Over the past few years, game bundles have risen to become one of the most popular ways that games are purchased digitally. “Pay what you want for X-amount of games for a super discounted price” is a particularly popular practice throughout the indie game scene, as it offers developers a great way to get their games in front of a massive amount of buyers. Humble Bundle, Indie Royale, Groupees, and Bundle Stars are all popular game bundling brands that promote both games and developers while (typically) allowing the buyer to select a price-point.
A few sites are taking ethically-questionable advantage of these deals, buying keys in bulk and then selling them at a later date for a profit. While initially it sounds illegal, there is no concrete court ruling that says it is, in fact, illegal. The closest court case found in the United States was a 2008 ruling that selling “not-for-resale” promotional CDs is legal. In 2012, the European Court of Justice ruled that the first-sale doctrine does apply to digital games, and individuals can resell their lawfully purchased property without penalty.
Does the pawn shop mentality work in the digital era?
So lawfully buying bundles of keys, and then selling them at a later date, is considered akin to selling a book bought at a book store, later on at a garage sale. There is no definite ruling in the United States, like there was with the European Court of Justice, but it certainly is only a matter of time until a similar ruling makes its way to the US.
The real debate boils down to the ethics of it all. Especially concerning the profits, or lack thereof, collected by indie game developers.
Unlike the publisher of that book sold at a garage sale, the loss of a few thousand sales could potentially make, or break, an indie game developer. They are already selling their game in the bundle for a fraction of the cost they initially charged, to whittle that fraction down even further may leave just nickels and dimes made per game sold.
Late Friday evening, GameInformer reported on the woes of a number of indie developers who have come into contact with sites like Fast2Play and Kinguin, which re-sells keys picked up from game bundles.
“My main point of concern is really to do with an awareness on the player’s part about when their purchase is or is not supporting the developer,” Redshirt developer Mitu Khandaker-Kokoris told GameInformer. “In this case, it definitely only serves to profit the reseller website. Obviously this doesn’t matter to everyone, though I’d hope in an ideal world it should be a priority to consumers to keep supporting and enabling creators whose work they enjoy.”
Sites like IndieRoyale provide great exposure for indie games through dirt cheap bundles
Gamezebo spoke to a few game developers who found their games for sale on Kinguin, and discovered similar sentiments from them.
“We as developers have no control over who is selling our games,” Paul Taylor, developer of Frozen Synapse, said to Gamezebo. “We don’t have the opportunity to provide support to customers, or ensure that our games are being presented in a fair or honest way.”
“Seems like there is not a lot of ways to stop it,” Capsized developer Lee Vermeulen said to Gamezebo. “Even close to a year after our Humble Bundle, we are still seeing Steam keys activated for it.”
Jeremy Vight, developer of 3089, also has seen his work show up on sites like Fast2Play and Kinguin.
“The problem is,” Vight told Gamezebo, “bundles have raced to the bottom… they practically give games away to stay relevant. However, the games are worth much more than they sell for in the bundles, and these redistributors know that. So, they buy up bundles in bulk and sell them. You could argue it is like selling a used game you purchased legally, but these games are not being used… it is like indie game ticket scalping.”
“Psst… Wanna buy some Psychonauts?”
Vight told Gamezebo that he’s planning on refraining from participating in future game bundles, and will instead run smaller sales through Steam.
If sites like Humble Bundle and Indie Royale do not facilitate changes to their method of distribution, many other developers may follow suite, opting to hold their own Steam sales, especially now that Valve allows developers to easily do so.
The bundle sites themselves are largely to blame for the uptick in the reseller market. They are all competing with one another, “racing to the bottom,” as Vight put it, in order to look better than the competition. This not only devalues the games featured but it hurts the industry as a whole as buyers are now used to buying these steeply discounted games. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.
Gamezebo reached out to Kinguin to get their perspective. A representative from 7 Entertainment, the owners of Kinguin as well as a host of other sites, responded.
“Kinguin is a digital platform for vendors from all around the world to sell theirs digital goods,” the representative told Gamezebo. “Kinguin is not the owner of those products. If you can put it simple – Kinguin is like an Ebay for gamers… We have already contacted vendors selling those products in order to receive some information regarding the origin of those keys. We are sure that this situation will be resolved within [the] next week. Our Terms of Service is really clear – it’s prohibited to sell games commonly offered as free or games from any charity events.”
Offspring Fling as it appears on Kinguin.net
“Fast2play.com is our other project,” the representative told us. “All products come from official suppliers and again, we don’t have any means to verify the source of codes. We were assured those products come from official distribution and we are still waiting for explanations from the supplier. Kinguin Team supports Humble Bundle events with all our hearts. It’s a great way to raise some money for noble goals, while supporting indie game developers.”
The representative also mentioned that, “until the resolution of this problem, all those products were removed from our site,” but a quick search on Kinguin reveals results for Offspring Fling, a game currently in the Humble Weekly bundle.
It seems the best way for game developers to keep their games off of reseller websites, at least for now, is to avoid participating in bundles which freely distribute game keys. Or, at the very least, wait a few years before allowing their game to appear at such a steeply discounted price.
Though I suppose the real solution stems from the nature of the market in the first place. Developers should have more pride in their work than to be offering it up for a few quarters a year after launch. It’s hard to pull that off in the current climate, but if you’ve made a great game, you just have to fight the good fight. Don’t sell yourself short: your product is worth more than pennies on the dollar.