Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Economy and Ethics of Game Purchasing - Part 3 - Get Your Keys

Continued from Part 2

Digital keys have been used to authenticate software purchases for decades. They survived the end of physical disk media era and are used by software vendors to authenticate software download before being able to access your purchase. When you purchase a game using a digital platform it always comes with a key but often the process is hidden because the act of purchasing the software from the platform you're using to access the game simultaneously authenticates the product. However if you're not purchasing from that platform directly then you can purchase a key either from an authorised vendor or from the grey market.


Authorised Key Vendors

These are entities that have direct publishing deals with the game publishers. The publisher gets a cut from the sale. The publisher or developer gets the same cut from the full price as if you bought the game from the platform the key is for. While the vast majority of games are for Steam (and where Steam, GOG and Epic have the same games available keys are 99% likely to be Steam keys) other publishers like Ubisoft and EA use these services as well. Be aware that often keys for some titles will run out as publishers only authorise a finite numbers of keys for each vendor.

There are quite a few stores in this space such as, Voidu and Gamesplanet to name but a few but many cater to specific genres like indie games or are ones that do not support my geographical location. The four detailed below are my go-to vendors:

Humble Bundle: Since 2010 US-based Humble Bundle's business model was primarily offering bundles of games at a price determined by the user often with a charity sponsorship. While bundles "Humble Choice" are still offered, the Humble Store, robust digital store-front grew from their activity to become one of the most known key vendors in the marketspace.

GamersGate: Not to be confused with Gamergate, Swedish outfit GamersGate is a digital store-front that grew from Paradox Interactive's native digital distributions system. Since 2006 They've made news in conversations arguing against intrusive DRM and have been critical of Steam's acceptance of DRM in many of its titles.

Green Man Gaming: In 2010 UK company Green Man Gaming operated a business model that allowed the purchase of games through a client and later trade them in for credits to spend on other games while the original game key you owned was resold as a "pre-owned" game. This activity was later retired and Green Man now operates one of the best places to find bargains with aggressive sale prices.

Fanatical: This had beginnings as Bundle Stars, like a UK version of Humble Bundle. Since 2017 as Fanatical they still offer significant bundle content that can be selected to include some or all of a selection of games as desired by the consumer. They also offer a lot of digital graphic novels, books and IT manuals/online courses for subjects including networking and programming all through the same process to redeem video game keys.

I've been using these four stores, mostly the latter two, for many years without issue.  The revenue cut is the same as the actual store being used, e.g. Steam, the publisher/developer is guaranteed to get paid and I as a consumer get the best fully legal price available in most cases as discounts are near-perpetual.


Key Reselling Stores

These include HRK, Instant Gaming, MMOGA and Gamers Outlet among too many others but the main player in this space by far is CDKeys. These people are known for taking keys out of retail copies of games in countries (such as the third world where optical media is still used) and re-sell them to you (as you don't need the disc obviously) to redeem them on whatever store. The publisher will get however much they would have got from a boxed copy sale in the region it was for, which is almost always less than direct from the distribution platform where the key is eventually redeemed.

While it's amazingly not actually "illegal", it is morally dubious in my personal opinion. Basically you are paying the third world price of a game, set by the publisher to be deliberately low to be afforded by people in a region where the equivalent price in the West could be more than a week's wages!! This eventually causes the price of the games in that region to rise and prohibit its affordability my many. Additionally due to the regional nature of the purchase you can run into issues with the key not working. I predict publishers will take significant steps to prevent this practice before long.

Authorised key vendors are are both legally and morally sound but an unauthorised key reselling store like CDKeys may be legally sound it's more than a little morally dubious and is a practice I do not support as while I'm clearly motivated by a good deal or offer, this is only on the provision that it's not damaging to individuals who are far less well off than I am.


Key Reselling Platforms

Now if you find some of Epic or CDKeys business practices somewhat morally dubious you've not heard of the true "grey market" - Key Reselling Platforms. These entities include G2A, Kinguin and G2Play. These sites are not stores like all the others, the sites do not sell products themselves but facilitate transactions between customer and a third-party much like Ebay (without the auctioning). Here anyone can sell keys that they have obtained from anywhere, including obtained for free or even those that may have been stolen. Of course because anyone can sell anything, the opportunity for crime and scamming is rampant.

Key Reselling Platforms also sell a type of insurance service so that if you buy something obtained via fraud and the key gets revoked, the site will replace it for you. The process (for G2A at least) includes filing a police report before you get a refund! This is dodgy as sin as it's assumed that the majority of people won't do this for the sake of a <€20 transaction.

As the publisher/developer gain absolutely no revenue from sales on these platforms they are rightfully maligned in the industry. In fact some developers have gone on public record as preferring that people not intending to buy their game from authorised platforms instead actually pirate their games rather than use G2A so that G2A nor the sellers don't profit in any way.

Needless to say I will never engage with or support the use of key reselling platforms in any way.


In Part 4

Conclusion and Analysis

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