PC game storefronts compared: what you need to know about retailers and resellers

Do you know where your game keys come from? How much money the developers get for each sale? We break it down.

When you buy a game on Steam, or GOG, or anywhere online, what you’re really buying is a code—a sequence of numbers and letters that sits in a vast database of similar numbers and letters and represents one particular license for one particular game. How was that code generated? These days, usually through Valve’s developer platform called Steamworks. Millions of Steamworks codes, deliberately generated by game publishers and vetted by Valve, are sent across the internet to other storefronts to be sold. It’s a surprisingly manual process that usually involves email and Excel spreadsheets full of codes.

So when thousands or tens of thousands of codes are sold in bundles or given away for free, it’s not so shocking that tracking the original destination for those keys can be challenging. This is one factor in the recent argument between game publisher TinyBuild and key reseller G2A, which, says TinyBuild, enables key sellers to make profits off game codes purchased with stolen credit cards. If you’ve never put much thought into that little string of letters and numbers, you may not know the differences between Steam and G2A, Humble and Itch.io, and all the other PC game sellers out there.

They all have strengths and weaknesses for both gamers and game developers that are worth knowing about before you buy from them. The information we’ve put together below will help you better understand where your games come from and where your money is going.

Steam

Store type: Retailer, source of most game keys
Profit share: 70 percent to publisher, 30 percent to Steam (Gross revenue split)
DRM: Steam account. Secondary DRM possible (Denuvo, UPlay, etc.)
Offline mode: Games must first be launched in online mode. Client can then be switched to offline. Won’t work with games featuring third-party DRM (Denuvo, UPlay)
Key source: Generated by publishers through the Steamworks platform
Why we like it: Popularity makes purchasing games and connecting to online matches far easier and more unified. Features like cloud saves, while not universally supported, improve the PC gaming experience. Deals are routinely stellar.
Why we don’t like it: Steam’s size can make game discoverability challenging, which is a negative for both gamers and developers. Size has also made for poor customer support for many gamers.

Steam is the largest PC game platform in the world, with 173 million active user accounts; the store contains more than 10,000 games (though a good chunk of that number is add-on DLC) as of July 2016, according to Steamspy. Much of what you see featured on its front page is algorithmically driven per user, but Valve does some curation to feature games, especially during Steam sales. When games are on sale, the 70/30 revenue split remains unchanged (e.g. publishers earn 70 percent of $25 instead of 70 percent of $50).

The Steamworks platform is also the go-to service for game developers and publishers to release their games. This involves working with a Valve sales representative to approve your account and approve the creation of Steam keys for games. Keys are generated through the Steamworks backend and tagged by the publisher, then output in a simple spreadsheet that can be sent to other storefronts or individuals. There’s an important distinction here between Steamworks and the Steam store itself, since publishers can choose to sell those Steam keys through other stores like Humble and itch.io. As noted above, Valve takes a 30 percent cut of games sold through the Steam Store, but they do not take a 30 percent cut of Steamworks games sold through other retailers.

Thanks to the dominant position of Steam and good backend tools like Steampipe, it’s the go-to platform for many PC developers. Devs we’ve talked to praise the ease with which they can upload new builds of games without Valve’s involvement and roll back to any previous build when there are issues.

GOG

Store type: Retailer
Profit share: 70 percent to publisher, 30 percent to GOG (Gross revenue split)
DRM: None. GOG’s main selling point is offering DRM-free downloads of all its games.
Offline mode: All games can be played offline (except online multiplayer modes, of course).
Key source: Most games are simply offered for download as installers. GOG keys for games exist (i.e. through Kickstarter campaigns) but are rare, and not sold through other stores.
Why we like it: GOG publishes classic PC games worthy of preservation and ensures they run on modern Windows. DRM-free installers are wonderful and rare. Art and manuals!
Why we don’t like it: GOG Galaxy client is still a work-in-progress and not as feature-complete as Steam (but has some of its own perks as well, and isn’t required).

GOG, founded by the CD Projekt group that includes Witcher studio CD Projekt Red, started as a source for DRM-free downloads of classic “good old” games, and has since expanded to include modern games. Its library still includes hundreds of classic PC games, preserved through DOSBox emulation. Many of these same games are available on Steam, but the GOG versions are often better configured with DOSBox or other updates to work properly on modern Windows.

Every game sold on GOG is available as a DRM-free download, but can also be downloaded and managed through the GOG Galaxy application. Galaxy is similar to Steam, but a newer platform lacking many of its features, like Big Picture, cards and item trading, cloud saving, and more. Galaxy does have some perks of its own, such as the ability to rollback to older game builds. The client will always work without an internet connection. More features, like an in-game overlay and integration into multiplayer games, are supposedly coming in future updates.

GOG previously had a more barebones system of uploading and updating games than Steam, but we’ve been told they’ve more recently improved their developer backend to be more powerful, much like Steampipe.

Itch.io

Store type: Retailer, free portal
Profit share: No set ratio, game publisher’s choice
DRM: Varies. Some game purchases grant a Steam key, others are downloaded as a simple installer or are playable in-browser.
Offline mode: Games redeemed on Steam require Steam client, but all downloaded games can be played offline (except online multiplayer, of course).
Key source: Steam keys supplied directly by game developers/publishers
Why we like it: Profit sharing and customization are great for developers. Custom features like following developers, making playlists, and the shuffle button make it a more personal platform.
Why we don’t like it: Degree of customization can make individual game pages messier and harder to parse (but they do look cool). Features like user reviews, tags and updates are not as useful for navigation or discovering games as they are on Steam.

Itch.io is making big moves to stretch beyond its origins as a portal for small, quirky, usually free indie games. The store is still weighted heavily towards free or cheap experimental games, but includes many indie games that also release on Steam, like Nuclear Throne and Gone Home. Sales for those games typically provide Steam keys. The store looks very different from Steam and GOG thanks to animated icons and fun features like the Randomizer and custom page layouts for games.

Like GOG Galaxy, itch.io has a desktop app to browse the store and manage a library, but it’s more launcher and store than all-purpose platform like Steam. It’s missing most of Steam’s social features, cloud saves, items, etc.

Itch.io’s real strength, according to developers we’ve talked to, is its powerful and flexible backend. Remember that Itch.io has no set profit sharing ratio with developers, allowing them to pick the share of their profits they split with the store, from 100 percent to zero. That includes games that are sold with a Steam key—if you buy on Itch.io instead of through the Steam store, the developers are likely getting a larger cut of that money.

Self-publishing on Itch.io doesn’t require approval the way it does on Steam. Uploading game builds can be done through a simple command line tool or through integration with a cloud service like Dropbox or Google Drive. And Itch.io recently launched a platform like Steam Early Access called Refinery, designed to offer more flexible tools for community-driven development.

Expect those tools, and Itch.io’s flexible funding model, to draw in more developers in the future.

Humble

Store type: Retailer, bundle provider
Profit share: Humble Store: 75 percent to publisher, 15 percent to Humble, 10 percent to charity on the store (gross revenue split). Split varies by buyer for bundles.
DRM: Varies. Some game purchases grant a Steam or UPlay key, others offer a DRM-free installer.
Offline mode: Varies by game client. DRM-free downloads can be played offline.
Key source: Steam and Uplay keys supplied directly by game developers/publishers. Why we like it: Donates money to charity. Bundles can give smaller indie games a second chance at selling well. Can sort by DRM type.
Why we don’t like it: Game pages on the store lack useful information like updates, user reviews, and tags.

The Humble Store sells keys that can be activated on Steam and UPlay, but some games also include a DRM-free build. Humble started out as a bundle program before expanding out to its own store. It doesn’t house any exclusive games like Itch.io or GOG, but it does donate 10 percent of each sale to charity, while developers still get a slightly larger cut of sales than they do on Steam. 

With game bundles, buyers get to choose the profit breakdown between developer, Humble, and charity. Unfortunately, bundles are a prime target for key resellers who can buy thousands of copies of a game using a stolen credit card, then issue chargebacks on those purchases and resell the keys. According to several developers we’ve talked to, Humble is very good at protecting against this sort of fraud and preventing chargebacks. Humble also offers developers a widget they can use to sell games on their own websites, and takes only a 5 percent cut for handling the payment process. Its backend tools aren’t as robust as Steam’s or Itch.io’s, but most games purchased through the Humble store will be redeemed on Steam or UPlay. 

GreenManGaming

Store type: Retailer
Profit share: 70 percent to publisher, 30 percent to GMG (But when games are discounted, GMG takes the money out of its own cut, rather than the gross revenue)
DRM: Varies. Steam, UPlay.
Offline mode: Varies by game client.
Key source: Steam and Uplay keys supplied directly by game developers/publishers.
Why we like it: Lower prices than Steam come out of the GMG cut, meaning developers still make full profits when their games are discounted. Key sources listed on product pages.
Why we don’t like it: Games pages on the store feel poorly laid out compared to Steam and lack useful information like updates, user reviews, and tags. Sometimes run out of keys.

GMG is a smaller store that is sometimes confused for a reseller due to its deals, which often cut prices lower than Steam. But that’s not the case: most of GMG’s keys are legit codes obtained directly from publishers, while some come from other authorized retailers. GMG’s discounts come out of the store’s share of the profits, meaning it takes a smaller cut while the developers still earn the full, non-discounted 70 percent cut.

As a smaller store, GMG sometimes runs out of keys, particularly when it can’t get keys directly from the publisher (Witcher 3 is a good example). GMG has had some issues in the past fulfilling large numbers of orders resulting in some delayed key distribution for pre-orderers. GMG lists the source of its keys on each game page, a nice way to ensure buyers that its keys are legitimate, though there have been claims in the past that some of its keys are sourced from the grey market.

GMG’s front page makes it easy to find recent and featured games, but the rest of its store is fairly simple and less functional than Steam. But all game keys on GMG are redeemable on Steam or UPlay, making it an easy place to shop for deals.

G2A

Store type: Reseller marketplace
Profit share: 89.2 percent to key seller, 10.8 percent to G2A (plus €0.15 listing and updating fee and €0.35 fixed selling fee)
DRM: Varies. Steam, UPlay, Origin, Battle.net
Offline mode: Varies by game client
Key source: Keys are re-sold by third party sellers. Steam keys must originally be generated by publishers through Steamworks.
Why we like it: We don’t.
Why we don’t like it: Widespread developer claims that G2A does not prevent the selling of keys purchased with stolen credit cards, with the chargebacks from those CC purchases harming developers. Impossible to be 100% sure a key won’t be revoked. Steam doesn't have a history of banning accounts for illegally purchased keys, but has banned or locked accounts for activating keys across regions using a VPN. 

G2A and Kinguin, both based in Hong Kong, offer members a marketplace in which to sell game keys, usually at very low prices. The sources of those keys can vary, and according to developer TinyBuild most recently and other developers in the past, some are purchased with stolen credit cards. The chargeback costs on those stolen purchases can end up costing the publishers money for what should’ve been profit.

G2A has said in the past that it will investigate sellers when it’s been made aware of illegal activity, and its terms and conditions state that games being sold must be sold legally. But even setting aside the legal grey area of reselling keys (often forbidden by a game’s EULA), G2A does not have a policy in place to vet sellers before they put keys for sale. It puts the onus on buyers and publishers to leave reviews or submit takedown notices to report fraudulent sellers.

G2A charges a fee for listing game keys and also takes a cut of the sales. Currently, no percentage of that sale goes to the developer/publisher. Presumably they would’ve gotten their cut on the original sale, but again, it’s possible keys sold on the site are the result of fraudulent credit card purchases.

While many keys purchased from G2A will likely work just fine, there have been past cases of publishers revoking keys (though in the most high-profile case, Ubisoft then relented and reinstated some of the keys). Steam may revoke keys for being purchased from another region at a lower price (it locked down cross-region gifting in 2015), or for being purchased with a stolen credit card. It’s telling that G2A is aware of these risks, as its G2A Shield insurance program guarantees a refund if something goes wrong. This is another revenue source for G2A, as is G2A Pay, a PayPal-esque payment processing system that other websites (including other key resellers) can use for transactions.

Compared to Steam and GOG, purchasing from G2A is a relatively poor shopping experience. The game pages lack much of the useful information of other stores and devote more screen space to ads. It lists how many other people are looking at the same key you are, to encourage you to buy quickly. But it does, at least, make it clear what regions a key will work for.

After the most recent round of criticism that G2A allows its users to sell game keys purchased with stolen credit cards, the reseller announced a program to share royalties with developers.

Kinguin

Type: Reseller marketplace
Profit share: 89 percent to key seller, 11 percent to Kinguin (plus €0.35 listing fee and €0.35 selling fee)
DRM: Varies. Steam, UPlay, Origin, Battle.net
Offline mode: Varies by game client
Key source: Generated by publishers through the Steamworks platform
Why we like it: We don’t.
Why we don’t like it: While not targeted as frequently as G2A, Kinguin’s reseller marketplace model is the same and susceptible to the same issues. Impossible to be 100% sure a Steam key won't be revoked. Steam doesn't have a history of banning accounts for illegally purchased keys, but has banned or locked accounts for activating keys across regions using a VPN. 

Like G2A, Kinguin is a Hong Kong-based reseller marketplace that allows members a platform to sell game keys, usually at far lower prices than they’re available elsewhere. Its store is slightly harder to browse for games than G2A’s and CS:GO skins are more prevalent on the front page, but it sells many games as well. Kinguin also heavily advertises the “Kinguin Mafia” on its store, an affiliate link program that gives you a commission for promoting Kinguin purchases through social media, forums, etc.

The sources of keys sold on Kinguin can vary by seller, and it’s easy to sign up to sell your own games on the service (we tried on both G2A and Kinguin and made accounts in minutes). As with G2A, the issue developers raise with key reselling is that the keys are often the results of fraudulent purchases, and there’s no preventative system for barring those sales from the marketplace. 

Aside from fraudulently purchased keys, the topic of reselling does raise the issue of cross-region selling. Should gamers in Australia, where prices are often much higher than they are in the US, be allowed to buy cheaper codes from a region like the US or (even cheaper) Russia? Store terms and conditions usually say no, while gamers in some countries often argue that they're charged unfair prices. This is one reason resellers like Kinguin and G2A are a popular source for cheap keys, and sellers on these services point out where their keys can and can’t be activated due to Steam’s region-locking. We’ve written in the past about the strange (and often unfair) pricing of digital games around the world.

Kinguin’s game pages have a cleaner layout than G2A’s, but are mostly focused on promoting the sellers rather than information about the game. The search layout is also overly busy, cramming in a screenshot, too many icons, more media, and a small link button that’s easily lost on the page. 

CDKeys 

Store type: Reseller
Profit share: Unknown
DRM: Varies. Steam, UPlay, Origin, Battle.net.
Offline mode: Varies by game client
Key source: Keys supplied by “authorised distributors,” according to CDKeys
Why we like it: While a reseller, CDKeys is not a marketplace, making it much less likely you’re purchasing a key fraudulently purchased with a credit card chargeback.
Why we don’t like it: While likely safe, impossible to be 100% sure a key won’t be revoked. Steam doesn't have a history of banning accounts for illegally purchased keys, but has banned or locked accounts for activating keys across regions using a VPN.

CDKeys offers low prices on game keys, but doesn’t operate in the same manner as the resellers routinely criticized for selling fraudulent keys. CDKeys is not a marketplace, meaning it sells keys more like a traditional retailer: you’re buying from CDKeys, not a user. Nearly all of its available keys are for worldwide use. 

When we asked CDKeys, we were told they obtain keys from “authorised distributors,” but didn’t specify what those distributors are. They are a reseller, so unlike GMG, their codes aren’t coming directly from game publishers. Lower prices are likely the result of selling games that aren’t region-locked with keys sourced from less expensive regions. The possibility exists to have those keys come from a disreputable source and be revoked, but from our research online, this is rarely, if ever, an issue for CDKey buyers.

The CDKeys store is simply designed and easy to browse and not heavily covered in advertising like G2A and Kinguin. Its game pages are lacking in information compared to a site like Steam or GOG.

Wrapping up

The are many other small resellers we haven’t included here, and a few major sellers you may have noticed: Amazon, Origin, Battle.net, and UPlay. We decided not to include Battle.net, Origin and UPlay as they’re primarily single-publisher stores with more obvious breakdowns in profit share and key source. Amazon’s digital game downloads primarily provide Steam keys, but we weren’t able to obtain information on the profit breakdown in time for publication. 

For a more nuanced look at the complicated issue of key reselling, read developer Paul Kilduff-Taylor’s article The Key Masters: Reselling and the Games Industry.

Correction: the original wording of this article suggested itch.io did not have tags or user reviews like Steam. This has been corrected to reflect that they do exist, but we find their implementation less effective.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

As hardware editor, Wes spends slightly more time building computers than he does breaking them. Deep in his heart he believes he loves Star Wars even more than Samuel Roberts and Chris Thursten, but is too scared to tell them.
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