Disclaimer: This article is not one sided. It looks at both sides of the issue and lays out the truth as presented by the facts of the matter. Those looking for confirmation bias one way or the other may want to look elsewhere.
Full disclosure, I’ve purchased keys from G2A before. Hell, over the last few months I’ve easily gotten 20 to 30 games from G2A, if not more.
To put this article into perspective, I didn’t look into G2A, Kinguin and grey market key sites in general to soothe some aching moral dilemma that keeps me up at night. You could show me proof positive that every game key I’ve ever gotten from grey markets was originally stolen and I wouldn’t care. (Although I know they weren’t.) I didn’t steal it and, unlike some people who speak out against grey market sites, I don’t have the luxury of turning down $15,000 in advertising deals and still being able to live comfortably with a $5,000 PC gaming rig.
I looked into these grey market stores because I got tired of hearing ignorant, regurgitated answers whenever the topic came up. “Oh, don’t buy from G2A. All their game keys come from third world countries and anyone who buys from them is hurting the industry at large.” If that’s true then how the hell are these sites still around, let alone thriving? How do they have a partnership with other big name corporate entities like Amazon and Google, or with developers like Hi-Rez Studios and Team 17?
It’s hard to ignore their prices are too good to be true, but there had to be more to the story than what naysayers would have me believe. So I took a hard look at the issue myself and here’s what I found.
According to Webster, a grey market is “a market that legally circumvents authorized channels of distribution to sell goods at prices lower than those intended by the manufacturer.” The keyword here being “legally”.
All the people who think getting keys from G2A, Kinguin or any other grey market key resellers is illegal were proven wrong right out the gate with the first, and simplest, piece of information I unturned about grey markets in general. By definition, buying a game key from a grey market key reseller does not make you a criminal or an accessory to a crime.
Keep in mind we’re talking about legality, not morality. I’m simply defining black and white before we dive into the sea of grey. Hopefully this tidbit of obvious information opens the minds of people who have blindly accepted false information. I’ve run into quite a few people who think sites like G2A solely sell illicit goods when that’s clearly not the case.
Grey markets circumvent authorized channels of distribution by getting their products from secondhand sources. Garage sales, pawn shops and even Gamestop’s used goods are all examples of grey markets. Online examples include Ebay, Amazon and Craigslist. The goods don’t come directly come from the manufacturer, which means the distribution channel isn’t authorized, but they did come from the manufacturer at one point in time before being resold/traded.
Purchasing a product gives you full ownership of that product. It’s yours to use as you wish. This is an irrevocably understood truth that digital media has been struggling with for decades, and what grey markets exploit to offer their competitive prices.
The shadiness involved in grey markets comes from what happens between the item’s initial purchase to when it’s sold to a grey market. Everyone knows pawn shops are often used to off load stolen goods, and every year there are stories of people buying back stolen items from grey market retail locations. This is where grey markets tend to come under fire and get a bad reputation.
However, unknowingly buying stolen items isn’t a crime. In fact, by law, the thief who stole the items is required to pay you the purchase price of any stolen goods returned to their original owner due to an unlawful sale. Granted, especially in the case of online purchases, discovering and prosecuting the thief is difficult and purchasers of stolen items often wind up losing their money, but no criminal charges are pressed upon the buyer because no laws are broken. In the case of G2A and game key grey markets, your worst case scenario is potentially losing a handful of dollars.
Where do the keys come from?
This is the million dollar question that sites like G2A and Kinguin live and die by. The answer can get a little complex, so I’m going to break down the avenues and spell this out as much as I can.
As G2a delicately explains on their site, game keys don’t magically appear out of thin air. Each individual key has to be made by the developer. Each time a key is made via Steamworks – which is the majority of the time due to Steam’s monopoly-like grip on the PC gaming industry – developers can cite the intended distribution point of the keys being made. G2A is so commonly used that it’s part of the distributor drop down list.
Yes, developers can and do choose to sell keys on sites like G2A themselves.
“Why would a developer sell their game for less than it’s worth?” (Its questions like this that tell me you don’t know the first thing about economics.)
Goods and services are only worth what people are willing to pay. It’s the most basic rule of economics that’s based on sheer common sense and yet for some reason people seem to get it in their head that there’s a genie who magically decides what something’s worth.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Most companies have no idea what they’re doing when they come up with pricing. Of course they take the cost of manufacturing and production into account to figure out what their lowest possible price requirement has to be in order to break even, but outside of that it’s a crap shoot.
The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion horse armor DLC is a prime example of this fact. Polygon released an article last year where Joel Burgess, the senior level designer at Bethesda Game Studios, admitted, “Back in 2005, developers were wondering, well, what does DLC even mean? How do we make it? How do we expect to know what people even want to play or what it’s going to cost? … We didn’t even know what we should charge.”
This is where market research and price testing comes into play, two things almost all companies do before they take a product to market in order to determine its most ideal/profitable price point. In the case of Oblivion’s horse armor, Bethesda didn’t have any markets to compare to and received a ton of backlash from the community because people felt their DLC wasn’t worth its $2.50 price tag. However, their blunder allowed Bethesda to test the market and they later came out with The Shivering Isles, which was widely praised for its value (costing only $15) and is still considered one the best pieces of game DLC ever made.
Grey markets like G2A are perfect proving grounds for market research and price testing. A company can release the game at $15 on steam, provide keys to a grey market for a little less and compare the rate at which their game sells. This gives the company more statistical data by which they can fine tune their prices later.
As an added boon, the company can price test like this anonymously, preventing people who bought the game at a higher price from feeling like they were cheated.
This is also a smart way for a company to maximize profits. Just because you feel like the game is worth $15 doesn’t mean that everyone else does too. A game key doesn’t require materials to create. Selling copies of a game after its made is sheer profit.
Let’s say 1000 people think a game that’s on Steam for $15 is really only worth $10. A developer can release 1000 keys on G2A for $10 and make the extra $10,000 in revenue while still profiting from everyone who’s willing to pay $15. And, again, they can do it anonymously to avoid bad press.
Is this the case for all the keys on Kinguin and G2A? No.
Is it the case for most of them? Probably not.
The point though is that developers have probable cause to provide keys to grey markets and do, in fact, do so.
- Cheap Region Keys
Let’s continue our lesson in economics and talk about one of the most controversial places grey market keys are known to come from.
Game prices differ depending on where you live. The regional equivalent of a game that costs $20 in the US won’t necessarily cost the same as said region’s monetary exchange rate. For example, as of the time of writing, Subnautica is on sale for $11.99. The European Union price is €11.99 ($13.27), in Saudi Arabia it’s SR 33.60 ($8.96) and in Russia it’s ₽ 251 ($3.53).
The supposed point of localizing game prices is to ensure gamers don’t get screwed over by fluctuating exchange rates, but that’s a little hard to swallow when the prices don’t add up from product to product. E.g. Tom Clancy’s The Division Season Pass costs $39.99, €39.99 ($44.24), SR 169.00 ($45.07) and ₽ 2399 ($33.77). Why does a Season Pass in Saudi Arabia cost more compared to its US price while the cost of Subnautica is less? Why are the percentages not stable?
Honestly, I don’t understand localized pricing, but the point is that it exists and that people game the system by buying a key using Russian rubles and then sell it in US dollars on grey markets to turn a profit all while offering the game for less than its Steam price.
(Sidenote: Localized prices are not charitable rates by companies who are trying to make gaming affordable in poorer companies. If anything, they’re pricing their game at what they think is the highest rate the most people in that region are willing to pay. Business is business. Steam and other major corporations don’t make decisions based on any other reason than the bottom line. Don’t be naive.)
In 2014 Steam started offering region coded keys in response to this phenomenon, making it to where US users couldn’t use Russian keys to activate a game. However, region coding comes with a lot of additional issues and not all developers use region coded keys.
When you see a new $60 game being sold on a site like G2A for $35 or $40, the key probably comes from another region. Grey market key sites do label their keys if they’re region coded to keep people from buying games that won’t work due to where they live, but it is possible for people in lower economic regions like Russia to get their hands on “Global” keys at a cheap rate and flip them on the grey market.
These games are being bought and resold legally. It’s gaming the system for sure, but the developer is making money on each key through a price point they have approved via Steam or wherever else the key was originally obtained from.
The rub is that people who would normally have to pay $60 are getting the game for $40 and some developers are crying over potential lost revenue. But you can’t prove that someone who bought something for $40 would’ve bought that same item for $60 if the cheaper option wasn’t available. Like I stated earlier, worth is determined by what someone is willing to pay.
I understand where the companies are coming from. If everyone decided to start buying their games from the cheapest region possible, there’d be a problem, but we’re talking about a small minority of gamers who are gaming the system – people who were so dead set against paying $60 that they took the time to find the game for $40.
In the end, the developer is getting paid, one person is getting the game (because keys are one use items and then they’re gone), and nothing illegal is transpiring.
- Past Sale/Bundle Keys
Let’s say Steam has a super amazing flash sale where for one hour they sell Dark Souls 3 for $5. Some enterprising souls (get it?) will buy hundreds of copies of the game and resell those copies for $10+ on grey markets when the sale is over, undercutting the game when it reverts back to its retail price of $59.99. Sites like G2A and Kinguin are full of keys that were obtained this way.
This is where a lot of the games I’ve gotten from G2A come from. I know without a shadow of a doubt my keys came from Humble Bundle by way of Humble Monthly. In my article “Humble Monthly Gets Better” I talked about how the influx of Humble Monthly keys in grey market sites plummet the prices and how I was able to get the games I wanted for one or two dollars. The situation has only progressively gotten worse (or better depending on your stance) since I wrote that article months ago.
Is this gaming the system? Yes, but the keys were still obtained legally and I’ve never had a single key revoked.
Brick-and-mortar businesses have been employing this method to turn profits for centuries. It’s literally economics 101 in action. Buy low, sell high. There is nothing shady or illegal about it. It’s one of the cornerstones of capitalism.
- Press and Promotional Keys
Last year Polygon published a lengthy article where they tracked down a Gravity Ghost key they purchased on G2A and found out it was originally sent to a YouTube press contact who was meant to promote the game. This was rather astonishing considering Erin Robinson, the developer of Gravity Ghost, actually hands out an extra key for each purchase of the game – many of which undoubtedly found their way onto the grey market too.
Yep, those YouTube and Twitch personalities you adore and empower aren’t always the upstanding centers of morality you think they are. Personally, I think selling the review code copy of a game is underhanded and unethical. But it’s not illegal.
This is where things start to get a bit sticky. A developer could make the case that these keys are illegitimate because they were never paid for in the first place, but they’re not exactly stolen goods either.
Should you not be able to resell a Christmas gift on Ebay? Sure it’s not the nicest or most ethical thing to do, but the gift legally belongs to you.
- Stolen/Illegitimately Purchased Keys
In 2015, hundreds of copies of Far Cry 4 were revoked because they were illegitimately purchased with stolen credit cards. Many of the keys were resold on G2A and Kinguin, which lead to a lot of ignorant articles and posts claiming “Ubisoft is banning CD Keys bought off websites like G2A.com” because “it seems like Ubisoft is mad that people prefer to buy games from them.”
It’s impossible/impractical for grey markets to check where each and every item comes from, which is partially why sites like G2A offer money-back guarantees/warranties on purchases. For a couple extra dollars you can get a G2A Shield on each purchase you make, which serves as a warranty in case your game is revoked. Should the worst happen, G2A will either provide you with another key or give you your money back.
What’s another $2 when you’re saving $10 or $20? In the case of the Far Cry 4 keys, G2A even went out of their way to confirm and refund purchases that didn’t include their warranty.
There are stolen keys sitting on G2A and Kinguin right now, but not nearly as many as naysayers would have you believe. The fact of the matter is that these companies are not the shady thieves guilds other people and companies have lead you to believe. They aren’t purposefully selling stolen keys, it’s just a hazard of doing business. That’s not an opinion, it’s supported fact backed by the system itself.
The Irony of Devolver Digital’s Tweet
Plenty of people against sites like G2A love to point out this 2014 tweet by Devolver Digital where the company said “Devolver Digital games purchased on @G2A_com are not legitimate, not guaranteed, and not supported. We are actively canceling those keys.”
The thing is, Devolver Digital never revoked any keys. In the Gravity Ghost G2A purchase article by Polygon, Nigel Lowrie, the co-founder of Devolver, said his company “has never revoked a key because of where it was sold.” And that article took place almost a full year after their tweet.
It Ultimately Comes Down to Charity
With everything we’ve discussed, whether or not you decide to purchase games from grey market sites ultimately comes down to a question of charity. Do you choose to pay the developer the most you can or take advantage of the cheaper price that someone else paid?
In my opinion, it doesn’t even come down to a question of morality because these companies are not maliciously selling stolen goods and they’re not massively inundated with stolen products like other people would have you believe. If your stance is to shun G2A and grey market key sellers because they facilitate fraud and the resale of stolen goods then I’m going to assume you’ve also never bought or sold anything with Ebay, Amazon or Gamestop because they’re all just as guilty of the same facilitation.
Frankly, some people can’t afford to buy every game under the sun at full price, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to condemn people who use grey market sites to make gaming a more affordable hobby. Grey markets aren’t hurting developers, indie or otherwise. They’re just taking advantage of basic market economics.
This is my current conclusion on the subject based on the facts I’ve discovered and laid out for you. I could change my mind if new information comes to light, but this is where I’m at on the subject after looking into it myself. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will vehemently disagree with me because this is the internet after all and I’m challenging predisposed ideas and opinions, but hopefully many of you will find this helpful in some way, shape or form.
Until next time, take it easy and keep on buying your games through whatever method you prefer.