Epic’s Rocket League acquisition made a messy situation even messier

Epic Games’ acquisition of Rocket League developer Psyonix should have been a game industry success story for the ages. Psyonix was a small, mostly contract studio that created a blockbuster online game that became an overnight success and now, a few years later, it gets scooped up by the cash-flush creator of Fortnite.

But in short order, the announcement became the latest controversial touchpoint in Epic’s ongoing struggle to compete in the PC game marketplace with Valve-owned Steam. At this point, it seems like Epic can’t do anything without whipping the PC gaming community into a frenzy.

Pysonix was known for years for its work contributing to other studios’ big games. But with the launch of Rocket League, a mashup of soccer with rocket-propelled racecars, the studio became a major force in the industry with tens of millions of players and a title that’s become a shining example of how to sustain a game as a live service.

So it makes perfect sense why Epic would want to buy them. The two companies have worked together for nearly two decades on Epic’s Unreal tech and were based a mere 12 miles apart from one another in North Carolina, until Psyonix moved its office to San Diego in 2009. The two were also cross-platform partners in the push to force Sony to play nice with its competitors in the console market. And Rocket League has a robust e-sports scene that could make ample use of Epic’s technology and resources.

But it was the announcement and its vague wording that kicked off the latest Epic-Steam firestorm. In a press release, Epic said it would transition Rocket League over to its own competing game store. While the company said it would continue to support the Steam version of the game in perpetuity, it did not say whether it would continue to sell the game on the platform. In fact, its initial phrasing suggested it would not.

“The PC version of Rocket League will come to the Epic Games store in late 2019,” the company wrote. “In the meantime, it will continue to be available for purchase on Steam; thereafter it will continue to be supported on Steam for all existing purchasers.” Phrases like “in the meantime” and “thereafter” suggested there was going to be a point at which the Steam version would still be supported at best, but perhaps no longer available for purchase.

Later on, Epic clarified by saying, “We are continuing to sell Rocket League on Steam, and have not announced plans to stop selling the game there. Rocket League remains available for new purchasers on Steam, and long-term plans will be announced in the future.” Psyonix also issued an equally vague statement through its Rocket League Twitter account reading, “Rocket League is and remains available on Steam. Anyone who owns Rocket League through Steam can still play it and can look forward to continued support.” We still don’t know what will happen when the game inevitably does come to the Epic Games Store (EGS), but it sure sounds like it could become an EGS exclusive.

That leads to one of a few possibilities. Epic and Psyonix may genuinely not have hammered out the portion of the deal that would dictate exclusivity, and that could come down at a later date. Alternatively, Epic could be waiting until the backlash dies down to make the announcement, similar to how Gearbox Software revealed the first Borderlands 3 trailer in late March and waited about a week to confirm EGS exclusivity.

A more reasonable reading of the situation is that Epic is waiting to see if EGS can hit feature parity with Steam regarding some critical features Rocket League depends on, like mods, trading, and leaderboards. If it doesn’t get EGS to where it needs to be by late 2019, Epic could keep the game up for sale on Steam until it does. The most generous analysis of this announcement is that Epic has all along planned to sell the game on both EGS and Steam, yet nothing about the wording of its press release or the obvious obfuscation after the fact makes that sound plausible.

What we’re left with is a lot of open questions about how this transition might work, what Rocket League might look like if it does exist on both platforms, and just how complicated it might be for Steam players to keep playing the same version of the game they enjoy now once its primarily distributed through EGS. Epic is also forced to contend with the uncomfortable reality that a vocal, potentially growing subset of the PC gaming community will never accept exclusivity as a concept or business strategy in any form.

Prior to this announcement, critics of Epic’s approach have often used various arguments to explain why using EGS is not as simple as just opening another app. Those arguments have involved age-old complaints about fragmented game libraries, conspiracy-laden gripes about user privacy and Chinese spyware (Chinese gaming giant Tencent is an investor in Epic), and valid concerns about EGS’s laundry list of missing features. Despising exclusivity was always the largest and most visible position of EGS critics, but it was typically grouped together with those various other arguments to make the opposition feel more substantive.

In this case, however, the potential for exclusivity — and in particular, exclusivity of a game that’s already been available on PC for years — feels like the only genuine source of anger PC gaming fans have over the announcement. No one outside of fans who think Epic will somehow ruin Rocket League — an unlikely scenario considering the success of Fortnite — has legitimate gripes over Epic buying a studio. It also makes perfect sense for Epic to distribute its own games through its game marketplace, as it does with Fortnite. But to remove a game already available on Steam is a different story with a lot of unknown side effects and no precedent, and as a result, it appears to have ratcheted up the intensity of criticism against Epic’s strategy.

Epic CEO Tim Sweeney said last month that his company would stop securing exclusivity on PC games, and might even consider distributing its own software through Steam, if Valve would match its 88 / 12 percent revenue split. The revenue split is the main motivator Sweeney has expressed publicly for Epic’s continued assault on Valve. It’s not clear that Valve will ever concede in such a fashion, and so Sweeney’s claim could be more of a confident taunt than an actual promised compromise.

Regardless, Epic has dug its heels in on exclusivity, despite the vocal backlash. Yesterday, the company revealed the first game sales figures for an EGS exclusive, saying Saber Interactive’s survival game World War Z has sold more than 320,000 copies since its April 16th release.

Beyond World War Z and Borderlands 3, Epic has secured exclusivity on a number of high-profile releases, including Supergiant Games’ new indie game Hades; Deep Silver and 4A Games’ Metro Exodus; 505 Games and Remedy Entertainment’s Control; and French studio Quantic Dream’s past three, console-exclusive games. Among the most high-profile titles to become an EGS exclusive well before its release is acclaimed developer Obsidian Entertainment’s The Outer Worlds.

Given what we know, it seems hard to believe that Rocket League will be an exception to this strategy, unless Epic is specifically taking in the current complaints and evaluating what to do after the fact. Since Epic is quite literally buying the game in question, it seems unlikely that the company would back down from applying pressure to Valve unless it felt it absolutely had to in order to save face. But we can’t divine the company’s intentions, especially not after its series of public statements seem designed to halt the spread of the fire rather than put it out entirely.

What we do know is that the Epic vs. Steam war is getting uglier, and it shows no signs of slowing down now.

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