PC has never been a singular platform like, say, PlayStation or Xbox. Instead, it’s a series of disparate landmasses sharing the same turbulent sea. While this has allowed for plenty of innovation and experimentation over the years, in 2018 Steam—with its clutter and toxicity issues—has become less of a conduit and more of an impediment for smaller developers.
Bigger companies like Bethesda and Activision, meanwhile, have realized they can create mini-platforms of their own, and many games—whether we’re talking behemoths like League of Legends and Fortnite or behemoths-in-the-making like Warframe and Path of Exile—have become platforms unto themselves.
This slow continental drift has been happening for years, but this year resulted in the launch of new stores from major players like Discord and, most dramatically, Epic. Now, with big publishers and small developers alike eyeing Steam’s escape hatch, PC gaming looks to become more fragmented than it’s been in the past few years—for better and worse. More options means more chances for new ideas to flourish and, perhaps, for a new middle class of developers to emerge where, currently, there’s mostly just a ceiling and a floor with little in the middle. The early 2010s indie golden age is never coming back, but something new and hopefully less calcified than The Steam Era is on the way. Here’s what 2018 looked like for the major players.
Last year, we said that Steam had evolved into “a massive, bloated gut knot of markets, communities, ideas, and systems—some still in use, others directionless or vestigial—all layered on top of each other.” A breaking point was inevitable. In many ways, Steam’s 2018 was defined by breaking points.
At the start of the year, repeated criticism from a handful of publications finally forced Valve’s hand on Steam’s hate group problem. The company deleted just about every explicitly white supremacist, anti-semitic, and racist user group it could find, but it never said anything about having done so, nor did it patch up the lax standards that allowed those groups to seep in in the first place.
Elsewhere, review bombs—now measurable thanks to charts implemented by Valve in late 2017—became the reaction du jour, with players brigading Steam games with negative reviews over everything from women in historical settings to price drops that happened too soon. Anti-“asset flip” rhetoric also expanded in preposterous new directions as some Steam users did their best to prove that game developers are lazy and undeserving of basic respect. It’s a song that’s been ringing through Steam’s labyrinthine halls for as long as anyone can remember, but each year, it gets a little louder. In September, Valve announced that it had started its own internal comment moderation team, but so far, that doesn't seem to have made a big dent in Steam’s toxicity issues.
As the year trundled on, Valve continued to take criticism for broad systemic issues, which it reacted to by speaking minimally (or saying nothing at all) until it released all its pent-up energy in sudden bursts of action. Games like Active Shooter—a game that glorified school shooters—caused a stir in the mainstream press, and developers raised a fuss about inconsistent rules surrounding games containing adult content. In response to both these issues, Valve—instead of putting a portion of its ample resources toward better moderation and more selectivity—rolled out a new anything-goes policy that would allow any game as long as it wasn’t “illegal, or straight up trolling.” This decision revealed a series of paradoxes at the heart of Valve’s priorities. As we wrote at the time:
Valve refuses to acknowledge the political context in which Steam exists, even as other social platforms like Facebook face a cultural and political reckoning after embracing similar technolibertarian ideals. Clearly, Valve is aware that things like Nazi groups are a bad thing, given that it’s gone on quiet delete sprees each time they've been specifically mentioned in the press. But there still seems to be a disconnect between that knowledge and Valve’s understanding of Steam’s broader cultural and political influence. Bafflingly, however, Valve does seem very aware of Steam’s influence in other ways. The company clearly understands that being able to publish on Steam is incredibly important for PC game developers—existentially so, even. “If you’re a developer,” said Johnson, “we shouldn’t be choosing what content you’re allowed to create. Those choices should be yours to make.” It frames the whole issue in almost freedom-of-speech-like terms, even though Valve is not a government body, and in theory a game that can’t hack it on Steam can just be published elsewhere. Valve knows it’s the biggest game in town—a company of near-monopolistic proportions—but it will only take responsibility for one side of that coin.
Despite the policy change, Valve proceeded to keep deleting games from Steam in large batches and enforcing inconsistent rules where sexy games were concerned. In the case of the latter, Valve did start releasing uncensored adult games in September, but it continued to court controversy by quietly removing adult-oriented games that feature young-looking characters. It’s safe to say that further growing pains still lie ahead regarding Steam’s anything-goes policy.
All the while, Steam’s foundation was groaning and splintering. Developers continued to see diminishing returns from the cluttered, algorithmically-driven store, and major publishers like Bethesda and Activision opted to skip Steam altogether and set up their own shops for their biggest releases. In December, Epic Games—creator of Fortnite, a game that is by some measures bigger than Steam—launched its own store, touting more money for developers (88 percent of revenue vs Steam’s 70 percent) and a less toxic, more controlled environment. At this point, Epic’s main strategy seems to be accumulating exclusives, but some developers—tired of Steam’s near-monopoly and obstinately libertarian ethos—are hoping Epic can rock the boat. Recently, Valve increased the amount of money that’ll be paid out to developers whose games make millions of dollars (but not to anybody else), which is all the more incentive for indie games to jump ship.
Despite all this, Steam is still the biggest PC gaming store on the block, and it continues to offer developers and users convenience that nobody else has managed to match. It made some less reactive, more proactive strides in 2018 as well—for instance, it’s become a powerhouse in China, leading to an influx of increasingly popular Chinese games. But with cracks in Steam’s armor showing more than ever, it’s tough to say what 2019 will bring.
Epic Games Store
On December 4th, Epic Games announced it was creating its own digital storefront, which officially launched on December 7. Very quickly, the Epic Games store started making waves as one of the biggest new threats to Steam (Steam Spy creator Sergey Galyonkin even worked on the project). The initial offerings of the store have been limited: While Epic is locking down exclusive titles like the wistful fantasy RPG Ashen, Supergiant’s fantastic new rogue-like Hades, and Super Meat Boy Forever, the early days have been somewhat slim. While the appeal of greater revenues shares and community moderation is undeniable, it will take some time for the store’s catalogue to grow to the point that it truly puts Steam on the defensive.
Origin keeps chugging along, if only because Electronic Arts really wants to make it work. While most players might treat Origin as an annoying extra launcher for things like Battlefield V and PC copies of FIFA, there’s still some interesting stuff going on. The biggest development was the addition of Origin Access Premier, a subscription-based service resembling Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass. Priced at $14.99 per month, Premier subscribers get access to a large catalogue of games for free and extended early access to new releases. You can still get limited early access if you’re a regular Origin Access player, but Premier members get the full game with no restriction. It remains to be seen how this service will pay off for EA, but considering Battlefield V and Anthem don’t have DLC season passes, it’s likely they will push Premier heavily for the foreseeable future.
Itch.io hasn’t seen many radical changes through 2018, maintaining its reputation as a fair storefront by allowing developers to decide how much of their revenue to share with the store itself. As a result, itch.io is still one of the go-to repositories for experimental games and independent developers. Itch.io has adopted a more active approach to curation than Valve, with storefront creator Leaf Corcoran speaking out against Steam’s hands off policies when they were announced. Changes to itch.io users’ library pages encouraging them to rate lesser known games encourages users to help small developers get more exposure, while upgraded moderations tools have helped game jam communities and collectives thrive.
In 2018, Battle.net largely stayed static in terms of features, but it contended with a number of questions about what, exactly, it’s all about. Among other things, the platform promoted some questionable streamers in association with inclusive games like Overwatch, but more fundamentally, it continued to slowly creep beyond the bounds of Blizzard games. After the Bungie-developed Destiny 2 unexpectedly showed up in Blizzard’s backyard last year, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 yelled “hoorah” and crashed through its window this year. With reports suggesting that Activision is exerting increasing amounts of pressure on Blizzard and former boss/bulwark Mike Morhaime out of the picture, Battle.net ends the year with its identity in flux.
Discord has firmly established itself both as the go-to chat program for online gaming, but also as a collection of social spaces and chatrooms. More and more games, including Cyberpunk 2077 and PUBG, have their own official Discord servers for fans to gather in. But Discord also started to expand their social options and has even gotten into the storefront game. It started with a Steam-like “Games” tab that allowed users to browse the games their friends are playing. Discord followed this up with a store that now sells games like Darksiders 3. It’s still a pretty limited offering, but a few games such as Bad North are debuting first on Discord instead of other storefronts.
That’s right, graphics cards get their own section! Would-be millionaires eager to “mine” digital currency such as Bitcoin and Etherium snatched up GPUs to help with their schemes earlier this year after cryptocurrency prices spiked near the end of 2017. This affected graphics card stock and led to a pricing surge. GTX 1080s and other cards, which retail for around $550, were selling for nearly double that in third-party stores. In March, Nvidia CEO and co-founder Jen-Hsun Huang noted that the company simply couldn’t meet the high demand. Nvidia and competitors started to even out their stock as the crypto market fluctuated later in the year and have since started releasing the next generation of stupidly high-powered graphics cards, but for a while in 2018, upgrading your PC was a real pain in the ass.
In 2018, PC lacked a singular hit that defined the platform like PUBG did in 2017, but battle royale fever continued to sweep the play-nation not named PlayStation (or Xbox)—and also it swept those, too. Fortnite led the charge, dethroning the notoriously glitchy PUBG with mainstream attention and a player base of over 200 million. Other battle royale games, like Realm Royale, achieved moderate success in Fortnite’s shadow, but it wasn’t until later in the year that another battle royale, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's “Blackout” mode, diverted people’s attention from Fortnite. Well, for a little while, anyway.
Outside the battle royale bubble, PC titans like League of Legends, DOTA 2, World of Warcraft, Overwatch, and Counter-Strike continued to hold relatively steady, though some—like Overwatch and WoW—dealt with blowback to new design decisions and the state of their games. Also, Counter-Strike got a battle royale mode too, and honestly, is there a single living human who didn't see that coming? Other PC mainstays like Rainbow Six Siege, Warframe, and Path of Exile evolved in surprising, unexpected directions, growing into institutions in their own rights.
Ports to PC were, as ever, a mixed bag. Heavy hitters like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider ran solidly if not always spectacularly on PC, but there were also questionable ports like Chrono Trigger, of all things. Fortunately, Square Enix eventually fixed it, but things were inexcusably rocky for a little while. Even in 2018, PC remains, for some, a lower priority than other platforms. Relatedly, we don’t have Red Dead 2 yet, which is a bummer.
Defying all odds, Valve actually released a game this year in the form of DOTA 2 card game Artifact. And while players have lauded it for its mechanical complexity and clever translation of MOBA genre conventions into a card game format, it’s been dinged for its reliance on real money purchases and the Steam marketplace. The game’s player count dropped pretty precipitously after launch, leading some to believe it’s in trouble. However, its numbers remain relatively healthy for now—even if they’re not in the same ballpark (cardpark?) as other Valve hits.
PC continued to be a haven for smaller games, though the crowded nature of platforms like Steam put only a handful in a position to become bonafide hits. Despite and because of a wicked conservative streak, medieval open-world RPG Kingdom Come: Deliverance took off early in the year, though it faded quickly. After four years in early access, undersea survival game Subnautica finally launched to widespread acclaim. Smaller late-2017 games like They Are Billions and Slay The Spire achieved breakout hit status, as did ambitious 2018 survival game Raft, bleak post-apocalyptic management game Frostpunk, and Castlevania-inspired roguelite Dead Cells. The latter was developed by a company that has no bosses and pays everybody the same, which is cool as hell.
Most importantly, though, people continued to make cool shit in Cities: Skylines.
2019’s PC gaming might see some shake up depending on how much the Epic Games Store develops and how much of Steam’s shenanigans developers are willing to deal with. Independent creators are finding more ways to distribute work, and we’re a long way from the days of having to campaign your way through Greenlight.
We’ve watched some of last year’s popular games, such as PUBG, begin to wane. In many ways, 2018 was less about the emergence of new trends and more about establishing a new status quo among competitors. 2019 could be the year where we see clear winners.