can be translated to meaningful analytics as you cant prove any of it had an effect on any other part.

          Would the exlusives have sold more if they were on Steam as well? You can be certain they would, but how many more? Are the sales a year later on Steam a match for what the new release sales would have been? Because you cant predict what the new release sales would be, you cant answer that. For the same reasons, you cant figure what profit or (more likely) loss it led to overall.

          I dont think the dev's are going to end up getting the best return for their games. Which down the track means less profit, so less money to put into their next game. Thats never good for business, particularly in an industry that traditionally survives from game to game.

            I'd agree if it was an advance only, but it's not JUST an advance. They're being guaranteed a floor amount, even if revenue doesn't match. (Or at least, some indies are. Maybe the deal changes.)

            In that respect, Epic is just generating money out of nowhere (well, not nowhere - it's coming out of their Fortnite-funded bank) that is based off anticipated Steam sales.

            They've thrown that 'anticipated' Steam sales around a lot, when trying to compare their successes to something, even if it is 100% invented.

            What this means is that even if the game bombs on sales because it's not available to the biggest marketplace in the world, they're still getting a reasonable Steam equivalent launch profit... THEN, they get to launch on Steam and get real, actual, proper player-bought revenue, from what their original market would've been in the first place. They're picking up Epic's money the first time around, actual consumers' money the second.

            This is why I reckon they're getting two bites of the cherry. Not to mention that every burst of, "New release!" labelling generates visibility that generates sales.

              This seems to really depend on the contract terms offered. We've seen some "exclusive for one year" lines from devs, but we've also seen indefinite exclusivity bound to sales. For the latter, those devs don't get to launch on Steam until the game has sold enough to cover the floor amount on Epic, meaning if it never gets that level then it never ends up on a real marketplace.

              If a game is bombing on sales to the point that guarantee means something, it means its a bad game. And probably one I wouldnt enjoy anyway. Games are selling more than ever, and doing so digitally, so for a AAA game to be that bad is going to be hard.

              I know its not just an advance, which is why I said that effectively its insurance against failure. If they make a bad game, Epic essentially loses out and the dev benefits, but if they make a good enough game, the dev gains nothing. Why on earth would a dev be banking on their game failing? Even Fallout 76 had near 1.5m sales and its doom was set before it even launched.

              What I'm getting at is the games that we're interested in when they come to Steam are games that the dev's arent going to have benefited from with the advance. They would have gotten their launch sales, and paid that advance back. Then the sales from Steam will be to general players and trying to sell a year old game.

              It cant lead to a benefit to the developers as a standard rule. Epic isnt in it to lost money, they arent going to be buying up bad games, and I dont think they have. So the basic position of being exclusive is shutting out a market place at the time the most profit is made. That can only lead to lower profits to the dev, and further down the track potential financial stress on the business.

              I actually dont have many problems with Epic when their exclusives are based on Unreal Engine games, like Borderlands. Its functionally no different to Uplay, Origin, Blizzard, etc where they are pushing games based around their own efforts. They wouldnt be made if Epic hadnt developed Unreal. I can respect that.

              Its the other games that I think are the real issue. Epic is trying to establish itself as a player, and leveraging off the Fortnite windfall gain, but are doing it in a way thats counter to that in my opinion. And those non-Unreal games are going to suffer overall because of this exclusivity. Some, maybe even most, will still sell to the goal, but they will be leaving sales in the marketplace because of it. Sales that wont be made up by Steam if and when those games are available there.

              And in the long run, I think its a detriment to the industry because of it.

              All Epic needed to do was sell their 12% rake, and undercut Steam on price, and they would have gotten the market share they wanted and none of the hate. Instead, they poked the bear, pissed off the customers, and the internet rage monster has done the rest. Its the keyboard warrior mentality and it cuts both ways. Again, leading to probable lost sales in my opinion.

              For the story in general, what Valve said at the time was a catalyst for that rage monster to get behind. I get what the guy is trying to say, and I agree with him. The bait and switch pulled with Exodus was dirty, but it also established a pattern gamers didnt forgive. At least not yet.

              And wont be by the time these games hit Steam.

                Perfectly said. I've wishlisted all of the games I want in steam that are currently exclusive to Epic. I also refuse to pay the full price once they do make it to Steam. It wouldn't be a problem for me if Epic were playing fair, but they're not (just in case anyone is wondering, if another storefront, including steam, exerted the same shitty business practices, I'd react the same way - this is not an anti-Epic thing for me). In the mean time, I'll happily load up my Epic account with 'free' games that I won't play. See - I can be shitty too!

              What you've described is how advances work in most industries.

              If I write a book and a publisher gave me a $10k advance as part of the contract, I'd get the $10k now, and only see additional money once the book had earned $10k in royalties. If the book sold poorly, I'd be under no obligation to pay back the difference: that's the risk the publisher was taking.

              Is that substantially different to what Epic is offering developers?

            Do you really think that the suits with business degrees and years of experience in making money would agree to a deal that screws them over? If so, I've got a bridge for sale over Sydney Harbour.

              Not sure what you're getting at. Are you talking about from the Epic side of it, or the dev side of it?

              No, of course Epic arent going to be doing deals that hurt them. But for them to not lose money, the dev basically gets nothing out of it. Thats my point. There's no real benefit to the setup, and in the end the devs are limiting their profit as a result. Which will hurt them later. How do you make more money if you're limiting your customer base?

              If you think the Steam availability a year later is going to do the job, I also have a bridge to sell you. Lovely one, over in San Francisco. Great views.

    ...harassing messages to individual members of Exodus’ development team, including original Metro book series author Dmitry Glukhovsky, in the following days.

    This really annoys me. Even if it were okay to harass people like this (spoiler: it's not), then the people to go after would be the publishers. The developer makes the game, they don't choose where it's sold/made exclusive to; and the author of the books will have had nothing to do with it except to licence his IP out.

    If people have complaints of this nature they should be taking it up with the publishing company, not the developer (unless they happen to be one and the same), and certainly never EVER individual employees.

      100%. Developers aren't responsible for decisions about where the final product will be distributed to and from. To harass people who don't even have power over that decision is just wrong on so many fronts.

      Last edited 06/09/19 5:37 pm

      I am not saying harassing or going after individuals or people not connected to the exclusivity deal is OK BUT if you can't reach the correct person/company that made that deal or even if you do they either give a no answer response or not care or give no response then what should the consumer do.

      I voted with my wallet and didn't buy but did it hold back other devs nope and it took an indie dev to say no and be blackmailed per se to allow access to their store then what, continue to be ignored, let the indie devs suffer by such deals vs looking after customers.

      I mean all we are asking for ummm I don't know look after customer and not think the customer is a wallet to open but NO it is the opposite and then backlash, review bombs and attacking the wrong people. I mean putting the consumer before everything just to make your wallets fat and blame the consumer for the negativity, saying things like "Ohhhh I didn't expect that".

      I mean at least UNDERSTAND THE CUSTOMERS before criticizing the customers, DON"T BE SO OUT OF TOUCH and learn from other successful industry where they don't openly screw the customers.

    I see no issues with valves comments at all. Valve are an open market that allows competition by letting developers generate their own free keys to wholesale to other third party sellers. Fair enough you have to redeem the code on steam, but a) it gives the developer the choice to wholesale for whatever cut they want, and b) gives consumers the power to shop around.

    Epic however, are not giving their exclusive dev's the ability to generate wholesale keys. Effectively they want to strong arm as many people onto their platform as possible while still ensuring they make a cut from every SINGLE sale. Tim's whole argument around commission is a false equivalency. Of course Epic should be charging less commission, but on the basis they have zero functionality compared to Steam, not because dev's "needs to get paid more", this is a completely ignorant red herring on Tim's part. Customers value the features that Steam has, and their commission rate is equivalent to other digital store fronts with less features and exposure.

    Obviously most see through this for what it really is, as Epic don't have a legitimate offering to compete with steam. Inhibiting competition is not good for consumers and arguably no good for developers in the long run either. I'm not really surprised given the piles of cash they ernt from their artistic appropriation in fortnite, they clearly don't have the talent/creativity to produce a platform that would actually compete with Steam legitimately. Their business practice is walking a fine line, I don't think it will be long before they come unstuck.

    It's up to consumers, where the law can't step in, to vote with our wallets. But I fear that some of the more vocal members against this are the first ones to buy into it regardless :/

    https://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2019-03-18-epic-offers-support-for-third-party-key-sales-but-not-for-exclusives

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