Why auditing your Steam keys is a great idea!

A further dive into the third-party Steam key ecosystem.

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & GameDiscoverCo founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

Welcome back, space cadets, to the training program that is ‘the GameDiscoverCo guide to piloting your game around the discovery universe without getting zapped by the bad guys’. Though to be honest, quoting Zero Effect: “I mean, you realize there aren't evil guys and innocent guys - it’s just… it’s just a bunch of guys.”

Before we get started, wanted to pass along feedback on the indie console ‘sales are just OK’ piece from Tuesday. We definitely got some agreement, for example from Supraland’s David Munnich, who noted: “The numbers reflect our experience too… from my experience console players are on average much more casual and then end up just playing the new AAA thing. while PC guys are more serious about their hobby, discuss in forums etc.”

On the other hand, folks correctly pointed out that there are still games like Alwa’s Legacy saying what a good place Switch is - “In little more than one week [we] sold more copies on Nintendo Switch than on Steam since the launch 4 months ago.” So there will be some genres - particularly cozy or pixel-centric games - that will do better on Switch than PC.

But if we go by number of Steam reviews, looks like Alwa’s Legacy might have sold 2,000 units or less in the first 4 months on Steam. So again - selling better on Switch is good, and for a solo dev, it’s genuinely helpful. But the scale of successes has ratcheted down since the early days. Just bear that in mind, and we’ll all be good!

[This free newsletter is made possible by subscribers to GameDiscoverCo Plus - only $12 a month if you sign up for a year, and includes an info-filled Discord, a data-rich Steam Hype back-end, our new ‘Complete Game Discovery Toolkit’ eBook, & lots more.]

Looking for holes in the Steam key ecosystem

Recently, we discussed loopholes or issues with regional variations in the Steam key ecosystem in previous newsletters, particularly with regard to Argentina pricing and on-Steam purchases - which Valve has further cleaned up recently, by the way.

We’ve talked about how some of this ‘key tourism’ is what we’d call piracy lite. (Often, it comes from those who probably wouldn’t buy your game at full price anyhow.) But that doesn’t mean we should ignore it entirely.

And there is an area of key policing - see above - that you, as a publisher/developer, should absolutely be concerned with. It’s one where you personally bear responsibility. Specifically: if you ask Valve for Steam keys, and then you give them to third parties, are you absolutely sure that they are being used in the way that you expect?

Broadly, there are two possible ways for Steam keys to get misused in some way:

  • A Steam user has managed to directly buy the game key from your official partner - but at a much lower price than you intended.

  • The Steam user that bought your keys at the expected price has somehow managed to resell it to another person/site at a profit.

Obviously, if you don’t do any deals with third parties, there will be no Steam keys ‘in the wild’ to have these issues with. But you will need to request keys if there are bundles or subscriptions you want to be in (Humble, Fanatical, and more), or third-party stores you do deals with (like Humble, GreenManGaming, Fanatical, and others.)

And then there may be sites you didn’t give Steam keys to, but have copies anyhow, like Kinguin, Gamivo or G2A - though some devs also deal directly with those sites, so it can be confusing. (BTW, IsThereAnyDeal keeps an eye on third-party sites for deals on Steam keys. It’s a good place to look for deals metrics in general.)

Anyhow, most of the first-party loopholes around Steam keys have been fixed a long time back by Valve. (For example, it’s been many years since you could generate Steam keys as gifts. Nowadays, you gift a game directly to an account, and it has to cost a similar price, regionally speaking.)

When it comes to ‘people buying your game for much cheaper than you thought’, some very large publishers try to control for this by doing regional locks for Steam keys. See the above example for Borderlands 3 from SteamDB showcased in this HLPlanet article. But that can be a hassle to manage, for multiple reasons, and has to be requested manually.

As for both illicit selling and reselling, big Steam key hubs like Humble have put a lot of work into stopping this, especially for key bundles. For more info, see this post from a year or so back: “What can be said with some degree of certainty is that Humble Bundle is cracking down on trading, gifting, giveaways, and reselling. This is probably being tracked through the gift link option and/or accounts linked to your Humble profile.”

So: when you’re giving a worldwide key to a third party site, are you sure that they’re doing a good job of gating, if they offer regional pricing? For example, somebody pointed out to us that Yuplay.ru (a Russian key reseller) has been popping up on a Spanish deals site on Steam, with offers as cheap as 5 Euros for Resident Evil 7’s season pass. Maybe it’s possible to buy at Russian prices, even if you don’t live in Russia? It’s definitely worth asking potential partners about this.

And if you want to keep track of your Steam key ‘leakage’, then actually auditing your game’s keys from a reseller site like Kinguin is a great idea. We spotted that Orcs Must Die 3 has a bunch of cheap keys ($8, instead of $30) available there. If you’re the dev/publisher, simply go buy a few yourself, work out who you originally sent out the Steam key to, and decide whether you’re happy with the result.

One other semi-related thing: some of the third-party key sites can end up doing ‘unexpected’ discounts - sometimes ones that they pay for the difference on. That way, they can attract attention and revenue and pick up the 30% cut that normally goes to Valve. But… it’s still cheeky and maybe not good for your game, right?

Anyhow, the whole Steam key ecosystem is complex, and I may not have done it justice here - please ping me if you feel like there’s things that should be added. Here’s a great PC Gamer article from 2019 you should all read, which gets deeper into both G2A controversy - which was hot at the time, and still rages - and the key reseller space in general.

And in some ways, I dig Dave Oshry from New Blood’s attitude here: “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.”

On the other hand, some of these big ‘devs give them Steam keys’ reseller sites have built up large followings, email lists, and so on. So they definitely have some value if you can get prominently featured on them. But there’s big pluses AND minuses.

How to market your game on Reddit.. subtly?

Thanks to Elisa from Broken Arms Games for passing along this excellent ‘marketing on Reddit’ guide via the GameDiscoverCo Plus Discord earlier today. As the author notes, Reddit can be a very tricky place to successfully pitch your game:

“Reddit is a double-edged sword when it comes to marketing your game. Come across as too promotional and you will be [slain] by the redditors and thrown in the abyss of downvotes. Do it right and you can get 1K+ upvotes, be applauded, and some people will perhaps check your game and be interested in it.”

The examples are taken from the creator of 3D musical platformer Billie Bust-Up, and are notable because they mix ‘how to’ videos for animation with best practices on getting lots of Twitter followers, or even furry-centric axolotol juggling CG videos. The content is interesting, and it’s not head-on yelling ‘pay attention to my game now’, which is key to authenticity. As the poster says: “Her best posts were actually the ones that were not directly promotional, but had some sort of added value.”

Of course, some people are not on board with this, like Bigosaur, who says: “Gamedev is the thing I enjoy. Doing marketing tricks just isn't. If doing Reddit marketing is a requirement to survive in gamedev, there are other non-gamedev jobs that are more fun than doing Reddit marketing and I'll do gamedev as a hobby.” Which is OK - maybe Reddit isn’t your thing. But you’d better have a darn hook-y game to make up for it!

The game discovery news round-up..

We’ll have one more paid game analysis newsletter for Plus subscribers tomorrow. But let’s finish off the week in style with some links about game discovery and platforms, pulled out of the ether and plonked unceremoniously into your lap:

  • There’s a few PlayStation things of note to platform/discovery nerds. Particularly: during the just-concluded Sony showcase - which had some quality first-party announces in it - the Uncharted 4/expansion’s PS5 remaster is also coming to PC via Steam and Epic shortly after launch, thanks to Iron Galaxy. Oh, and Sony actually acquired surprisingly large UK dev house Firesprite, which seems to be working on a couple of larger (now first-party?) games. Interesting machinations.

  • A couple of things related to GDC 2022 (yes, already!) I thought it worth pointing out: you can be an Independent Games Festival (virtual) judge if you want - and it’s a lot of fun, btw. And the GDC 2022 Summits, including Independent Games Summit talk submissions are open until October 5th, if you have interesting things you’d like to talk about.

  • There’s a podcast interview with one of the devs of Wine/Proton which touches on Steam Deck, and is somewhat interesting. Among the notes: Valve has invested a lot of time and effort into QA and work with QA companies, and there’s work ongoing to get anti-cheat frameworks working properly on Proton and therefore Steam Deck, since that’s… kinda complex.

  • In case you missed it, game industry stalwart Rami Ismail now has a bi-weekly newsletter, Levelling The Playing Field. The latest issue discusses the art of the pitch nimbly: “In the end, the purpose of a good pitch is not to sell: it is to figure out whether you can create a mutually beneficial deal, whether you can align your proposal with the goals of the people that you're talking to, and to communicate clearly what you can offer and what you would need.”

  • A great time-saving idea if you write a lot of similar emails/messages while promoting games, or in general biz talk: as Thomas Bidaux explains, Chrome extension Text Blaze allows you to “set up messages you write regularly (for example my text explaining the ways I can collaborate on a KS campaign), and automatically paste it from a determined string of characters (here I use "/ks").”

  • Those official announcements from public Polish companies keep bringing up interesting Steam stats - in this case from PlayWay for the super-crass Bum Simulator. It saw 19k copies sold (and 2k refunds) from August 26th to 29th, 10k of them from wishlists, after launching with 218,000 Steam wishlists. Not bad, given it’s still in Early Access, but also maybe not spectacular?

  • Microlinks: there’s more noise and smoke around China’s game regulators slowing approvals, as the government looks to control the sector more; a little tippy-toe into AR from Facebook with its Ray-Ban limited-AR glasses, to see how the public reacts; a macro-issue in the discovery space? What to do if the major social, discovery, and amplification platforms have reduced the value of externally-published content.

Finally, as I joked on Twitter, was rather amused at this review of the very wholesome 2D spider game Webbed goofing on the latest Chinese 'moral panic' around games. Mm, spiritual opium:

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, a new agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your premium PC or console game? You can subscribe to GameDiscoverCo Plus to get access to exclusive newsletters, eBook and a Discord, plus interactive daily rankings of every unreleased Steam game, and more besides.]