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Valve engineer comments on restrictions to high-volume Steam key requests

Update As a developer, next time you request Steam keys for your game, remember that Valve is checking in on whether or not you really need those keys.

Alissa McAloon, Publisher

August 17, 2017

3 Min Read

As a developer, next time you request Steam keys for your game, remember that Valve is checking in on whether or not you really need those keys.

A recent comment from Valve engineer Sean Jenkin has placed a spotlight on an internal measure that dictates whether Valve grants or denies developer requests for Steam keys. The comment also exhibits how, to some extent, Valve is paying attention to the third-party bundle and key-reselling markets.

“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,” said Jenkin in the private Steamworks developer portal.

“You’re probably asking for more keys because you’re offering cheaper options off Steam and yet we are bearing the costs," he said. "So at some point we start deciding that the value you’re bringing Steam isn’t worth the cost to us.”

He added that if there is a substantial disparity between the amount of games you've sold on Steam, and the of number keys you've requested and activated, Valve is "going to take a deeper look at your games, your sales, your costs, etc."

While Jenkin's comment is noteworthy, he doesn’t discern if this is a recent change, a longstanding but previously unspoken rule, or a specific change in Steam developer policy. Valve has reportedly been turning down large-quantity key requests prior to Jenkin's remark, so this may be an older but lesser-known tack.

It's also unclear if such a move is specifically to edge-out or combat game sales that are made outside of Steam, but it's easy to speculate.

"Some folks are speculating that Valve will be trying to cut other stores out of Steam keys entirely and I sincerely doubt that," opined Lars Doucet, a game developer who pays close attention to the business of Steam.

We’ve reached out to Valve for further comment and clarification on Jenkin's post and will update this article following a response. 

Update: A Valve representative gave the following response to Gamasutra:

"Steam keys have always been available for free to our partners to help them sell PC games at physical retail and on other digital stores. In return, we've asked that partners offer Steam customers a fair deal, similar to what they're offering on other stores. None of that is changing.

But over the last few years, new features and additions to Steam have changed the way Steam keys were being used, for instance as a means for game-shaped objects to monetize on Steam through methods other than actually selling fun games to customers. Most notably, this meant farming Steam Trading Cards. We shared a lot of info about that issue, and our response to it, here.

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. As a result, 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. 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.  

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. But it's not OK to negatively impact our customers by manipulating our store and features."

About the Author(s)

Alissa McAloon

Publisher, GameDeveloper.com

As the Publisher of Game Developer, Alissa McAloon brings a decade of experience in the video game industry and media. When not working in the world of B2B game journalism, Alissa enjoys spending her time in the worlds of immersive sandbox games or dabbling in the occasional TTRPG.

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