One of the main features of Steam that has been both a godsend and in part one of the main criticisms some users have of the store—its key system. For those unfamiliar with how it works, a Steam key is a 15 character code that can activate and assign a product to an account. A Steam key is used by developers for varying reasons: early access keys given to selected users developers want to beta test their game, early press keys given to reviewers, or the key can be for just the full game with no real catch. The latter tends to be the most popular one nowadays Steam keys can be given to other distributors to allow customers to buy a Steam game from other platforms, with sites like Humble Bundle and Fanatical (formerly Bundle Stars) being among the most popular and trusted among both developers and users.
The Steam key system, while definitely good in concept, allows developers to work with distributors outside of Steam and gives more opportunities to get their games in front of a larger crowd, does have its flaws. The main flaw that we’ll talk about here is developers’ ability to revoke customer keys. We’ll get into more specific cases of what happens when this power is in the wrong hands.
Oath of Genesis
Going back a significant amount of time to July 2017, one of the earliest cases of mass Steam keys being revoked came in the form of the now removed Steam game Oath of Genesis and its developer NoteMode Studios. One trick that some developers pulled when Steam Greenlight was still around was giving keys for votes, which was mainly the practice of telling users that if they were to upvote the game on Steam Greenlight, then they would get a free Steam key when it released. As stated, NoteMode Studios employed this tactic, promising keys in a now deleted SteamGifts discussion, which an archive exists in SidAlpha’s video. Despite the game being an asset flip of “Top-Down RPG Starter Kit,” it received the greenlight in May 2016 and saw release the same month after it had been posted to Greenlight a total of 4 times.
Seemingly, what the developer didn’t expect is that some of these keys given for votes ended up being posted to some grey market key redistribution sites, such as G2A. However, instead of him keeping track of which keys go where and cross-referencing them like some selected developers have done when faced with problems of key reselling, NoteMode Studios went ahead and revoked all of the Steam keys generated for Oath of Genesis. Ensuing backlash, as some of the affected customers were not affiliated with the redistribution of the keys, alongside alleged resultant harassment, led to the developer delisting the game from Steam himself. The game has yet to return to the Steam store since this incident.
In addition to removing his game from Steam, in further retaliation towards the Steam community, NoteMode Studios went on to delete the depot files for the game, meaning that everyone that still owned the game, whether it be a legitimate purchaser or someone that had yet to get their key revoked, could no longer download and play the game.
On July 2nd 2017, these depot files were returned to the game’s SteamDB packages after continued backlash.
This is seemingly an example of key mismanagement that could have easily been avoided if there was more care put into organizing where the keys were going, to then only revoke selected keys. Instead, the developer ended up angering legitimate customers in the process and seemingly killed his game’s future.
This isn’t an isolated issue, however. There have been repeated instances of innocent customers being interwoven into purchase revocation problems by various other developers.
Death Penalty: Beginning
Death Penalty: Beginning was a game with a similar history and fate as Oath of Genesis. Death Penalty: Beginning‘s developer VI Games LLC decided as part of a promotion for the game that they would host various giveaways. The developers hosted these giveaways through some third party sites like Simplo.gg and Golden Giveaways. These giveaways date back to March 2017, two months after the game launched on Steam. In September 2017, however, it was reported that all of the keys given to the giveaway sites had been revoked by the developer. VI Games LLC issued a statement to YouTuber Musical Anti Hero:
Death Penalty our first game. We made a lot of PR mistakes. Giveaways one of this. When we released the game, many asked to give the keys for “advertising”. We actively disseminated the keys. Once we gave 400,000 keys at a time. After some time we realized that we were deceived and sold the keys. The consequence of this error was that we received only $300. People bought in other stores, to which we had no relation. Our next game was much simpler and more successful. We did not give keys to anyone who requested it.
Essentially, the cited reason was they did not make a profit from the keys that they gave to giveaway sites after gathering together a measly $300. It’s because these sites didn’t pay VI Games a considerable amount of money that VI Games made the decision that owners of the game should suffer as a result and willingly fanned the flames of a bad situation with a now very annoyed community of people flooding the discussion forums of the game asking why their keys had been revoked and a flurry of negative reviews flooded the game from angered users.
Come September 20th, the news reached Valve and they forcibly re-added the game to users’ accounts who were affected. Valve cited that the reason for the revocation was “not fully merited.” Additionally, news came in June 2018 that VI Games LLC had for some unknown reason been forced to remove the ability to purchase Death Penalty: Beginning from Steam and is now no longer available from any official digital distributors, facing an almost mirrored fate as Oath of Genesis.
Depth of Extinction
While at the time it seemed Oath of Genesis and Death Penalty: Beginning were isolated incidents, come 2018 some attention was brought back onto the issue of developers revoking when news came out that the developers behind Depth of Extinction, HOF Studios, revoked a Steam key from a user that had posted a negative review of the game. Prior to the game’s Steam release, the game was being distributed on the website itch.io, and HOF Studios went on to distribute Steam keys for free of charge to those that had bought the game on itch.io.
The Steam user Ryan Dorkoski was one of those itch.io purchasers that received a free Steam key; however, when he tried the game out, he was thoroughly disappointed. While he praised the development team behind the game, stating it was clear the game was a “labor of love” and praising the game’s simple control scheme, he criticized the game’s lack of novelty, overly standardized gameplay, and the dialogue among other things. Five days after the negative review was posted, Ryan got a notice saying that his Depth of Extinction key had been revoked. After reaching out to the developer’s e-mail, they issued him with this reasoning as to why the game was removed from his account:
Sorry about that, but I thought I you weren’t interested in playing the game. I would have loved to get your feedback during the First Access but I didn’t see anything from you until the Steam review, which was a little confusing. I really don’t see how you saw enough of the current version of the game to make the judgement call you did there since we made massive changes in the last few months that were all just on Steam.
I can get you another key if you are interested in playing more and perhaps providing some feedback on how we can improve the game.
As Dorkoski rightly pointed out in criticism of this response, he is still rightfully entitled to a key that he had purchased as part of his purchasing of the game on itch.io and the review or his opinion shouldn’t be a reason for the key to be revoked.
Yes, I still need the key I paid for. Feedback was never a requirement for a key – only my money. Sidenote: how come you don’t complain about upvotes with < 1 hour? They played outside of Steam just like I did.
It was after this happened that HOF Studios issued a public apology to Dorkoski and admitted that they had messed up in the handling of the negative review, and they sent Dorkoski a replacement key. Despite the apology, the damage seemed to have been done to HOF Studios’ reputation in some users’ eyes, which shows that this action can have lasting implications on a developer even if there are attempts to rectify the situation.
Urban War Defense, Simple Story – Alex, Not My Day, and Typical Nightmare
Throughout 2018 there were consistent complaints arising in various community hubs for different games and developers all about their keys being revoked. This was the case for Urban War Defense by Budgie Games, Simple Story – Alex by КиКо, and Not My Day and Typical Nightmare both from Electrostalin Entertainment. I’m including these as one mainly because they each cite the same reason as to why they mass revoked keys to their products, because each of these games were included in bundles on various bundle sites varying from IndieGala, Groupees, and Otakumaker, and the sites had yet to give payment to the developers, so they revoked the keys they had given to the sites.
With regards to Urban War Defense, the developer made a statement on his news feed that there was a mistake in what keys had been revoked. The developer seemingly was attempting to revoke the keys that had been purchased “illegitimately” (more specifically purchasers from IndieGala) but had accidentally revoked keys from legitimate purchasers as well without realizing, which included purchasers of the game from a Groupees bundle. Despite the developer’s claims he was not paid by IndieGala, when IndieGala staff were questioned about this, a global moderator produced a receipt of the payment issued to Budgie Games going through from the sales of their bundle.
About a month later, it was reported that all purchasers of the game from both IndieGala and Groupees had eventually received replacement keys.
However, despite at the time there being numerous cases of showing that mass revoking Steam keys probably wasn’t a good idea for a developer if they wanted to spare their reputation from angered purchasers, the practice continued with Simple Story – Alex.
Back in mid-December 2018, users that bought the game through GoGoBundle had their keys revoked. Unlike the other instances we’ve talked about, the developer has been publicly silent about the keys getting revoked, so no clear reason has been given. We have reached out to the developers for comment but we have yet to receive any statement. The current state of what’s going on with the game seems to be that neither the developer or OtakuMaker (the owners of GoGoBundle) have acknowledged any of these complaints from customers, and it’s gotten to the stage where some selected users have had to make complaints to PayPal so that they can get fully reimbursed. It appears those users that have made complaints to PayPal have gotten all their money back because when PayPal requested to get statements from OtakuMaker, they’ve been silent with PayPal as well. And so, as is standard practice for PayPal, they have fully reimbursed the users because they didn’t get the products that were promised to them.While there are still people pending refunds or even just a response from the developer and/or OtakuMaker with regards to Simple Story – Alex, there are still more games that have mass revoked Steam keys leaving a lot of buyers angry and confused.
Electrostalin Entertainment, developers behind Not My Day and Typical Nightmare have also been mass revoking Steam keys earlier this month on January 2nd for the aforementioned titles. This time it seemed it was once again OtakuMaker purchasers that were targeted, and in a public response towards these complaints, the developer cited that OtakuMaker had not paid Electrostalin Entertainment for bundle purchases, so they revoked all the OtakuMaker keys. Despite this, users reported buying/obtaining the keys from elsewhere and still having their keys revoked.
In further comments left by the developers on Typical Nightmare‘s forums, it seems apparent that the developer’s patience with the complaints is wearing thin, telling people to “seek refunds for a low-quality product” and how they believe the customer’s judgment on them as developers is unfair and how the topic has been riddled with “bullshit.” They also reportedly went on to block users and delete comments, which has left users angrier than before.
It seems amazing, really, that Valve gives these developers so much power over their buyers that repeated instances like this can occur, with Valve only stepping in on one of these instances (Death Penalty: Beginning.) We’ve seen developers commit fraud, scam their customers, and have just acted irrationally when faced with this criticism. What some of these guys don’t understand and what seems to be angering them is that if they’re the ones to revoke the key, then naturally customers will come and complain to them since (at least with the instances citing lack of payment from third-party sites) the bundle sites hold no control of the keys once they’ve been given out.
Anything can happen to the keys, and that’s one of the reasons why the whole practice of these key distributors can be risky; all of this needs to be considered before doing business with third-party sites. Yes, the keys can turn up on G2A once they’ve been bought. Yes, if you’re willingly giving hundreds of thousands of keys away, don’t expect that to make you a profit. Yes, your buyers can dislike your game after they’ve bought it. One of the key issues that arises from each of these, namely with Oath of Genesis, Urban War Defense, and Electrostalin Entertainment, is that not tracking who you’re doing business with leads to accidentally revoking access from people that purchased the games legitimately. They would have still gotten backlash for revoking any amount of keys regardless, but the lack of organization and care put into which keys were sent where just made the situations much worse.
If it’s an issue between the developer and the distributor of the keys, I still don’t see a justifiable reason to revoking keys. As these examples have shown, it just leads to a community being against you and the conflict with the distributor still hanging in the air, rather than just facing the problem with the distributor. Revoking the keys doesn’t get the developer their money back, which is what they want; instead, they seemingly try and rile the angered community up to go complain to the distributor about it, which just isn’t really a professional way to approach matters like this. It should be taken up by both parties and both parties alone.
I feel if these instances aren’t enough evidence, what Valve needs to do is revoke the ability for developers to revoke masses upon masses of keys and put it instead on Valve’s end to review these revocations before any action is done. This can not only save a new developer because they will not make any mistakes like the developers talked of in this post, but it will be good for customers as they can then not have to go through the hassle some of these users have had, spending extra time trying to get either replacement keys or refunds.
That is just my take on everything, I’d love to hear your guys thoughts about this. Do you think some of these selected developers were justified in the revocations that they placed? Do you think a lot of this is simply an overreaction?