When No More Robots founder Mike Rose reacted to key reselling marketplace G2A's aggressive Google advertising, he said he'd rather people pirate games than buy from resellers. Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail tweeted a concise summary of why indie developers and publishers don't like key resellers. "These sites cost us so much potential dev time in customer service, investigating fake key requests, figuring out credit card chargebacks, and more," he wrote.
But if an industry trend holds, developers may not have to worry about the issue forever.
In 2019, Ubisoft said it isn't going to deal in keys anymore, and will only sell games through third-party stores which use 'silent key activation.' With that method, the user never actually gets a key to copy-and-paste—or to resell—and instead the game is tied to their Uplay account on the spot. There are technically still keys on the backend, but we never see them.
Meanwhile, Epic's Trello roadmap said it was "working with Humble Bundle to integrate non-key-based purchase fulfillment" for the Epic Store. Activision and Blizzard games purchased through Humble also require users to link a Battle.net account.
Though many retailers still sell Steam keys, those could be phased out, too. If Valve were to join Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Epic in their push to make keyless activation required, key retailers would have no choice but to comply, and key resellers would have an obvious problem: no more keys to sell.
Why sell keys in the first place?
As Ismail outlined, there's room for abuse wherever keys are being resold: someone can buy keys with a stolen credit card and sell them, or grab cheap keys from a region like Brazil and then resell them in the US, or beg for free keys from developers by claiming to be an influencer (which is more annoying than effective). There's no way to know exactly how much these things are happening, but a couple of high-profile incidents landed the entire reselling business on a lot of shitlists.
Unfortunately for the games industry, the problem it has with keys—that they can be resold—is also what's good about them. They're a hassle-free way for me to get or give someone a game with no connecting this account to that or using a 'gifting' system.
Dave Oshry, co-founder of publishing label New Blood, wasn't entirely convinced by my suggestion that keys could go away altogether—or at least, he didn't think it would necessarily be a good thing, opinions on G2A notwithstanding.
"Anything that creates more friction (like signing up for an account and verifying it) is usually bad for indie games," said Oshry. "Anything that makes you open more than one window or click more than two things makes the chances of someone actually buying your game they were already on the fence about exponentially smaller."
For the most part, though, Oshry himself doesn't bother with keys. The only key retailer New Blood works with is Humble.
"To be honest I don't know how much revenue is even to be gained from all these reseller sites these days," he said. "I ignore requests from them all the time and only currently sell our PC games on Steam, Humble, and GOG. I really have no interest in putting our games on any of these other endless bundle or reseller sites to make an extra few hundred dollars every few months and have our games wind up on grey markets like G2A. You want our games? Go get them on the big boy stores like a big boy or just go pirate them if you don't wanna spend the money right now. At least then you won't be supporting G2A."
An anonymous industry source also told me that selling keys through off-platform retailers wasn't worth it for the games they worked on.
TinyBuild CEO Alex Nichiporchik, who in 2016 publicized the credit card fraud that was landing keys from TinyBuild's store on G2A, isn't as dismissive of the key retail business. "[Bundles and key stores] do generate significant revenue," he said. "It's just about how you do it. Because there are some games where it makes a lot of sense to [sell keys], for example for keeping up the online population.
"If no one's playing your multiplayer game it's dead, so often what we would do is generate a bunch of keys and then put them into a bundle or into some similar style initiative where we don't get that much money, but we get a ton of new players into the game. And that actually raises the long tail. I think we did this most successfully with our game SpeedRunners, because that game had tons and tons of bundles, deep discounts, etcetera, and it's still selling like hotcakes. So it's not like this whole initiative is not worth it."
TinyBuild may also sell discounted or bundled keys for games late in their life, after sales on Steam have mostly dried up, to give the developers a little boost. Nichiporchik said he'll also sometimes supply keys to new regional stores that crop up, in Asia as an example.
Tripwire VP Alan Wilson also told me that while bundles aren't very lucrative, they can be a useful way to get players into multiplayer games. So while some publishers are giving up on the endeavor, others still consider key sales important to their business.
Does a keyless world make sense?
I doubt many publishers would say so, but Valve is pretty lax about its rules around key selling, which it doesn't earn a cut from (and doesn't really need to). According to Valve, if you sell Steam keys at a steep discount, you have to offer that same discount on Steam "within a reasonable amount of time." And if you include your game in a bundle, "the perceived price in the bundle/subscription should be a price you are willing to run the game at a standalone price or discount on Steam."
There's a lot of wiggle room there thanks to the words "reasonable," "perceived," and "willing," and some publishers wiggle quite a bit.
As an example, Humble has offered Metal Gear Solid 5: The Definitive Experience, Cities Skylines, and eight other games for $12 as part of its monthly subscription bundle. The cheapest Metal Gear Solid 5: The Definitive Experience had been at that point on Steam was also $12. What's better: getting Metal Gear Solid 5 for $12 this year, or getting Metal Gear Solid 5 plus Cities Skylines and a handful of other games for $12 last year?
Despite Steam's rules, publishers don't really have to discount their games by 80% on Steam to match their bundle pricing, at least not for longer than a couple weeks. This is another way key resellers complicate an already strange business. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Definitive Experience costs as little as $9 on G2A, which is about how I'd price a key purchased in that bundle, with a little markup. A bunch of $9 keys floating around makes $30 on Steam look like a very bad deal, but those keys were probably purchased legitimately.
This is inconvenient for developers who want to control when bundle pricing begins and ends, and could be prevented with keyless bundle delivery, but that would also highlight the weirdness of the setup. Customers could be forgiven for asking, "If I don't get a key, why not just do the discount directly on Steam?"
It sounds like Valve gets a raw deal in all this, but keys helped make Steam the dominant PC game distributor. Back in the hybrid physical/digital days of PC gaming, Steam keys were packaged with retail copies of games that could be installed from discs, but only after the player installed the Steam client and made an account. Each key generated a new Steam user, or gave an existing user another reason to value their Steam account.
The reason keys became popular doesn't really matter now. Keys are part of the industry. I like them, lots of people like them, and if Valve made a major change, such as forcing keyless activation on everyone, there'd be serious fallout.
“If Steam decides to do away with keys and embraces keyless activation exclusively, the era of using keys as a distribution method would effectively be over," said Raw Fury co-founder David Martinez. "There are lots of sales portals that solely depend on Steam keys and they will also have to change quickly or they'd be done. That obviously includes shitty companies like G2A, certainly won’t miss them."
"I'm not sure, to be honest," said Nichiporchik when I asked if he thought a keyless industry was possible. "There's an ecosystem that was created based off the whole key concept, and I don't know, maybe [Valve will] change that decision at some point, because they are bearing a lot of costs."
While they acknowledged that keyless activation is a direction the industry is headed, Martinez and Nichiporchik didn't seem convinced that Valve would pull that trigger anytime soon. What if it inadvertently killed Humble? Not the best PR.
At the same time, I doubt a teenager with five bucks in the bank is going to care about ethical arguments regarding G2A and Kinguin's effect on the videogame industry. (Though I'm sure some will happily take the suggestion to pirate games.) If the industry wants to completely stop key reselling, it has to stop selling keys.
Nichiporchik, who still finds value in key bundles and stores, is just doing his best to beat the resellers, especially when it comes to search advertising. New marketplaces "crop up every week," he says, so yelling about one or two won't change anything, and just draws attention to them.
Oshry, who mostly ignores the key business, wonders if it'll even matter in the near future. He didn't name any specifically, but with the rise of streaming services like Stadia, as well as subscription offers such as Xbox Game Pass and Origin Access, there's the potential for all of gaming to become a service. In Oshry's words, it's a world where "developers will get paid $.10 per hour their games are streamed" and "have to tour and sell merch to survive."
It's not an unfounded fear. It happened to music, after all.