This article first appeared on USgamer, a partner publication of VG247. Some content, such as this article, has been migrated to VG247 for posterity after USgamer's closure - but it has not been edited or further vetted by the VG247 team.
The Epic Games Store is currently suffering from what people in the industry call "an image problem." Despite challenging the Steam monopoly with a more generous revenue split for publishers and developers, the Epic Games Store has a vocal contingent of critics.
They allege that the Epic Games Store is poorly designed and lacking in features, fair critcisms, actually. But perhaps most stunningly some have gone as far to say that the Epic Games Store is literal spyware. Not in a cheeky way either, but that Epic is a conduit for the Chinese government to spy on players.
At its core, spyware is a software that enables an entity, often hostile, to obtain information from your computer to them without you ever knowing. This is often done by tricking people into downloading and installing malicious software that serves as the tool to sneak out information from your computer.
A quick search online of the terms "Epic Games Store" and "Spyware" pulls up a variety of results, mostly of commenters saying that yes, Epic Games Store is spyware. There's also a highly-cited Reddit thread titled, "Epic Game Store, Spyware, Tracking, and You!"
The accusations though are largely baseless, and criticisms of improper data handling aren't new to the Epic Games Store. EA's Origin service faced similar accusations when it first launched. The Epic Games Store is, safe to say, certainly not a spy agency for the Chinese government, but Epic's relationship with a Chinese corporation has complicated the narrative and reinforced certain stereotypes.
The Epic Games Store Appears
Before the Epic Games Store, the online digital PC games market was dominated by one name: Steam. Valve's popular digital PC games store in 2011 was reported to control anywhere between 50 to 70% of downloaded PC games, but in 2018, things started to change.
Behind the scenes, Valve asked for 30 percent of the revenue on games sold through Steam. That's a hefty sum, but it gives publishers access to the largest digital PC games customer base. Last year, publishers began branching out on their own. Companies like Activision, EA, and Bethesda began launching games on their own digital stores to varying degrees of success, all bypassing a need to pay distributors like Valve.
It was during this time that Epic Games announced the Epic Games Store, a direct competitor to Steam that planned to not only offer Epic Games titles, but third-party games as well. Like Valve, the Epic Games Store also takes a cut from sales made on games sold through its store. But instead of asking for 30% like Valve, Epic only asks for 12%. Buoyed by the success of Fortnite Battle Royale, Epic was in a strong position to challenge Steam.
One of the ways Epic has gotten potential customers to look at the Epic Games Store is through exclusives. Epic picked up highly-anticipated games like 4A Games' Metro Exodus and Ubisoft's The Division 2. While Epic says that it can't keep offering exclusives at its current rate forever, that hasn't stopped Epic from picking up other exclusivity deals with Remedy, Obsidian, and even 2K, for the upcoming Borderlands 3.
And as the exclusives pile up, the assertion that the Epic Games Store is spyware has only intensified. Here are a few comments on Twitter to such effect.
The Tencent Connection
It's a lot to unpack, but the origins of the claim go back to the Chinese video game megacorporation Tencent. One of the largest video game companies in the world, Tencent owns 40% of Epic Games—a fact cited by English speaking netizens as reason for concern. Nevermind that Tencent also owns sizable chunks of other game companies including Ubisoft, Activision-Blizzard, Riot Games, Paradox, and more, many of which also offer their own video game launchers with exclusives.
Tencent, like almost all of China's biggest companies, has a close relationship with the Communist government of China. This relationship has been used by various agencies to accuse Chinese enterprises of being tools of the Chinese government for espionage. It's hardly new in the tech space as Chinese companies like Huawei are regularly cited as selling unsafe hardware which the Chinese government can spy in on.
In this regard, the accusations levied against the Epic Games Store are no different than the ones against laptops and smartphones sold by Huawei.
So is the Epic Games Store a Communist Espionage Tactic?
No, the Epic Games Store isn't spyware, at least in the malicious sense. As mentioned previously, a regularly cited Reddit post has been used as evidence that the Epic Games Store is spyware. Never mind that the author of the post describes themselves as a "rank amateur" when it comes to computer software.
In the post, the user digs around the Epic Games Store and discovers what they say are troubling instances of the Epic Games Store trying to access information they shouldn't be. Only, that isn't true. In a recent post on the Facepunch forums titled, "Epic Games Store Is Shit – But It's Not Spyware," a user refutes, line-by-line, each point the Reddit thread makes that's used as evidence that the Epic Games Store is spyware.
The Facepunch poster writes, "Let's start with this specific Reddit post, it is linked to in just about every thread regarding Epic. However; the guy who writes it self describes himself as an amateur, and rightly so[.] [A]lmost everything in his post is him failing to understand how software works."
In the Reddit thread, user u/notte_m_portent writes, "One of the first things I noticed is that EGS likes to enumerate running processes on your computer… More worrying is that [Epic Games Store] really likes reading about your root certificates. Like, a lot."
.matt on Facepunch responds to both points as being inaccurate. EGS isn't enumerating processes, he says, but instead writes, "this is literally how tools like Procman and Fiddler work, they have injected themselves into the running process." As for root certificates, .matt writes, "It is a launcher based around a web browers, this is how HTTPS works, of course it has to check your available certificate authorities—every other Electron application including Discord and Steam do this."
Ultimately u/notte_m_portent's points circle back to the Chinese question. They write, "I give this game storefront a final rating of: PRETTY SKETCHY / 10, with an additional award for association with Tencent. As we all know, they have no links to the Chinese government whatsoever, and even if they did, the Chinese government would NEVER spy on a foreign nation's citizens, any more than they would on their own."
Xenophobia at Play?
All this ties into the ongoing narrative that the Chinese government is creeping into digital spaces and spying on western internet users through technology and hardware. This conspiracy theory has only intensified since President Donald Trump waged a public trade war with China and accused the nation of perpetuating one of the "greatest thefts in the history of the world."
Anti-Chinese sentiments have deeper roots in the video game community too, as Chinese players are often associated with industries like gold farming in online MMORPGs like World of WarCraft and hacking. That's not to say hacking and gold farming aren't realities in China, but rather the current climate in politics and entertainment regarding China have been intersecting for some time.
As video game companies (and entertainment companies at large) look to court Chinese audiences and gain access to a lucrative market, there is a sentiment among video game consumers and movie goers that entertainment companies are cynically chasing the Chinese Yuan.
The discussion around Blizzard's Diablo Immortal mobile game announcement, for example, was surrounded by the question of how big a role Chinese players factored into Blizzard's decision to develop a Diablo mobile game. The answer is probably a lot, but there's a difference between legitimate criticism of a business' creative decisions and xenophobia.
Ultimately, there are legitimate criticisms for the Epic Games Store and the publishers seeking to work with Epic. As a newly launched store, Epic's store doesn't have the decades worth of features Steam has been able to build, including user reviews. Still, publishers are lining up to work with Epic, even if it means removing games from Steam that were previously available for pre-order.
But to assert that Epic Games is a front for espionage at the behest of the Chinese government has troubling roots, and a poor foundation built on paranoia and xenophobia.