Steam is one of the biggest gaming platforms, accruing well over 60 million people actively using it daily and 120 million users monthly. It’s gotten to the point of almost being a monopoly on PC gaming, but it’s not one, as there’s competition out there. However, no one seems to like the alternatives, not even the developers of these games.
Every other marketplace offers a more significant cut of the game’s profits to the developers, and every other marketplace does its best to score exclusives or have free games. You can’t play certain games on Steam, and some developers would instead have you buy their game elsewhere, yet everyone uses and loves Steam despite these shortcomings, and that’s what I’ll be diving into.
Why Steam is Better than the Competitors
Epic may have free games and a decent userbase, itch.io may give a better cut and be more accessible to upload to, and Good Ol’ Games may work entirely offline and DRM-free, but Steam offers a ton of things no other storefront does, namely controller support for every controller, extremely intuitive UI, easy multiplayer that includes remote play, and an entire handheld system.
Simply put, regardless of the cut that they take (30% as opposed to Epic Games’ 12%), Steam has cornered the market on providing an incredibly high-quality service, and if the competitors don’t match them in that quality, they’re not going to get anywhere far. That’s why, after a long time of trying, Epic has wholly failed to dethrone Steam.
However, that extra 18% of your revenue can matter a ton for indie devs. If you’re, say, a newly-funded indie from a brand new studio turning your student project into a complete game, you might need the extra money Epic Games could offer. This was the case for the beloved indie Outer Wilds; it was an Epic Games exclusive for a year at launch.
The problem is no one played Outer Wilds in 2019. If you’ve heard of the game, it was probably in 2020 or later after it launched on Steam, or you played it on consoles. Epic Games severely limits the reach of any indie that launches there, to the point that the extra boost of money you get from (kind of) lying to your backers is not worth it.
Outer Wilds has no concrete sales numbers outside of its Steam sales. Still, it sold 1.7m units on Steam, so clearly, Epic Games exclusivity only served as an inconvenience to people looking to play it in 2019, where most people just waited and bought it on Steam instead. Even if your game is a masterpiece, Steam is still too good to compromise on.
Even further, as Heartbound dev Thor points out in one of his videos, it’s 100% supported by Steam to request Steam Keys of your game as the developer, then sell those through third-party platforms like Humble Bundle, G2A, or wherever you want. This gives you a 100% revenue cut, and because these keys are often discounted, they will be a large portion of your sales.
And suppose that wasn’t enough to solidify Steam as the top dog. Their incredible controller support goes beyond just letting you use Joy-Cons or a Dualshock 5 on whatever game you want. It’s also beneficial for people with disabilities to use things like Arcade Sticks or custom-built controllers and play any game they want. Without that support, they can’t play most games; no other DRM has that.
The Problem for Indies
The only issue with getting your small, starter indie title on Steam is, well, getting it on Steam. To get on Steamworks, you first need to pay a (usually) $100 fee, and on top of that, you need to be licensed and registered as a merchant in some countries, and you need a phone number to do 2FA and list your indie. These are all considerable barriers to entry, and it’d be completely understandable if Steam weren’t an option because of them.
So, let’s look at the competition here. Epic Games offers the same $100 fee with an even more stringent approval process and a far smaller user base (that, to be completely honest, is only there for free games and Fortnite). Good Ol’ Games is a simple upload process but won’t do any of the heavy lifting with marketing and showing your game to users, and itch.io is the same times ten. Don’t even get me started on consoles.
Realistically, even if you were to, for some reason, release your game on every single platform that isn’t Steam, it would still only get a tiny amount of traction that it would have if you opted to go for Valve’s platform instead. It’s just not viable to release your game anywhere else unless you want to be stuck in the small solo indie dev rut and not make any money.
Can the Competition Get Better?
Epic Games already has the advantage on Steam for their 12% cut. Still, in terms of everything else, Epic only implemented a shopping cart to their storefront two years ago and hasn’t added anything notable since, so that should tell you a lot. They’ve got an incredibly long way to catch up, and the fact you can’t add their games as Steam shortcuts makes the storefront entirely unviable for many people.
At the very least, Itch.io and Good Ol’ Games will give you DRM-free program files that you can add as non-Steam games and get the benefits of that excellent controller support, big screen UI for playing on the couch, and a gamble on Steam Deck support. But at that point, it’d be easier to launch on Steam and benefit from its massive user base, right?
Even if Epic or the other storefronts get better, most PC gamers will be incredibly stuck in their ways, for good reason. When games come to Epic as exclusives, even if they’re interesting, a substantial portion of people refuse to buy them because they don’t want to give Epic Games their money, even if none of the hurdles of the store is an issue.
Epic could try to match them on big screen UI and controller support, launch a handheld, make a way for Linux users to play 90% of Windows exclusives, and score many games that will only be on their storefront, not Steam. They still won’t change most people’s minds, simply because most people don’t like Epic. As Dusk and Iron Lung dev David Szymanski puts it, most people would rather support Steam getting a monopoly than let Epic have one instead.
So what about the other guys? Firstly, the only company with skin in the game with anywhere near the resources the other two currently have is Microsoft, and they’re comfortable sitting on the sidelines and selling on Steam. No one else has the potential to overtake either Epic or Steam in the next few years, so Steam’s dominance is sticking around.
Why Steam Will Always Be The Home of Indies
Even if SEGA and Square Enix want to make Sonic Colors Ultimate or every Kingdom Hearts game exclusive to the Epic Games Store (still not over that second one), the amount of money they get from that will only benefit them because they have the massive brand recognition to back it up. Indies can’t do the same thing.
It’s a surefire sign that Steam has dominated the competition when Microsoft, a company that owns indies like Cuphead or Ori, puts those games and stuff like Microsoft Flight Simulator and Forza on Steam because they know they won’t be able to capture the massive audience of gamers that refuse to go anywhere else otherwise.
Overall, I can’t see anything changing in how things are with PC games, not now, not in ten years. Steam is dominant for a reason, and even if that 30% cut is scary, you can always get around it by selling keys, and the sales you’d make from launching on Steam far outweigh what that 30% cut would impact you for. Hell, when a game goes on sale on Steam, everyone with it wishlisted gets emailed and a phone notification about it; that’s great free marketing you don’t get anywhere else.
Maybe the big guys can get away with exclusives, but indies have a home at Steam. The barrier to entry is a bit high. Still, the reward of free recommendations and marketing and being available on the platform everyone uses to play every other game is a precious asset that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Even Outer Wilds, one of the most beloved and acclaimed indies in recent memory, struggled incredibly hard in sales due to its Epic Games exclusivity, even though it launched on Consoles and Xbox Game Pass on day one. No matter how good your game is, if it’s not right at home on Steam with most other indie games, it’s probably not going far.
The only issue is that there is a significant barrier to entry. You should probably put your smaller stuff up on places like Itch.io before going for Steam since that’s free, but in the giant sea of new games being uploaded to itch.io of incredibly varying quality, it’s unlikely you’ll find success that way. It’s possible, but Steam is where it’s at and will always be where small developers reside.
Recommended read: Outer Wilds Walkthrough: A Complete Guide on How to Beat the Game
Questions and Answers
Question: How do I upload games to Steam?
Answer: After signing the paperwork, paying a fee, getting all your documents in order, and getting access to Steamworks, you can upload your game to Steam with images, a description, and a trailer, and it’ll be up after a 5-day approval process.
Question: Why are most indie games on Steam?
Answer: Consoles are incredibly tricky to get a spot on, and Steam is the most widely used and accessible marketplace on PC, so it’s where most people will succeed.
Question: What makes Steam better than the Epic Games Store?
Answer: Steam has built-in support for every controller, tons of games that aren’t anywhere else, easy multiplayer even for games that only support couch co-op, and a handheld and big-screen mode for people playing on TVs.
Steam is easily the ideal place for indie games to reside. Consoles may have more reach, and Epic may give you a better cut, but both have their issues and are as much of a struggle to upload to, if not even more, when you could be reaching further and getting more people to notice and care about your game by going the usual way.
The only real issue is the barrier to entry. Still, once you’ve surpassed that, you have an incredible platform that enables more people to play your game, making everything much easier for you and the consumer. You can push updates more efficiently, talk to people leaving reviews on your game, and become a better developer because of it, which is why Steam will always be the home of indies.