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Valve confirms it may restrict issuing Steam keys, but only in ‘extreme examples’

Meant to prevent developers from taking advantage of Steam

Steam logo art on blue background Valve/Polygon
Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Valve has always provided Steam keys to developers for free, allowing them to sell Steam games at retail or through third-party marketplaces and bundles. The company isn’t ending that practice, but will now hold off on issuing keys if it determines that a developer is trying to exploit Steam’s systems, a Valve representative told Polygon.

“We’re trying to look more closely at extreme examples of products on Steam that don’t seem to be providing actual value as playable games — for instance, when a game has sold 100 units, has mostly negative reviews, but requests 500,000 Steam keys,” said Valve. “We’re not interested in supporting trading card farming or bot networks at the expense of being able to provide value and service for players.”’

Valve’s comments confirm a post from Steam’s private developer forum that was leaked on Reddit and Twitter yesterday:

Here’s what the post from Valve’s Sean Jenkins says:

If we are denying keys for normal size batches it’s likely because your Steam sales don’t reflect a need for as many keys as you’re distributing, and you’re probably asking for more keys because you’re offering cheaper options off Steam and yet we are bearing the costs. So at some point we start deciding that the value you’re bringing to Steam isn’t worth the cost to us.

For example, say you’ve sold a few thousand copies on Steam but have requested / activated 500K keys, then we are going to take a deeper look at your games, your sales, your costs, etc.

The new policy follows a change that Valve made earlier this year to Steam Trading Cards, a feature that the company added in 2013. Steam Trading Cards are virtual collectibles that people receive while playing certain Steam games. Customers can sell the cards on the Steam Community Market.

In a Steam Blog post in May, Valve said it had found that some crafty developers were engaging in Steam Trading Card profiteering. The practice involves releasing what Valve referred to as “fake” games, and giving away “many thousands” of keys to bots that play those titles. That unlocks trading cards, which the developer then flips for a profit on Steam.

Valve recently tackled this problem from two angles. The company now employs a “confidence metric” that determines whether a game is actually being bought and played by real humans before Steam will drop cards for the game. (Players receive cards retroactively, so they’re not missing out on anything.) Valve also replaced Steam Greenlight — the way that most of these card farming titles got onto Steam in the first place — with Steam Direct, a system that requires a $100-per-game fee for publishing on Steam.

Back in May, Valve said it didn’t want to go as far as putting limitations on issuing Steam keys, saying, “We hate to degrade tools that legitimate developers are using to make their players happy.” But it appears that Valve’s other solutions haven’t worked as well as the company had hoped, which is forcing its hand in taking this further step.

“While our changes did impact the economics of trading card farming for new products coming to Steam, there are still a lot of games and game-shaped objects using Steam keys as a way to manipulate Steam systems,” Valve told Polygon.

Valve didn’t give any details on how it will determine the “extreme examples,” but the nature of the new policy suggests that the company will investigate suspicious titles on a case-by-case basis. That would hopefully prevent legitimate developers from being affected by Steam key limitations.

The leaked post also led some people to assume or worry that Valve was implementing this change in part to prevent developers from selling Steam games on outside marketplaces such as Humble Bundle. After all, Jenkins’ comments specifically called out the practice of “offering cheaper options off Steam,” and portrayed Valve as conducting a cost-benefit analysis regarding on-platform versus off-platform sales.

Steam isn’t an open marketplace, but Valve benefits from the goodwill associated with providing free keys to developers — even though the company never sees a cut from sales of those copies, and has to bear the platform hosting and bandwidth costs associated with them. At the same time, Valve’s new policy could conceivably affect mass distribution of Steam keys for situations like large Kickstarter projects or low-cost indie game bundles.

However, Valve said that it has no intention of ending the distribution of Steam keys used for legitimate third-party sales, and that it will continue to provide free keys to developers for that purpose.

“It’s completely OK for partners to sell their games on other sites via Steam keys, and run discounts or bundles on other stores, and we’ll continue granting free keys to help partners do those things,” Valve told Polygon. “But it’s not OK to negatively impact our customers by manipulating our store and features.”

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