After a brief stint as an Xbox timed exclusive (crazy, I know, but that’s the way the gaming industry rolls these days), the Fallout 76 Beta launched on our platform of choice on October 30th. As expected from a major release, players were able to preload the hefty 50GB game files ahead of time. Sadly, once the servers were up, most people found out that they had to re-download the whole thing thanks to a bug in the Bethesda.net launcher (Fallout 76 will not get a Steam release at launch). A (now deleted) tweet from Bethesda‘s social media support team warned PC users to not click on any buttons in the launcher until the bug was solved, but this wasn’t enough to prevent the program from deleting users’ files, according to most players.
For many Fallout fans, this unexpected complication meant that they wouldn’t be able to play this Beta build (which, considering its closeness to the game’s November 14th launch date, can be classified as a sort of paid demo or early access period). 50GB might pale in comparison to other new titles, but it’s a pretty hefty download for most people nonetheless. Of course, this troubled launch has also cast some doubts on Bethesda‘s ability to deliver a great online game on PC, since the same launcher that deleted the Beta build will be used to deliver the final game on November 14th.
Was all of this necessary? According to Pete Hines, Bethesda chose to release Fallout 76 as a Bethesda.net exclusive on PC so they could better serve their customers, cutting out the middleman (Valve, in this case) and pushing patches and content updates without annoying delays. However, the Beta’s troubled launch proves that once again, Steam is the superior platform when it comes to digital downloads on PC. Hundreds of titles and even real money slot game providers have used it with no weird issues, so Hines’ excuse doesn’t hold too much water when we stop for a moment and think about all the MMOs and online-focused games that thrive on Valve‘s download service.
As a customer, I think that Bethesda‘s choice of “cutting out the middleman” wasn’t a great one, since it only means my game will have less features and will run on a platform that doesn’t inspire too much confidence in its stability. The currently available Bethesda.net launcher doesn’t have any sort of support for most regional currencies (meaning that users from poorer regions of the world will have to settle for a 1:1 US dollar conversion), doesn’t offer an Achievement system, and can seemingly decide to delete my game files on a whim. Having the ability to deliver patches on time sounds great, but other publishers that operate MMOs on Steam can do it, so why would I believe that Bethesda needed to use their own launcher to achieve that?
The most obvious reason for Bethesda‘s attempt at a Steam alternative is that they wish to avoid paying Valve‘s 30% cut on all digital downloads sold on their service (an industry standard cut that has been criticized by Epic‘s Tim Sweeney, whose company would later release Fortnite for Android devices through their own launcher, exposing users to a potential vulnerability). However, this doesn’t mean that we, the customers, should have to endure the growing pains of every new platform designed to give the publisher who controls it a 100% cut of the profits. Companies who wish to extricate themselves from Valve‘s ecosystem should first create a worthy competitor, offering the same amount of features, and only then make the jump. Ubisoft seems to have understood that, as their Uplay store, while still experiencing some server-related issues, offers regional pricing, achievements, cloud saving, etc. Not only that, but as of today, there are no major Uplay exclusives, with games being available on Steam and Ubisoft‘s own service at the same time.
This doesn’t mean that creating an alternative to Steam is the wrong way to go. I welcome new contenders in the PC digital download service arena, as long as they offer the same amount of features as Steam and don’t try to force players to use their platform with the promise of exclusives. For instance, today Kongregate launched their own Kartridge service, focused on indie games and that’s perfectly fine, as it provides yet another option. A few weeks ago, Discord did the same, though they decided to push their service with timed exclusives (a path that has also infected GOG). Sadly, the biggest proponents for Steam alternatives (huge corporations that wish to keep 100% of the profits for each digital copy sold) don’t seem to be interested in playing fair, as all of them have followed the same path thus far. Will this ever change? That depends on whether the offending parties see a big enough decline in their profit margins at the end of the year. As usual, this means we’ll have to vote with our wallets.