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The truth behind those mysteriously cheap gray market game codes

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The Steam key for Gravity Ghost, the new release from Ivy Games, cost Polygon $12.44. The indie game is just a few weeks old, and currently the only place to buy it is through the Humble Bundle store or Steam itself. Or rather, those are the official places to buy it. There, the game sells for $14.99. We picked up our key on the secondary market, also referred to as the "gray market." That's how we saved close to $3 on the purchase.

Gravity Ghost isn't the only title on sale at Kinguin, or at its competitor G2A. On these and similar marketplaces you can pick up just about any game you want, including triple-A titles, often at huge discounts. Steam keys, Origin keys, gift keys and even codes from the back of pre-purchased retail game cards — these storefronts have it all.

So how does this gray market function? What are these secondary markets like? Who sells here, and who buys here? And where do these codes come from?

Ripped from the headlines

The secondary games market has been in the headlines recently because of a small scandal involving Ubisoft game codes purchased through Electronic Arts' Origin service.

The story goes like this: Just a few weeks ago Ubisoft revoked the game keys of an unknown number of Uplay members. Their action effectively removed games from user accounts, blocking them from being launched remotely.

The games were, by and large, purchased from Kinguin and G2A, two companies that maintain secondary marketplaces for game keys. The reason for that revocation Ubisoft said in a statement to IGN was that before those keys were put up for sale on the secondary market, they were sourced with stolen credit cards on Electronic Arts' Origin service.

It all began with a small scandal

That initial purchase was illegal, and the game codes were therefore deemed invalid. A lengthy forum post at Ubisoft, opened on Jan. 24 and now more than 60 pages long, is filled with aggrieved players who thought they were buying clean codes from G2A and Kinguin, but instead lost money in the transaction.

Ubisoft forum members were outraged that the company would take away games which they had, to their knowledge, successfully activated through their Uplay accounts. They were furthermore offended that Ubisoft would revoke those keys at all, regardless of whether or not they were purchased originally with stolen credit cards.

Origin Origin

In the eyes of these consumers, they bought games through a store — albeit a "gray market" store — and they deserved to play the games they had bought there.

On Feb. 2, Ubisoft waded into the discussion writing that, "after further investigation ... we are reinstating keys for consumers who already had successfully activated and started playing the games. Any remaining fraudulently obtained and resold keys have been deactivated."

In order to fully understand what happened with these Ubisoft game codes, Polygon spent the last few weeks learning more about two of the game code resellers involved, namely G2A and Kinguin.

Additionally we reached out to EA, Ubisoft and other publishers and game developers in order to better understand what impact the gray market game trade has on their bottom line.

And finally, with the help of Kinguin, we spoke with a game reseller to find out more about their business and where they get their games for sale.

Hanging out your shingle

Online, he goes by a handle designed to put some distance between his storefront and his real-world identity. We'll call him "R". In reality, he's a young entrepreneur living in Italy. Polygon's key for Gravity Ghost was one of dozens of keys he has up for sale at his page.

R told us that he makes between 1,000 and 1,500 Euros in total revenue per month on his store, or between $1,100 and $1,700. During the holidays, he says, that can rise to more than $2,200 per month. We asked if this was his full-time job, to which he responded, "Something like that." We can't really be sure if his store on Kinguin is his primary source of income.

Our seller sees monthly revenue of $1,100 to $2,200 per month

From the perspective of consumers, the sale of gray market games makes sense. Sometimes people receive games as gifts, or as promotional offers and either do not want them or do not need them. Promotions like Steam discounts and Humble Bundle sales are timed offers, and invite those with the means to make speculative purchases, investments of a sort, where game keys are farmed with the intention of selling them later for a profit.

Both G2A and Kinguin advertise themselves as marketplaces where these types of transactions can occur, and by and large they both offer a very similar service.

Customers can come and shop for digital product codes on their websites, not unlike an eBay for video games. But also like eBay, the merchandise up for sale is not being sold by these companies. G2A and Kinguin merely facilitate the transaction by moving money back and forth and offering up technical support where they are able.

kinguin

How lucrative is the gray market games industry? Just how much business Kinguin transacts each year, founder and CEO Viktor Wanli told Polygon by email, is confidential. But he added that since their founding in 2012 their community has grown to include more than 2 million registered users.

G2A's senior global public relations manager Jens Quentin told Polygon that his company, which was founded in 2010, served more than 2 million customers in 2014 across more than 5 million transactions.

Both companies told Polygon that their biggest markets were the U.S. and Europe, despite both businesses being registered in Hong Kong.

Defending the secondary market

For both G2A and Kinguin, the fallout from the fraudulent credit card transactions on EA's Origin service has been severe.

G2A told Polygon that around 2,000 customers were affected and that their customer service team has been inundated with requests for help, leading to significant delays in problem resolution, even for members of their preferred customer program called G2A Shield.

Kinguin went into substantially more detail about the effect on their business, posting on their blog that more than 4,600 customer service tickets were received in a short period of time, requiring the refund of the equivalent of $170,000 to customers. While G2A declined to comment on how many of its sellers were involved, Kinguin says that only 35 of its 3,400 merchants were involved.

In the wake of the scandal, Ubisoft has removed some titles from EA's Origin service

When reached for comment, EA's press contacts confirmed for Polygon that keys were purchased fraudulently, and that they identified the codes in question and alerted Ubisoft. Only after they were alerted, did Ubisoft make the decision to revoke keys. But they've gone a step further, going so far as to actually remove Far Cry 4, Assassin's Creed Unity and other new titles from the Origin marketplace. Ubisoft told Gamespot that they do not have any information on when those title might return to Origin.

Both EA and Ubisoft have taken the opportunity of this discovered fraud to admonish customers of the secondary market, telling them that they cannot be held responsible when purchases are made outside of their established marketplaces like Origin. But Kinguin's CEO takes issue with such a pat explanation, and points the finger squarely back at EA for the issues that he and those in his industry are dealing with right now.

The issue isn't with the secondary market, he says. It's with Origin and Ubisoft themselves.

"It seems odd to us," Wanli wrote on the Kinguin blog, "that with such big quantities [of keys] involved somebody bought these via credit card or cards from Origin without any suspicion raised during the purchase process.

"We at Kinguin do not claim ourselves technologically more advanced than Ubisoft or Origin, however we do verify big or unusual purchases [through our marketplace]. We believe [EA and Ubisoft] platforms must have access to anti-fraud ecommerce tools that should raise alarm flags in such cases."

g2a

G2A advertisers in many places that gamers look to find new games, and has a business relationship with famed game streamer PewDiePie. Source: G2A's corporate profile.

In that same post, Wanli comes down squarely on the side of the vendors like Kinguin and G2A and defends their right to trade digital goods on the secondary market.

"The 'game keys' market has passed major milestones since its early starts back in 2007," Wanli wrote. "There are several major platforms now with advanced ethics and business mechanisms. There is a major increase in recognition of these brands and their services among large audiences — counted in millions for now."

Limiting where games are sold and judging consumers based on where they buy them, Wanli says, is antagonistic and anti-consumer.

"It is natural in every economy that companies aim for supremacy and try to achieve monopoly position. ... Steam would want Steam keys to be sold only via Steam. Blizzard does not allow any sales besides Battle.net and physical boxes. ... Gamers don't accept it. And for good reasons."

Grade-A, organic, free-range games

It was Wanli himself that helped Polygon to reach R, the young Italian who sold us Gravity Ghost on Kinguin. When we contacted him via Skype, R was eager to help Polygon understand his business. We chatted at length about his relationship with Kinguin, and gaming in general, over the course of an afternoon.

But where, we asked, did his games come from? It was at that point when he invited his supplier into the conversation, a person who R says he met on Steam and who he only knows by his online handle. We'll call him "D" for short.

"Are you asking ... every person you buy something from? Even in the grocery store?"

D was immediately defensive.

"Are you asking these questions to every person you buy something from?" they said in a group instant message. "Even in the grocery store?"

I explained that I wasn't interested in outing anyone, that I promised them anonymity to the extent that they would request it. My only concern was finding out where my particular game key came from. D, who claims to be from the Netherlands, said they got the key on a trading site called Steamgifts.com, a forum where users of the Steam online marketplace gather to exchange codes and in-game items.

D said that he got the key from a trader there, a young man we'll call "C".

What had it cost D to get the code from C? It was quite a while ago, D said. "I can't recall actually. I think it was a [Team Fortress 2] key?"

Later the next day, I would find C, a 25 year-old graphic designer in Venezuela, and the story would only get more interesting.

Provenance

It is the simple fact that the Ubisoft game codes were purchased fraudulently, with stolen credit card information through EA's Origin service, that spurred Ubisoft to revoke them. But where does this leave consumers who choose to shop on marketplaces like G2A and Kinguin? How are they supposed to make educated purchasing decisions going forward?

Polygon made successful purchases from each website in the course of researching this article, and found interesting differences between how both companies inform their customers about who they're buying from.

While Kinguin makes a point of alerting customers of the account holder they're buying from at every step of the way, G2A does not.

For example, when Polygon purchased Gravity Ghost, the vendor we purchased the game from, who we're calling R, was listed as a "Kinguin recommended" reseller and had a 100 percent satisfaction rating on 325 user reviews. R's storefront featured dozens of games — 18 pages worth — ranging from indie titles to triple-A releases.

g2a_purchase

When we purchased a Steam key for Assassin's Creed Unity from G2A however there was no information offered on which individual seller was offering the code, only a flag of the country they claimed to be from. Moreover, there was no way to look up the history of that given seller or to view their entire marketplace of products on offer. Aside from the national flag of Belarus, it may as well have been a completely anonymous transaction.

Regardless, the code we purchased — for less than $30 — was accepted by Uplay as valid and allowed us to install the game.

Another difference between the two services is the amount of information required to become a merchant.

When Polygon attempted to sell codes on G2A, we were able to put an item up on the marketplace in seconds with just a small amount of personal information. Kinguin, in stark contrast, had an application process which requested information like our web address, a valid ID and an explanation of the source of our keys.

The only other major difference was the quality of the ecommerce system itself

The only other major difference between our experience with the two companies was the quality of the ecommerce system itself. In the course of shopping G2A it took us about an hour to successfully navigate the payment system, including the use of two different browsers as well as two text conversations with G2A online support. We received via email a total of three invoices, for three separate transactions, only one of which actually charged us for the game.

By contrast, the experience buying with Kinguin was smooth and relatively seamless.

Going to the source

So far we had tracked our game code from a Kinguin seller in Italy, to his source in the Netherlands and finally to seller C, a user on Steam who told us he was from Venezuela.

Where had he gotten the code? The Humble Store, where he says he received a decent discount by ordering the game just before its release.

So, in something like two weeks, that game code made it around the world and back to Polygon, the eventual buyer. C bought the game through the Humble Store at a discount, traded it to D for another game he wanted, and then D sold it, via PayPal, to R, the owner of the Kinguin storefront.

But Polygon contacted Humble Bundle, which sells books and games through its Humble Store. They say that the code we bought didn't come from their store. They'd never seen it before.

"We intend our Humble Bundle products to be used solely by the purchaser," co-founder and COO John Graham told Polygon via email. "In the case that the purchaser intends to give their content to a friend, we ask that they use our official gifting features."

Humble Deep Silver Bundle 960

Graham says that Humble is actively working to curb resellers' ability to deal their codes online.

"Because it is a sore spot for some developers, we have created a growing number of humble ways to curb reselling like rate-limiting bundle purchases," Graham said. "However, I think the best thing that could happen to curb reselling is for gamers to care where their games come from. I would hope that if gamers really want more great games to be created in the future, they would favor purchase methods that get developers paid, perhaps while also supporting charity in the Humble Bundle case."

But it's not simply just profit-taking that developers and publishers take offense to with the secondary market. There is also a real cost, in labor hours, when keys are sold outside authorized channels.

Devolver Digital, who in May of last year had a very public Twitter confrontation with G2A over game keys sold through their service, takes issue with the quality of keys found on secondary marketplaces.

"We’re a small team," Nigel Lowrie, co-founder of Devolver told Polygon. "All tech support emails go through us. So any requests about things not working still come directly to me. ... [when I first learned of G2A in May of last year it was because] a few dozen were coming in over a week saying, hey, I bought this key and it doesn’t work. We asked them where they got it from."

"We had to figure out a way to communicate to people that they should be careful"

To date, Lowrie says that Devolver has never revoked a key because of where it was sold, but he understands where Ubisoft and EA are coming from and would act similarly if he found fraud was involved in their purchase. But once keys are sold, there's not much he can do about them being resold in the wild. That's why he's gone to efforts recently to inform customers of his authorized resale partners — specifically Steam, Humble Bundle and GoG.com — with a new website.

"When it comes to what you call 'gray market' dealers, we had to figure out a way to communicate to people that they should be careful. It’s obviously popped up a lot more recently and in fact we’re putting up a page now on our website to list authorized dealers. Because it’s not fair for us to say buy from an authorized dealer when we don’t say what that is. We want to be very clear to our users, our community that these are the people that we give Steam keys to and we do have agreements with and anything outside that is buyer beware at that point."

For a few pieces of silver

Throughout our quest to find the origin of our Gravity Ghost key, Polygon reached out to its developer Erin Robinson. As it turns out, Robinson has a unique way of selling her keys. She wants her work to be sold — always — two keys at a time.

"Each copy of the game comes with an extra one," Robinson wrote Polygon in a press release announcing the launch of her game last week. "Why? I'm encouraging everyone to give that second copy to someone special in their life who doesn't play video games. My hope is that it will open the door to this amazing hobby and allow people to share that joy with their loved ones."

Robinson assumed that the code we purchased online at Kinguin was one of these free copies.

gravity ghost

Upon further investigation Robinson told us that, oddly enough, the key that Polygon purchased was one she had sent to a YouTube press contact to promote her game. She declined to name who she sent the code to, but was surprised to find that instead of playing her game or giving the code away as she had asked them to, they'd instead sold it for cash, anonymously, online.

The Steam code for Gravity Ghost has yet to be redeemed on Valve Software's marketplace. Polygon has reached out to Valve for comment.

When confronted with this information every single link in the resale chain — R, D and C — said they were sorry. D and C each said that they didn't know about the free code offer, or about how Robinson wanted to spread the love of gaming with it. Each offered to give away a code as a way of making amends, and R himself offered to refund Polygon's money for the transaction that started it all.

"My thoughts on the gray market are similar to my thoughts on piracy," Robinson wrote Polygon. "Which is that it's better for us to focus on creating good experiences for our paying customers."

Someone in the chain of resellers is lying to us

But the fact remains that someone in the chain of resellers is lying to us, so back we went to ask them to tell us the truth.

R stands by his story, and says he has the PayPal invoices to prove it. He bought the code from D, but given the current situation he says that he'll no longer be using D as a source.

D has not responded to requests to talk with Polygon since our initial conversation last week. R says that he can't reach them either.

C maintains that he didn't sell a code, per se, just a link to a code generator at the Humble Store. Therefore, he can neither confirm nor deny that the code we purchased was from him. He has since pulled down the Steamgifts.com page where he says he traded away his copy of Gravity Ghost and says that he's unable to confirm that he traded it to a user named D.

In fact, C says he's never heard of them before.

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