A story that’s going around a little bit right now centers on some stores that focus on reselling activation keys for some PC games without any of the money going back to developers. It’s basically like the used game conundrum but for PC games. There also questions of how the stores obtained the keys. This is actually a subject (or is at least related to a subject) I wanted to write a paid feature about for a while now, but it just never got off the ground. I think here I can at least talk a little bit real quick on what I discovered about second hand keys for people who still don’t know.
What I wanted to write about isn’t actually the exact same thing as the Gamasutra article linked above. The Gamasutra story is about sites like G2A which seem to get secondhand keys for all kinds of PC games, including digital-only ones. Part of the reason that’s a serious issue is a lot of those keys are likely for games made by smaller developers who might be hurt more by secondhand sales. What I wanted to write about are the sites that seem to almost exclusively focus on reselling keys for the big games from big publishers.
I think that focus is because of how I’ve heard they get the keys: by buying physical copies from low-price territories like Russia and reselling them at slightly higher prices to customers from high-price territories like North America and Australia. As a result, you see keys for brand new AAA games for $35 or even in the 20’s as opposed to the $60 you’d pay in the US or the roughly $90 you’d pay in Australia. While I myself haven’t seen definitive proof that’s actually how these stores (there are a lot of them) get the keys, the most compelling piece of evidence is how basically all the keys I see them sell are for DRM services like Steam, UPlay, and Origin. They’re also all for games that are available physically somewhere in the world.
From what I can gather there were times in the past when some of these stores were accused of acquiring the keys through less legitimate means, like using stolen credit cards. Though, I don’t know if those are just the same stories surrounding G2A and its ilk. When you go to any given one of these places, they’re filled with all kinds of legitimacy assurances like customer service policies, reviews, customer testimonials, and a bunch of emblems I haven’t really investigated. Beyond possibly violating Steam’s or Origin’s or UPlay’s terms of service, many seem relatively harmless.
The biggest issue this brings up of course are the conditions that allow this market to exist in the first place, specifically the vast price differences between territories for the same games. It’s the reason game consoles are region-locked and why digital services like Steam try to block the transference of Russian game licenses to other territories (the CD key websites usually indicate if you need a VPN to get around this on a game-to-game basis). Some publishers have even intentionally introduced measures to get around these restrictions. It’s an issue that isn’t isolated to video games. We know it happens because of the economic differences between countries, but the existence of the internet magnifies the issue. Here you have this communication channel that’s global, yet markets and stores still behave very locally. I see it as just one face of the complications that come with globalization.
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