Today we’re taking a very concrete look at three well-known digital distribution platforms for PC video games. Entering the virtual squared circle of combat is Valve’s Steam, Electronic Arts’ Origin and Ubisoft’s Uplay digital distribution platforms. Amazon.com is also a major contributor of digital game sales. Yet these others offer a full host of features and services not found on the Amazonia e-tail giant. Features and accessibility are just as vital as the titles being sold. EA has adopted a strategy of loose exclusivity in an attempt to wrestle more market share from the likes of Steam. Major titles like Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4, Mass Effect 3 and undoubtedly the upcoming Titanfall from Respawn are not scheduled for release on the Steam digital distribution platform. However EA has struck a deal with other publisher to carry their games on Origin. Ubisoft is one of these pubbies and will feature some select game on their Uplay distribution service as well as games from major companies like Bohemia Interactive (ARMA series), Telltale Games (The Walking Dead), Paradox Interactive and more.
Video game sales have been on the rise consistently over the last couple years. According to the NPD Group’s quarterly report (the Watchmen of such things), physical sales of video games at brick and mortar retail stores were up 21 percent as recent as of August of this year. Big hits so far include Saints Row IV and Madden NFL 25, which boosted sales to $293.4 million. That’s an increase well over $50 million from the previous year. It helped elevate overall physical sales of video games to $521 millions, which is a small increase over last year’s $516 million. Yet it contributes to the consistent increase in game sales–something we have not seen since 2011.
But NPD only tracks physical sales of games, which has become a vastly diminished portion of overall game purchasing. Digital distribution is where the industry’s bread is buttered. SuperData Research reports a staggering $846 million from digital distribution game sales. That’s an increase of more than 4% from 2012. This tally includes PC and console game sales. Yet for PC, the digital sector is more vital than any other. So which digital distribution platform should you pledge your allegiance? In all honesty, solidarity with only one is virtually impossible. If you want digital copies of TitanFall and BF4, then you have to get in bed with Origin or Uplay and its likely buying from one distributor will require some sort of activation by the parent publisher’s distribution platform.
So lets look at the numbers.
Size of Games Library
Steam: 2000+ PC and Mac titles
EA Origin: 360 PC & Mac titles
Uplay: 200+ PC titles
Tip: Add more Steam games to your library for cheap prices. You don’t always have to wait for the quarterly Steam Sale as multiple retailers constantly have latest releases at big discounts (e.g., just released CoD: Ghosts for $48).
Number of Concurrent and Active Users
This information seems to be wildly contested and often doesn’t quite add up. A user is seen as anyone who has downloaded the service. Concurrent users are the total number of users actively “using” a service for a specific time period.
Steam: concurrent = 6.6 million achieved in March 2013 / 50 million registered users
EA Origin: concurrent = 1.3 million achieved in March 2013 / Downloaded by 9.3 million
Uplay: 300,00 achieved in July 2013 / Ubisoft claims 50 million registered users.
System Memory Usage
I have no idea, other than poor optimization, why Uplay would take up so much system memory while offering less than half the features and service of Origin and Steam.
Tip: While not as extensive as Steam’s library, EA often has Origin titles on sale at their hot deals page. You’ll frequently find their regular IP titles on sale at monthly intervals. Look for more as holiday season rounds the corner.
Ease of Use and Features
Each of these is quite simple to adopt. Just navigate to the official website for each and download the program. Registration via user name and password is required by each. Upon installing, each one acts as a digital marketplace where you can purchase games locally–and in the case of Steam–via mobile devices with a free app download on iOS and Android.
So, it’s no surprise the resident veteran at this game, Steam, is the leader in number of services offered. I could be wrong but from my experience and testing, neither Uplay nor Origin offer a single feature or service not found on Steam. In fact that’s been the argument from detractors of each; they are following Steam’s lead with littler differentiation.
However, none the three offers in-game video capture like Fraps, MSI Afterburner, DxTory and so many other 3rd party video recording software. Although, with Steam you can embed your created YouTube videos to your Steam account page for all your friends to browse and watch from within the Steam service. Uplay is gearing up for their version 4.0 which intros an improved download manager, auto-patching, possible play-while-downloading functionality and their Twitch integration. That last one could address video capture issue two times over with streaming and recording support via Twitch.
Steam also lets users add non-Steam games to your library so they too can take advantage of the Steam in-game overlay and some subsequent services. This sounds like a novelty. Yet it’s a great boon if you can unify all your games so they launch and take advantage of the same set of social features such media sharing and various ways to communicate. As far as returns, Steam handles on on a case by case basis. So be on your best behavior when you request and plead your case. EA Origin will let you return virtually any game not obtained as part of package sale or any game refund request submitted within 7days of purchase. That’s pretty slick. Uplay mandates all digital sales are final.
Each platform function as a download manager where you can pause and resume game downloads. Yet updates and patch installs are currently available on Origin and Steam. You can even purchase and begin game downloads remotely ala the Steam mobile app. Unless the games are Free-2-Play titles, which are downloaded and updated via their respective game launchers. The launchers, however are initiated through Steam. But this trio of digital distributors also offer a host of social networking services such as an in-game UI overlay that allows you to add friends who are also on the same service. You can also capture and upload screenshots, access a provided web browser and more. Each offers cloud storage space for game save backups in case data is lost on your physical system. Text chat is available but only Steam offers voice chat communication. The latency creates a slight delay between transmission. So it’s not as efficient as Teamspeak or Mumble. But it works and is better than nothing.
Steam also offers their Big Picture mode. It’s a new feature that washes the Steam platform in a TV-ready bath of 1080p richness, sharp textured text and a working set top browser. With Big Picture you can play your entire Steam library on your favorite big screen TV complete with enhanced UI built from the ground up to take advantage of 1080p resolutions on televisions. Plus UI navigation and game control are supported by leading gamepads and controllers, providing and experience more akin to console-play than PC gaming.
Both Steam and Origin allow you to install games where you want. It’s not required that they be in the main Steam or Origin directories. Such has always been the case with Origin. However this is new within the last year on Steam. But it’s great if you require some games to run on a speedier drive such a solid state. For Uplay you can change the game installer location after install.
Steam doesn’t really do exclusives. Some games absolutely require activation through Steam but even such games (Brink comes to mind) are available for purchase on other digital distribution platforms. The other two from EA and Ubisoft. However EA has scored some big wins making major game releases exclusive and/or unavailable on Steam. Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3, Madden and Battlefield 3 are the most notable. Major upcoming titles also restricted from Steam include Titanfall, Dragon Age 3 and Battlefield 4. Ubisoft and Uplay are more welcoming and share games with Valve’s Steam and EA’s Origin.
This is an area Steam excels. So much so, some gamers only buy games during the extremely low cost Steam Summer/Winter Sale. You can finds deals as low as 85%. Sales on Steam are such major events, Valve designed the Steam Sales Tracker. It curates all the discounted goodness on the site. EA Origin has nothing like this. Moreover, Ubisoft’s has little use for something like this since their library is so small.
Steam is clearly the leader here. But they’ve been at this much longer than any of the competition. Uplay, Origin will have to innovate considerably and think out of the box–to compete in the arena Steam built. Uplay and EA are major publishers–pubbies with highly coveted titles on the Horizon. Ubisoft alone wields the curiosity of gamers in a way unseen since the original Assassin’s Creed. This is due to anticipation of like Watch_Dogs and The Division. EA is in a similar position with BF4 and Titanfall. Sure Valve has can pull the Half-Life 3 card…but this dance has gone beyond “who’s got the better ‘killer’ app?’ Innovation is needed.
Again, none of these platforms offer strong video capture and editing tools. That, married with social networking integration, could be a tipping point. PC game piracy is still a cold hard problem for publishers and often the reason a publisher will not support PC game development. So any headway made in the fight against piracy will go a long way for publishers adopting one platform or other.
Yet Valve is not sitting idle in the least. They’re in fact answering the call to innovate. SteamBox, SteamOS and a companion Steam Controller have all been officially announced, complete with the promise of streaming functionality to multiple PC accross your WiFi network. SteamBox is the promised living room-bound PC-inspired console with “Steam Inside”. SteamOS will power the system and feature a familiar Steam UI as the working interface. Its DNA will be Linux based and thus highly adaptable and “open.” The Steam Controller is a revolutionary blend of Haptic trackpad tech and keyboard/mouse functionality via a “Legacy Mode”. It’s a heavy-weighted gamble. A misstep could tip the favor to the competition. Yet currently our thoughts are clear. But what do you think?
Overall Winner: Steam
Shawn loves gadgets, literature, history and games. For 10yrs+ he's straddled both the comic book & video game industries, as a writer, editor, marketing officer & producer. Shawn got his start in tech & games as an editor & Hardware Director for GameRevolution.com. More notable accomplishments include Executive Producer on mobile games Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved & The Shroud.