Steam, Discord, Epic: Where do the Windows PC gaming store wars leave Microsoft?

Epic Games of Fortnite fame just announced a creator-friendly PC gaming storefront. The announcement was significant, as Epic touted 88 percent revenue slice for developers, beating out Steam (and for that matter, Microsoft) by a significant margin. Additionally, the Epic store will also allow YouTubers, streamers, and bloggers to get a cut of any sales they send through to the Epic store, which is something Steam has yet to consider.

Things are certainly heating up for Steam. Steam was the de-facto ruler of PC gaming distribution for quite a while, but as companies like Activision Blizzard and EA began selling their games direct to consumers on PC via their own storefronts, others have begun to realize that they don't exactly need Steam anymore. It also doesn't help that Steam is incredibly saturated, making it hard for some devs to gain visibility. Discord's rise as a community platform has also taken eyes away from Steam, as Valve's chat and community tools languish in an archaic state.

With increasing competition from all sides, the window for Microsoft to build a credible PC gaming storefront of its own seems to be shrinking. But as a platform holder, Microsoft does have a few natural advantages. Should it want to capitalize, that is.

The state of the Microsoft Store

I always end up correcting myself when I write "Microsoft Store," as in my mind it is still the "Windows Store," with a very specific identity, separate from the brick and mortar retail Microsoft stores, and separate from the hardware-centric Microsoft store website. The Windows "Microsoft Store" has a complete and total identity crisis, with plenty of crapware from the Windows 8 era, predatory pay-to-win gaming shovelware, and abandonware from companies who don't see the value in the store in general. Simply put, despite some small improvements, it's still a mess.

Microsoft has signaled an intent to improve its offering for PC gamers, though. It's particularly important because, as Xbox Game Pass expands, it could eventually incorporate PC games as well. It already does with games that support Xbox Play Anywhere (XPA), but the additional developer effort involved to make XPA work for devs has kept third-party support relatively anemic. Thus far, the lion's share of XPA support has come via Microsoft itself, with games like Forza Horizon 4 which are distributed exclusively on the Microsoft Store for PC.

There is a growing pool of good PC games on the store, but it's still very limited, and update parity is a problem.

There is a growing pool of good PC games on the store, but it's still very limited, and update parity is a problem.

For the most part, it's possible to completely ignore the Microsoft Store once you have installed a game. The basic experience has improved on that front, at least. When Gears 4 and Forza Horizon 3 launched, there were many complications stemming from technical issues with the store, particularly as pertains to larger downloads — the Windows Microsoft Store simply wasn't designed for gaming from the outset, that much is evident.

What could the future look like?

Microsoft is in a bit of a different position when it comes to video game distribution than say, Epic or Steam, as they're both still dealing in Win32 titles packaged as .exe files. Microsoft distributes games packaged into UWP containers as .appx files, which at least theoretically, come with additional security and DRM benefits for devs, at the expense of hard mods. Microsoft has struggled to attract developers to the Microsoft Store, not only because distribution differs a bit against Steam and traditional storefronts, but also simply because ... nobody likes or uses the Microsoft Store.

A future game store from Microsoft would probably have to be completely separate from the Microsoft Store, which is crammed with non-gaming "stuff" that completely muddies its focus. Allowing the distribution of traditional games that don't upset developer's workflow should probably be on the cards as well, while also increasing revenue share Microsoft offers to compete with Epic's 88 percent.

Beyond that, though, Microsoft is also exploring entirely new methods of game delivery in the form of Game Core, which will be part of Windows Core OS we've covered previously. While the details are scant at this time, it seems as though Game Core will further bridge the gap between Xbox and PC game development, potentially allowing developers to bring their Xbox titles over to PC and other Game Core-supporting devices with minimal programming effort.

In addition, Microsoft is also exploring game streaming over the internet with Project xCloud, which would eliminate the need for Win32 entirely. Future ARM-powered super-lightweight, battery-potent laptops and tablets might be able to tap into console-quality games streamed via the internet, circumventing the need for installations. If it works, of course. Microsoft could create a paradigm shift, but there's always going to be more advantages for playing games locally, particularly PC games.

When will we find out more?

A major Microsoft Store overhaul is well overdue, particularly as pertains to gaming. Speaking at X018, Microsoft gaming lead Phil Spencer noted that he wanted to take a bigger leadership role when it comes to the Microsoft Store, but it could be a while before we see those efforts materialize.

I think we have got a ton of work to do on Windows. Windows is something I'm very committed to. I've heard the feedback about our store. I'm going to take a much bigger leadership role on what's going on with the Windows Store and make it really tailored towards the gamers that we know want to see the best from what we have to offer.

The modern Microsoft has taken a different approach to competition in recent years. It has learned to accept when it is defeated, as we saw recently with rumors that Microsoft is killing off Edge, in favor of a new, Chromium-based web browser. For Microsoft to take on Steam in PC game distribution, or Discord in community curation just seems a little far-fetched at this point, but they certainly have the tools and knowhow internally to bridge the gap between Xbox and PC ever further, and build something that only offers something different, but something good.

It could be that Microsoft unveils its efforts in this space to coincide with their efforts revolving around the next Xbox, which we understand will be a family of devices and services, currently codenamed Scarlett. From 5G-powered mobile cloud streaming, new ARM-powered PC form factors, new Windows platform features, studio acquisitions, and the next Xbox, there are certainly a lot of pieces to consider as Microsoft builds its strategy to reach hundreds of millions of gamers. I expect we'll see Microsoft's game plan begin to unveil itself throughout 2019.

Jez Corden
Managing Editor

Jez Corden is the Managing Editor for Windows Central, focusing primarily on all things Xbox and gaming. Jez is known for breaking exclusive news and analysis as relates to the Microsoft ecosystem while being powered by caffeine. Follow on Twitter @JezCorden and listen to his Xbox Two podcast, all about, you guessed it, Xbox!

22 Comments
  • Microsoft should offer devs a 95% cut of revenue to entice games and apps to be published through the store and 98% if they're Play Anywhere titles. As the world's most valuable company they can certainly afford it and it would be a hard offer for devs to pass up.
  • Nope, all games should be enabled for pc, the store is one, nothing to let the devs choose.
  • I agree with Hanley Gibbons, the reason why other publishers are going for own storefronts is to maximise profits. Increase their take from the store and that argument becomes moot. Plus Microsoft can afford to do so. Steam on the other hand... not so much as they do not have a diverse portfolio to offset losses.
  • Revenue split is not the problem facing MS Store, it's credibility. The MS Store is just not competitive or appealing to enough people to make it a viable competitor to Steam. The technical back end of the MS Store is still unreliable on Windows, everyone else is better. Discord has more presence/credibility in PC gaming than MS do.
  • They sure seem to be crapping on their customers and handling their assets right into the hands of the competition, if we're to judge by this whole ASHEN fiasco. They just don't care enough, it's that simple. I remember what happened with Gigantic and how those who had trusted in the game and bought it on the Windows Store to begin with, us, the earliest supporters, were screwed when they took it away to Steam/Arc. MS didn't seem to be honoring their exclusivity deals or anything at that time either. They just shrug and let games go. And those who lose are us the customers, the fans. Which MS doesn't really have that much of, definitely not in terms of people who buy PC games from them.
  • By no means a gamer myself. More filthy casual than anything. A Forza Horizon one trick pony basically. With a little FIFA, Surviving Mars and Astroneer sprinkled in. But the thing I like about Microsoft’s chances here is Phil Spencer himself. Big Phil just looks like a gamer. Have no doubts Microsoft is going to thrive in this sector as long as he’s in the driver’s seat. May take a while longer than we hope to get there but it will happen.
  • Up crap creek.
  • Microsoft should continue to do their own thing, Keep improving and working on what they think is best. Eventually people will get sick and tired of these "wars".
  • The whole Ashen has been a signal for me that Microsoft still doesn't seem to care about PC gamers in their ecosystem. I've paid for Xbox Gamepass to play Sea of Thieves and Forza Horizon 4. And renewed my sub so I could enjoy Ashen. But nobody communicated this deal with Epic was happening. I had to find out at launch, while searching for the game on the Microsoft Store, that the game was only for Xbox. The way Epic markets their new store is foul and not something I'd encourage, but it does show that Epic is serious about this. I've missed any confidence like this from Microsoft on their pc gaming efforts. It's always been half-baked, console-centered efforts. Age of Empires 4, Gears Tactics and Minecraft:Dungeons are gonna launch into a dead ecosystem if MS doesn't change things fast.
  • Yeah. Microsoft is half assed about gaming except for their one console.
  • That would be because the Xbox team is uber serious about gaming and consumer outreach. The latter includes enticing younger generations of gamers to be able to play the classics - one of the key reasons for backwards compatibility imo.
  • Well it is a PlayAnywhere game. It just isn't right now. This Epic deal is temporary. Ashen is coming to the MS Store and Steam. Enjoy it on your Xbox for now (use GP if you have it) I don't see how Epic is marketing their store in any way is foul. Deals/Exclusives (timed or not) to get customers interested are a natural way of getting noticed. For publishers Epic is a definite win with at least the sale revenue. I don't see how any of this is bad. However, besides the initial benefits above, have you been to the Epic store? Come on! People give MS Store a hard time but, somehow Epic is the new monster Steam should worry about or MS should emulate. I has a long way to go from the looks of the store. Epic's store is as barren land right now. You would think with all this talk that Epic would have hundreds of games in the catalog now ready for us to buy. At this time their store (app) is mainly a Fortnite update blog and an Unreal Engine tutorial/store more than a store from which you may purchase games. There are maybe 12 games in the store, several are free (and available everywhere else) and almost half of that catalog is tagged as "coming soon". With Spencer taking a strong interest in fixing and advancing the current MS Store I have high hopes that issues will be fixed. Of course, there are several perks that people that complain about the store often ignore that these other stores do not/can not provide. I do hope MS does take one thing away from Epic and that is to provide publishers who use sell a game at the MS Store a bigger cut of the sale (just a low flat cut for MS and not dependent on how few or many you sell - no varying levels). In fact, although they don't own a gaming engine like Unreal or Unity perhaps MS could prop up Azure usage among these developers by giving those that use their store and Azure for their backend an additional increase in their take home from a sale from the store (e.g. like how Epic does if you are using their Unreal Engine)
  • Valve, once the producer of some classic, epic game titles, such as LFD2, CSgo, and others, unfortunately left the gamble of game development for game distribution years ago. And they could do so because of their extreme success at distribution.
    However MS studios has produced some good titles over the years, even for pc.
    Now of course Ubisoft, EA, Blizzard are working hard to cut the middle man from the picture with mixed success. But making some progress along pc lines.
    The article is absolutely right. If the Windows store is going to be the sole way MS sells games, it won't work. It would need to be separate from the store completely. And it would be easy for gamers. Why would we not buy games from MS if it were simple easy. So it is doable.
    Does MS have the resolve and the patience to set it up and wait for it to be successful? No. The current management of MS makes anyone buying a game from the Windows store a fool to take the risk that it will still be there 1 or 2 years from now. Why not buy from a company you know is going to be there. That's the MS problem. Many of us have been burned by them discontinuing services or products because they are no longer willing to compete in the marketplace. MS your big problem is (and listen now) WE DON'T TRUST YOU! So just about any service or product that cost us money makes us cautious about a purchase. Because they way you do business now, you will give up and quit. So very soon your only avenue will be continued retreat in gaming and many other tech ventures. Sad but true.
  • I concur, trust is a major issue and with the current fiscal policy in place it will be for sometime... which is unfortunate. Take Edge for example, they could easily work on EdgeHTML alongside rebuilding it from the ground up on Chromium. In the past Bing was a major loss leader for many years but now it's not. Under the current fiscal policy, it would have either been spun off or sold off as a partnership. Which would be disastrous in the long term but somewhat profitable in the short term. Same with Surface as there was a massive write down for the first gen or so. By staying the course Surface became a billion dollar business over time.
  • I'll buy from the store that has the lowest price. PC games on Windows store are usually pretty expensive.
  • Well, then remember that the Epic store only has prices in dollars (AFAIK), not in every country's currency like Steam or Microsoft, or Blizzard. So in case of people outside US or UK like me, I'd be paying a lot more of money if I were to buy games from Epic. Really it's ridiculously expensive. That's another point against Epic store.
  • I can't remember I PURCAHSED a game from steam. I'm going assume im like 90% of people and purchase games via key vendors. That is a continued reason why Steam is popular. Behind the 8Ball is where their PC store is. MS needs to improve Store that is obvious. Filling it will content, Play Anywhere, reduce pricing, sales of cheaper codes on CD Key vendors and revenue would help in attracting possible clients. Simple answer is purchase DISCORD and start a Makers program or EA origins program. Setup a funding program like these and what Jack Tretton does now.
  • I like the Windows 10 Store. I don't get the complaints. You open it, click Games, find what you want, click Buy and it thereafter it downloads, installs, and updates automatically. Plus, incredibly easy uninstallations too. That's far better than downloading and installing an external launcher just to buy, download, and install games.
  • I like it a lot too. It's part of the OS, games update automatically, etc. You don't need to maintain or run a third party client.
    Now, this is the way people are used to do it in their other systems. Why should it be different for PC? You get only one source of software and games in your PS4, or Android phone, or smart TV. I'm all for a centralized store.
  • I can see it both ways, the issue with the AA games in store as that they often lack the functionality offered by the Win32 versions, which are offered by the other stores. Take fallout 4 for example, one of the key mods is a customisation menu called "Looks Menu" this is dependent on code injection running through a script at run time by an application called F4SE. To get F4SE to run, it has to be placed in the directory of fallout4.exe. Then you have retextures at 4K and other mods some which are lore friendly like sim settlements, horizons etc. None of this is possible with a store game as the files are locked down in a hidden directory. But since Bethesda is keen on monetizing from free mods but taking modders work and by process breaking free mods - every update breaks F4SE. Which has become a key run time for many mods. Giving the devs the choice of allowing the community to mod game files is not going to work. Plus Steam offers crazy sales time to time which is why many people still use it. Then you throw in the trust issue that people have now it doesn't bode well - hence the complaints.
    That is the crux of it in my opinion.
  • I don't get the hate for the Microsoft Store. If it weren't for the Store, I wouldn't be gaming on my PC at all. It's as easy as clicking a couple times, just like in Android and iOS. And as for apps, more than half of what I regularly use is from the Store. When things come to the store (as they sometimes do) I switch to the Store version. It's not rocket science, the walled garden model works.
  • At this point the best thing Microsoft could do is provide a backend API that allows the other store fronts, like Valve's Steam, EA's Origin, Ubisoft's UPlay, GoG's Galaxy and Epic's new Game store front to have listings in the Windows Store. It'd be a one stop shop for everything bypassing the need for, on the most part, alternate store fronts, and hopefully require little effort from 3rd party stores to enable their content.