It’s pretty obvious at this point that Steam is the most popular distribution client of PC gaming, but from time to time you hear concerns about how ubiquitous it’s become at the expense of competing clients. Every once in a while I also have experiences that remind me just why most people would rather get their games on Steam than anywhere else on PC.
The two most notable direct competitors are Origin and UPlay, from big game publishers EA and Ubisoft respectively. A lot of people dislike those clients and others wonder why. The most straightforward reason is that Steam is far more feature-rich as Valve has been at it for far longer than the other two companies, which I guess isn’t fair to them. EA and Ubisoft have every right to compete with Valve, but if they’re going to do that they have to actually compete. Let me go through some recent experiences I’ve had installing games outside Steam.
After downloading Splinter Cell Blacklist from UPlay (which came free with my graphics card last year), I had to then install the game as a separate process. After that, upon booting the game an auto-patcher showed up and had to download the 1GB 1.0.1 patch. Then because of an error with that particular game I had to separately download and install the 1.0.2 patch from the web like I was back in the FileShack era. It’s as if UPlay simply downloaded the retail setup files instead of how Steam automatically installs the latest build of a game.
A lot of people have had problems with Origin but it actually isn’t quite that bad. It at least auto-installs and auto-patches games (even if the auto-patching happens after installation). Origin just doesn’t really do anything that Steam doesn’t.
One feature of Steam I really hope Origin and UPlay one day adopt is a backup utility. Some of the games I’ve recently downloaded are around 20GB each. I can tell Steam to backup an installed game on a disc or hard drive so I never have to download the whole game again. It’ll even split the files up to fit on DVDs or CDs. It’s technically possible to do this with Origin and UPlay games, but requires some trickery.
I think a big part of the difference between Steam, Origin, and UPlay is the original reason each one was made.
Steam is mostly known today as a store, but Valve originally designed it as an auto-installer and auto-patcher. That’s why today the process of acquiring and playing a game on Steam is pretty much just buy-download-and-play. It’s far easier than installing a retail disc which is why I’ve actually re-bought games on Steam on occasion.
UPlay on the other hand was originally a rewards and loyalty program for Ubisoft games, then a DRM program, then a store. That’s why the actual process of installing a game from UPlay seems like an afterthought compared to its other features. Again, Origin is at least sort of okay in comparison, but it doesn’t really have any advantages against Steam either. And that’s what other stores are going to need to compete — unique advantages.
The only reason most people install Origin is for exclusive games like Titanfall and Battlefield 4. The only reason most people install UPlay is because it comes with some of the games they buy on Steam or got for free with a GPU. How many people actually go out of their way to buy games on Origin or UPlay that are also available on Steam? I’ll admit Origin has had decent sales in the past. I got a half-off copy of Tomb Raider there a few weeks after that game came out, but only because it was a Steam key.
UPlay probably has some potential if it could leverage its loyalty program more aggressively. Give people opportunities to spend UPlay points, and maybe attach UPlay points to non-Ubisoft games. Just look at how far Valve has come with the Steam Market. EA set up a roadmap for Origin features back in 2011 with interesting things on it but it’s about two years behind that schedule. Right now I see EA and Ubisoft as stagnant in those areas though, likely because their PC game clients don’t occupy their entire business.
An example of a good competitor would probably be GoodOldGames. For starters GOG doesn’t compete 100% directly with Steam, instead carving out its niche of DRM-free classic and indie games and getting them to run well on modern operating systems. Then there are the digital extras that come with every GOG game. To be fair, I also haven’t had problems with GameFly’s PC download app (which has some games that aren’t on Steam).
It is pretty impressive how quickly Steam has pulled so far ahead of its competition, but in my opinion a lot of that is because of how slow some of that competition has been.