Vince McMullin is ready to pick a fight with Steam. And the Epic Games Store. And just about every other PC gaming storefront that isn't, as he put it, giving gamers what they want.
McMullin is the co-founder and president of TurboPlay, a privately-funded company currently working on a new PC (and, in 2020, mobile as well) storefront of the same name. Though the storefront is currently in a beta closed to all but a handful of influencers, developers, and partners, I was shown a brief glimpse of the storefront-in-progress at PAX West while McMullin shared his vision.
"Back a few years ago, I launched an indie game [Heavy Gear Assault] on Steam," he said. "We spent about $1.5 million developing it. We had crowdfunded a portion of it, and the rest was private equity. After we launched it on Steam, Steam went offline for about 23 hours. And when they come back online, [Heavy Gear Assault] wasn't on the front page.
"We spent about two weeks calling Valve and trying to get them to do something. Finally we got somebody on the phone, and he basically said 'Well, your game wasn't in that many wishlists, so we don't really think there's anything we need to do. But best of luck on the next one.'
"Afterwards, I started travelling to all the trade shows, talking to developers everywhere from Spain to Brazil to the US market. It was pretty clear to me by that point that a lot of people have experienced some interesting stories launching games on not only just Steam but other platforms, though Steam seemed to be the real sticking one for PC."
"If you look at Netflix, if you look at YouTube, at least you've got a 'kids' button and you're somewhat comfortable with the content"
McMullin's experience launching on Steam was just one that led to the creation of his own alternative. The second issue -- the one that has shaped much of what he believes will make TurboPlay stand out -- is with Steam's philosophy on curation, and its discovery algorithms.
"I've got a couple of little girls at home," he said. "And one of them is just getting into looking at different platforms and trying to figure out how to play games. PC is one of the things that she's looking to play on, but her going on Steam is really difficult for me because there's a lot of content on Steam that I really don't want her playing as a very young person.
"I'm keeping her off it because it's not appropriate. I've got no way to filter that. If you look at Netflix, if you look at YouTube, at least you've got a 'kids' button and you're somewhat comfortable with the content. That's the same thing that we're doing here."
TurboPlay's curation and algorithms are not limited to just a 'Kids' button, because it isn't just a platform for kids. McMullin presented his storefront as a platform for everyone, regardless of demographic or the type of games they're looking for. More specifically, it's a platform for individuals, as the storefront's algorithm will tailor its recommendations to each individual not based on what's popular or what their friends are playing, but based on games that individual has already played, looked at, or expressed interest in before.
"Our whole pledge is we're going to connect you quickly to content," McMullin said. "And this flies in the face of what Steam has done for years, because the way they decide that you should find content is that they decide what content you're going to find. Essentially, that's driven by deals they've done with GTA and Call of Duty and all the rest of them, and then by what your friends are playing. And that's cool; I'd like to know what my friends are playing, and that's part of our algorithm, but that's not the entire thing.
"What's really driving [TurboPlay] is what you're playing, because that's what you're interested in. For example, let's say you favor a particular publisher. All of a sudden these categories will start to show up and will show you games by that publisher. It's a different way of presenting the same information that you're getting on other stores. but you're now making the choice because you're the one that's in the driver's seat."
McMullin added that this includes regional recommendations as well, both for countries and (in the example he gave of Austin, Texas) individual cities. "A lot of consumers don't realize there are games launching right next door to them... People actually are really interested in that, because they know that they can get their feedback to those developers probably more quickly."
All this sounds ambitious, but TurboPlay is still under construction. When I spoke to McMullin, the company had secured over 160 games from seven publishers and nearly 60 development studios -- all indies including titles such as King's Bird and Mutant Football League. McMullin said the plan is also to recruit AAA and AA publishers and developers, but the storefront has no intention whatsoever to do so with exclusivity deals, as Epic has.
"Gamers want to be rewarded, and some of the most successful reward systems right now, millennials are going to them in droves"
"We have a lot of developers that are very concerned about what's going on with the Epic Games store," he said. "The exclusives are creating quite a closed market. And anybody that's been around the industry for as long as I have would know that eventually that's going to become problematic. We're going to be completely non-exclusive."
Instead, McMullin has a different plan: not only is TurboPlay offering a 90/10 revenue split, every year TurboPlay will additionally reinvest 10% of its net revenue into the studios on its platform. In return, those studios will be required to run a three-second splash screen with the TurboPlay logo on games that are on the storefront, including when those games appear in other places such as Steam or on consoles.
Revenue sharing isn't the only place where TurboPlay will differ dramatically from other PC storefronts. Another is its "loyalty point" system, or TurboTokens, which users can earn for completing achievements, posting on social networks, playing games, or doing other activities on the platform. They can also purchase these tokens directly at a $1 to one token exchange rate. Those tokens can then be exchanged for games, given to friends, tipped to developers, or awarded to streamers on the platform.
"I think gamers want to be rewarded, and some of the most successful reward systems right now that are out there, millennials are going to them in droves," McMullin said. "For example, in Canada we have the Cineplex Scene Points Program -- a super successful program -- where if you go to a movie ten times, you get a free movie. That kind of stuff is stuff the millennials are looking for."
Though this is certainly a unique approach for a storefront of any kind, McMullin outlined several other features intended for TurboPlay's launch that are far more common (or, as he said, should be standard but aren't always). These include a shopping cart, a friends list, an achievement system, and basic search functions. "This is just basic stuff that consumers need. We're going to have that out of the box."
TurboPlay won't include reviews, McMullin added, but users will be able to "like" games they're interested in. The platform will also eventually support multiple regions, though its initial launch will be in North America and (very quickly after, McMullin said) South America. And a 24/7 customer support center is being set up in Canada both for users having issues with the storefront itself and developers who need help supporting their games.
"Anywhere we have toxic, hateful, politically-charged content on the platform...we actually penalize the user and we take a loyalty point away"
All those "basic" features will work as one might expect, but another seemingly standard community element is getting an overhaul. Discussion boards will exist, said McMullin, but they'll be a "more modernized, bulletin board-type system" that's driven by developers specifically, who can set up threaded discussions. If users behave in a toxic manner, McMullin said they'll have to pay -- with points.
"Anywhere we have toxic, hateful, politically-charged content on the platform, and it gets flagged by the consumer, we have a moderator go and take a look at it. And if it turns out that it is politically-charged, or it is hateful, we actually penalize the user, and we take a loyalty point away. And if that user continues down the road, at a certain point they get banned."
McMullin added that enough people would have to flag a user before a human moderator will take a look at an issue.
At PAX, most of the features McMullin outlined (particularly the community features) weren't available to be tested or even viewed. Some because of the inherent limitations of a convention storefront demo (making it difficult to purchase games and see the algorithm in action), and some because they just weren't ready yet. That said, there's still time. TurboPlay is planning an open beta sometime in Q1 of 2020, and its full launch doesn't yet have a planned release.
What's most important to McMullin is creating a space where gamers can find what they want, even when they don't necessarily know specifically what it is they want when they show up. He referred to TurboPlay a few times during our conversation as "Spotify for video games," a point that was echoed sometime later when former Gearbox VP of business development, former head of game publishing at Rooster Teeth, and current TurboPlay board advisor David Eddings walked in the room.
"When I found out it would curate games for you based on what you like and what you buy and what you play -- basically being Spotify of video games -- I got excited about it," Eddings told me when asked about his interest in the company. "I've been in this industry for over 22 years now. I'm not the kind of gamer that I used to be. I've lost my skills a little bit. I'm a little slower. And I'm more interested in playing single-player games that speak to me and that interest me that are a little bit off the main course.
"If you ever listen to somebody else's playlist on Spotify, it's definitely something different, right? But just because your friends play other games doesn't necessarily mean that that's something that you would like. And in any type of game, quite frankly, not everybody likes the same stuff. And so this will learn what you like and it will hand-deliver that to you. That's exciting."
Disclosure: PAX organizer ReedPOP is the parent company of GamesIndustry.biz.