If a person buys a game in good faith from a store which they trust, and it turns out that the Steam key for the game (which worked upon redemption) was actually ill-gotten in some form — whose fault is that? The customer’s? The reseller’s? The distributor’s? It doesn’t matter – these are merely byproducts of ultimately positive forces in the way games are distributed, and it is possible to erode people’s faith in stores that aren’t monoliths like Steam, which is ultimately unhealthy for everyone.
This issue is sparked with what happened with Sniper Elite 3. 7,050 Steam keys were stolen from retail copies of the game. These keys wound up in the hands of distributors and then in the hands of resellers, where people bought them, not knowing that the keys were stolen. When publisher Rebellion found out about the keys, their ultimate course of action was to revoke access to the games, telling affected customers to get a refund from the store, though they did give free DLC to the affected users.
Still, we have a situation where people paid for a game, and lost access to the game through no fault of their own.
While the outright theft of keys is a rare situation, there are other situations where a person can buy keys to a game that aren’t 100% on the up-and-up. So-called “serial resellers” are a point of contention: they often get unused keys through bundles where games are sold for pennies on the dollar, and then resell them at a profit, where developers don’t see any cut of it. Savy Gamer, run by noted gaming journalist Lewie Procter, has a writeup on why his site lists deals from these sites even though the origins of the keys are often in dispute. It’s even a topic we’ve touched on here at Gamezebo in the past.
Yes, it’s possible to buy games from stores that aren’t entirely legitimate. But the reason why they exist is merely a byproduct of a system that helps developers.
Developers on Steam have the ability to generate practically unlimited numbers of keys for their games, so that people can buy a game not from the Steam storefront, but still get the convenience of Steam. Steam can do this because it’s ultimately to their advantage to get people hooked in to Steam and its convenience, and because they know people will buy games through their storefront as well. It is to their benefit for Steam to be the premier destination for PC gaming, even if it isn’t where people initially buy some of their games.
This system also helps create a healthy market by allowing third-party storefronts, including ones who sell bundles, to be competitive. It allows them to be competitive by being able to offer the convenience of Steam, and to offer things like DRM-free copies, or Android versions of games, at or below Steam costs. And for developers, they can often get higher cuts from these other storefronts, and they also provide more opportunities to be featured and discovered, to help sell more copies.
Steam’s storefront is still the biggest factor for indies having success in particular. But people who buy from outside Steam are a good thing because they prevent Steam from becoming the one force that decides if a game succeeds or fails. As well, it makes for a market where people can enjoy many games without having to compromise on their beliefs about DRM. It’s ultimately good for everyone.
Yes, there will be situations where security breaches happen and bundle keys are used illegitimately. The latter can be dealt with through systems like Humble has implemented, where the key is never revealed directly to the user, but the game can be gifted to other users. And even if people got keys through methods that don’t give developers money, doesn’t customer loyalty count for something?
Is it really better for Rebellion to revoke access from over 7000 paying customers (some of whom allegedly bought the game through recommended channels) than to keep them happy (when they might buy DLC as well) and instead pursue legal remedies? Frankly, if any of them pirate the game, I don’t blame them. And if a developer gives out a large amount of bundle keys that wind up in the hands of resellers, isn’t it still getting the word out about the developer and their game in some way?
Outright theft should be dealt with, but in these gray areas, and when the supply of game keys is limitless, perhaps a few copies where you get a suboptimal cut is better than not having the ability to give out keys at all, and making Steam a practical monopoly for game sales?
That’s the ultimate fear. Developers and publishers should do as little as possible to make people fear buying a game from third-party retailers, because ultimately, they will need these stores to ensure their survival. Steam is only getting more crowded, and alternative places where they can stand out while users can get the benefit of Steam’s convenience are important if the PC market is to be as diverse as it is.
Remember, just because something has flaws, doesn’t mean that the alternative is automatically better. A world with limited game keys, where Steam access is limited, is one that hurts developers and players. So developers and publishers should act in their customers’ best interests wherever possible, because what they do now to try and prevent a few lost dollars could lead to the circumstances of their eventual doom.
And for users, they should be careful about the stores they buy from, but the onus ultimately falls on developers and publishers to keep their keys secure and give them out judiciously. Resellers and bundle sites need to be careful about where they get keys from, because a market that supports developers as much as possible for their work is the fairest possible one. And because ultimately, customer trust is hard to earn, but easy to lose.