Among the many controversies that have followed the launch of the Epic Games Store is the accusation that the company behind the online storefront is collaborating with Chinese authorities. Is that really true? Here’s what you need to know
What is the Epic Games Store?
The Epic Games Store is Epic’s digital distribution platform. Leveraging the rampant popularity of online battle royale game Fortnite, the company are looking to carve out a corner of the PC gaming market for themselves akin to the way that Valve has done with Steam.
Why is it controversial?
There are two main pillars to the ongoing sense of controversy around the Epic Games Store.
The first is one of inconvenience. Specifically, users who don’t want the hassle of having to install more than one digital distribution client and would rather have all their games in one place. There’s a naive and childish - but genuine - allure to this idea and it doesn’t help that Steam’s near-monopoly on PC gaming has fed that fantasy for the last decade.
Nevertheless, Epic Games have disrupted that arc towards conglomeration and, arguably, convenience through timed-exclusivity agreements the publisher has aggressively pursued.
These deals mean that, if you’re keen to play games like Borderlands 3, Hades or Metro: Exodus at launch, you have to buy them through the Epic Games Store. In certain cases, these exclusivity agreements have also supplanted previous developer commitments to offer or deliver a game through Steam - which has been a source of ire against the Epic Games Store.
The counterpoint here is that Valve isn't owed an effective monopoly on the PC gaming market. Far from it. Competition in the space is both overdue and good for consumers and developers. Developers get a better cut of the profits generated by their work and consumers benefit from a Valve under pressure to improve Steam.
For more on this check out this feature on five alternatives to Steam and why we need them.
The other reason that the rise of Epic Games and the Epic Games Store has folks riled up is the company’s
connection to China.
How is Epic Games connected to China?
As with many popular gaming companies like Riot, Activision-Blizzard, PUBGCorp and Ubisoft, Epic is partially owned by Tencent.
In 2012, the megacorporation invested $330 million into Epic Games. As of 2019, Tencent owns shares equal to approximately 40% of Epic Games. That’s not a majority but it’s not an insignificant slice of the pie either.
Why is that a concern/problem?
In a time where China’s record on free speech, human rights, cybersecurity and trade relations between China and the Western World are particularly controversial, Tencent’s partial-ownership of Epic raises a few potential red flags.
There’s a fear - rational or not - that through their partial-ownership of Epic Games, Tencent is able to extract addition personal data on Epic Games Store users and funnel that through to Chinese intelligence. An extra wrinkle here is that, until May 2019, the company didn’t even operate their storefront in China.
Similar to the controversy around Chinese technology brand Huawei or video-sharing app TikTok, the fear here is that Epic Games are basically harvesting data for the Chinese government. Fortunately for users of the Epic Games Store, there's non real evidence that this has ever happened.
There was a briefly-controversial post on Reddit entitled “Epic Games Store, Spyware, Tracking, and You!” which presented some problematic claims.
However, the two cases of spyware-like behavior by Epic cited in it (a file called tracking.js and the creation of a local copy of Steam files without first asking the user’s permission) were later clarified to be tied to the revenue-sharing system that the Epic Games Store uses to pay out content creators and leftovers from the company’s rush to implement social features in Fortnite. The latter has since been addressed.
The other area of concern here is that Tencent’s partial ownership of Epic Games allows them to exert soft pressure on the kinds of games that are allowed on the platform. This fear is hardly unique to Epic but, to the company's credit, they've yet to find themselves embroiled in a Blitzchung-style controversy.
How has Epic responded to these concerns?
Epic has frequently denied that Tencent have any say in their day-to-day operations.
Epic’s Tim Sweeney has said on Twitter that “I’m the controlling shareholder in Epic Games, and have been since 1991. We have a number of outside investors now. Tencent is the largest. All of Epic’s investors our friends and partners. None can dictate decisions to Epic. None have access to Epic customer data.”
Responding to questions about censorship over Twitter, Sweeney has also said that "Epic supports everyone’s right to speak freely. China players of Fortnite are free to criticize the US or criticize Epic just as equally as all others."
Should you be worried?
Honestly - and this is just me editorializing rather than speaking with any sort of behind-the-curtain knowledge - I wouldn’t be that worried.
There’s no clear evidence or incident that you can really cite as evidence that Tencent is or has exerted pressure on the way that Epic Games operates or how the company stores and handles user data. The Epic Games Store certainly has some problems when it comes to core features and the user interface but, based on the information that's currently out there, data security isn't really one of them.
The short version? There’s no concrete reason to believe rumors that Epic are working with the Chinese government in any way other than as a publisher ought to.