A 15-digit set of numbers unique to every individual SKU. No print costs, no faulty duplication – just a row of numbers that allows an individual user to access and download a game to their library. How do we value that?
The simple answer is that we should value it in the exact same way we did a cassette, a floppy disk, a cartridge or a CD: by the quality of the content it releases. We should treat a Steam key with exactly the same attention to detail and security as we treat a PS4 Blu-ray.
Valve is extremely flexible with how you can use your keys. They recognise that it is your product and understand that each user of a key ends up on their platform as their customer – even if they do not get the initial purchase value.
This has led to a plethora of great gamers sharing their experiences and promoting your titles to an ever-growing audience. But with every benefit comes a risk, and there are just as many ‘gamers’ out there who have recognised an opportunity – and they are growing just as quickly.
We receive many requests every day for keys – from the YouTuber or Twitcher with 6m followers who will review your game live for all to see, to the blatantly honest “I am very poor and cannot afford to buy your game, please can you send me a free key?”. In the middle of these lie a huge amount of curators and start-ups who promise to review or promote your title to their thousands of followers.
It is often impossible to sort those who are valid from those who just want a free key – or worse, those who will take the keys you give them and resell them on one of the many new sites set up exactly to exploit this ease
So, how do we differentiate the valid from the exploitative?
"We should treat a Steam key with exactly the same attention to detail and security as we treat a PS4 Blu-ray."
The first step is to place the same value on a product key as you would on a physical product.
Sure, you don’t have the packaging costs and postage to think of, but releasing 100 keys to one small start-up that promises to run a competition to its fanbase is the equivalent of packing up a box of 100 packaged CDs and sending them via UPS to an address in the Ukraine – with the vital difference that actually you don’t even know the address of where you are sending them, and run a pretty high chance that some of those keys will end up in the hands of people who may have been considering purchasing the game had they not been presented with a legitimate key for free.
I am not saying to not use keys for promotional circumstances, even in large numbers.
We have more than once used a large key giveaway to spark increased sales of a good game by giving it a solid userbase and creating a good review culture around the title.
When done properly, in experienced hands it can be very beneficial, but giving away keys for a poor game will very rarely save it – it will simply increase the number of disappointed end users, even if they didn’t pay
Badly-placed giveaways can be just as damaging and there are many keys sloshing around, particularly in the Russian regions, undermining the retail value of a title and causing a knock-on race to the bottom effect that can have a long-term effect on the development industry, especially for smaller independent developers.
So the recommendation is to work with a knowledgeable and established publisher or, at the very least, lean on an experienced PR agency to make sure that your keys are going to places that will benefit a game you have confidence in.
A good game will find its value whether at full price, in an occasional weekly sale or as part of a bundle.
Value your product at all times, and remember: a product key for your game is still your product – even if it’s only a 15-digit representation of it.
Darryl Still is co-founder and CEO of Kiss Ltd, an independent games label that specialises in digital games. You can find out more at www.kiss-ltd.co.uk.
Article originally published in the June 2016 issue of Develop.