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Bloatware in video game distribution

Early video games were merely lines and dots, but today, they have the potential to be photo-realistic and highly immersive. However, this evolution in quality comes with an incline of storage and computing requirements.

In terms of distribution, video games are a lot easier to acquire. Gone are the days of waiting in line for an anticipated new release. Today, you can simply preorder new titles online. Today, you can store your entire library of video games digitally. Gaming is a lot more convenient. At least it was, for a short while.

Just like in the world of video streaming, businesses began to create fragmentation in their efforts to gain more profit. Publishers take the one thing gamers enjoy, social gaming, and implement their own accommodations to it, or so they say.        

Steam, the leading platform in the digital distribution of video games, has always been centered around social gaming. The launcher provides an overlay menu that users can open in-game to access their achievements, chat with their friends or even invite their friends to a multiplayer session. On the profiles page, users can boast about their collection, achievements or play time.

Steam supports every social feature a publisher may want to implement in their title. Unfortunately, that did not stop publishers from implementing their own launcher in the name of those very same social features. For example, “Grand Theft Auto V,” though distributed through Steam, cannot be launched directly. Players instead have to launch the Rockstar Games’ Social Club launcher through Steam. The same goes for “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Siege.” Instead of launching the game, players have to launch Ubisoft’s Uplay launcher.

In both cases, the Steam overlay still presents itself in the game, though it cannot be used to invite friends to a multiplayer session. For that, players must utilize the publisher-specific launcher overlays. Overlays themselves consume computing power. When combined with modern titles with high computing power requirements, excessive overlays and launchers can prove to be detrimental.

Adding to the stack of growing problems in the industry, Epic Games launched the Epic Games Store in Dec. 2018. Epic Games’ decision to carry exclusive titles in their storefront forced gamers to either wait an undeterminable amount of time for those titles or adopt this new platform. The Epic Games Store, rather than offering a solution to the launcher bloat problem, simply led the industry down the road to fragmentation.      

This fragmentation hurt customers, but it is hard to fault businesses for wanting to generate profit. We can, however, fault the industry for failing to recognize a way to increase their profit margins without generating bloat and fragmentation for the end-user. Publishers can simply eliminate their specific launchers and integrate the social features offered by their distribution platform of choice.

As for distributors—like Steam and Epic Games—they can offer interoperability through an Application Programing Interface. This will allow the open-source software community to create a launcher to end them all. As unintuitive as it sounds, the solution to the bloat problem just may be yet another launcher.

As it stands today, your entire library can be in digital form—just across at least two different platforms and with over five publisher-specific launchers. Instead of sacrificing physical space, you now have to sacrifice space in your digital storage.

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