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Fed-up indie game devs are fighting back against shady key resellers

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Indie developers are taking a stand against grey market website G2A for its reselling of illegally acquired game keys. Over the years, stories of the popular key reselling website G2A have surfaced as studios have paid thousands of dollars in fees due to resellers purchasing their game keys through illegitimate means. While all kinds of games can be found on the website, indie developers, who are small and often just scrape by, are disproportionately affected. Not only that but it has a major impact on consumers, too. Digital Trends spoke to some developers to find out how the website has personally impacted their business, and how G2A’s questionable selling practices affect the people who buy from them.

Company director of game publisher No More Robots Mike Rose recently started a petition requesting G2A to stop selling indie games on its website after pointing out that G2A’s purchased Google keyword ads would display above the developers’ websites in search results when users searched for their games. Rose explained on Twitter that the purchases made through those ads do not benefit the developers because they don’t make any money off them.

Buying game keys through sites like G2A doesn’t just lead to lost sales for developers — it can also lead to debt. That was the case for the developers of Natural Selection 2. Shared in a lengthy roundup on Reddit, studio Unknown Worlds Entertainment suffered a massive financial hit because a scammer used a stolen credit card to purchase over 1,000 keys for the game.

Legitimate users eventually bought those keys on a reseller site, but the owner of the stolen card disputed the original purchase with a chargeback. The thief had already sold the game keys, and the studio deactivated the games after learning of the problem. This not only left a bunch of players without their game, but the studio ended up paying around $30,000 total in fees.

Responding to increasing criticism, G2A announced on July 3 that it would pay developers 10 times what they lose on chargebacks, but Rose said it doesn’t actually fix the problem.

“It’s a bullshit move because it turns out, they only meant chargebacks specifically on sales through a developer’s own personal website — which, as I’m sure you’re aware, no developers actually do,” Rose said. “Developers, especially smaller devs, sell through stores like Steam, Humble, etc, which their offer did not extend to.”

G2A defended the move in an update to their blog post posted on July 7.

“Some developers cannot accept the fact that people have full rights to resell the things they own,” the post reads. “It’s a problem for those developers, but not for us or anyone else. And certainly not for gamers who have access to cheaper products, games included, thanks to marketplaces such as G2A. What we are saying is: It’s a good thing that people can re-sell keys and, with or without G2A, they will continue to do so.”

Illegally obtained game keys disproportionately impact indie developers.

The reselling of illegally obtained game keys can be very costly to game studios and publishers, but as it currently stands, it disproportionately impacts indie developers. Many indie game studios are small teams that do not have resources to spare.

Resellers can lower the value of a game which can be damaging to a studio’s profits, especially when the team suffers additional hits from chargebacks. Game developer at Vlambeer Rami Ismail says studios can also struggle under the additional workload that fake and illegitimate keys can put on their plates.

If you can't afford or don't want to buy our games full-price, please pirate them rather than buying them from a key reseller. These sites cost us so much potential dev time in customer service, investigating fake key requests, figuring out credit card chargebacks, and more.

— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) June 30, 2019

Just pirate their games

There’s no doubt that voices from larger platforms could have a bigger impact on initiating change. We asked Rose if bigger developers and publishers should get involved.

“I imagine that some of them are definitely watching from the sidelines to see whether any headway is made,” he said. “Getting rid of sites like G2A would give so much more freedom to people who make and sell games, so I’m hoping us smaller studios can pushback hard and create an opportunity to show G2A that we’re done with them illegitimately profiting off our hard work.”

Rose went as far as suggesting consumers pirate their games than buy from G2A. He’s not alone, either. Emma Maassen, Founder of LGBT inclusive game developer studio Kitsune Games shares the sentiment.

Lore Finder by Kitsune Games Image used with permission by copyright holder

Developers aren’t the only people affected by sites like G2A. People who purchase games through them are too. From obtaining keys that don’t work to paying predatory fees, gamers are often taking a risk when they decide to buy an illegitimate game key.

We asked Maassen how a change in G2A’s practices could benefit consumers.

“If G2A stopped their shadier practices I think consumers would benefit from a safer experience buying resold keys (which does happen legitimately), without paying extortionist ‘protection’ fees on top of that,” Maassen wrote to us via Twitter.

“More importantly devs would become less reticent about doing bundling deals, which means consumers can purchase games at lower prices from legitimate venues without any worries about the key being genuine.”

If G2A stopped their shadier practices I think consumers would benefit from a safer experience buying resold keys.

Maassen pointed out that eating the costs of such things has shut smaller platforms down.

“That leads to less competition and a less healthy PC gaming ecosystem which will negatively impact consumers in the long run,” she added.

G2A’s relationship with sponsored influencers is another issue that both Maasen and Rose believe contribute to the current problem. Following the G2A email controversy, Rose shared on Twitter that he heard from multiple sources that similar propositions had been sent to streamers and YouTubers encouraging them to “say nice things about them” in exchange for payment. Rose asked influencers to make these email requests public but no streamers or YouTubers have come forward.

Maassen believes this kind of behavior can be curtailed if AAA developers and studios got involved — especially if they refused to give free game keys to G2A-sponsored influencers.

“It’d be in [AAA studio’s] best interest to exert pressure on grey market key resellers like G2A,” she said. “Especially since G2A does so much of its marketing to influencers. It leaves a nasty taste when you provide keys to sponsored streamers or YouTubers who’ll then direct their fans to G2A due to sponsorships to buy your game, knowing you’ll see none of that money.”

G2A has since proposed their own solution — a new tool that would allow devs to block the reselling of certain keys. At a glance, it seems like an amicable gesture, but several developers, including Mike Rose and game director and writer Mike Bithell, say that it doesn’t solve the problem:

– I don't work for you, it's your job to protect the customers you sell unchecked keys to, not mine.
– I don't endorse or work with grey markets, or folks that secretly pay for positive press
– bot farmed 'gift' exploitation is the issue, not keys, and you know this, obviously

— Mike Bithell (@mikeBithell) July 12, 2019

We’ve reached out to G2A for an interview, but they’ve yet to respond. We’ll update this story if we hear back.

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