Valve's new stance on Steam keys: what to know?

[The GameDiscoverCo game discovery newsletter is written by ‘how people find your game’ expert & company founder Simon Carless, and is a regular look at how people discover and buy video games in the 2020s.]

So, we’re back from DICE, where we saw Snow Crash author, ‘metaverse’ word coiner (and Lamina1 co-founder) Neal Stephenson give a thought-provoking keynote poking fun at crypto while still being in the ‘metaverse x blockchain’ biz - not an easy task!

And thanks to all the GameDiscoverCo readers - old and new friends alike - who came up to compliment us on this newsletter. We’re having a lot of fun growing our team & fact-spraying you via ‘electronic mail’. Long may it continue!

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Steam keys: what exactly’s changed from Valve?


For those paying attention, you might have spotted a short Valve update a couple of days ago: “We’ve updated the Steam Key rules and guidelines to reflect our Steam Key policy more accurately. We recommend heading over to the Steamworks Documentation page to read through those guidelines, whether you’re new to Steam or a veteran developer.”

But what exactly shifted? Lots of syntax, at least! And thanks to SteamDB’s SteamWorks Documentation project, we can see an exact list of ‘before-after’ changes to the Steam keys page - red coloring is the previous, and green is the newly inserted.

This rewrite is particularly interesting since the Wolfire vs. Valve antitrust lawsuit is advancing towards trial. And the role of Steam keys - which Valve intimated they will remove entirely if the U.S. legal system disputes them - will be hotly debated there-in.

Our view? The concept of Steam keys is a generous, if platform-enhancing move. Reminder: you can get an amount of ‘free copies’ of your own game, in alphanumeric key form, that you can sell and keep Valve’s 30% cut of (or give a cut to someone else.)

And it looks like the page changes have mainly been done to get more specific with when and where you can (and can’t!) use Steam keys, with the main takeaways being:

  • There’s a new baseline of 5,000 ‘standard’ Steam keys per game: previously, no numbers were mentioned. Now: “Games and applications launching on Steam may receive up to 5,000 Default Release Steam Keys to support retail activities and distribution on other stores. After that, all Steam Key requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. There is no guarantee that you will be provided additional keys.”
  • Larger-scale ‘public Betas’ using Steam keys are being dissuaded: the State Override Steam keys are “intended for small beta tests and press/influencer access”, and are now “generally limited to 2,500 total.” Some caveats: “It is never OK to [directly] sell Release-State Override keys”, though you can use them as crowdfunding rewards up to the 2,500 limit. So: “If you’d like to run a large scale playtest… you should use the Steam Playtest feature.”
  • There’s even more emphasis on ‘no worse deal for Steam customers’: the phrasing: “You should use Steam Keys to sell your game on other stores in a similar way to how you sell your game on Steam” stays in there, but now this second phrase is underlined: “It is important that you don’t give Steam customers a worse deal than Steam Key purchasers.”
  • A subjective ‘here’s when you can ask for Steam keys’ section got deleted: there was a whole part which included the word ‘philosophically’ and tried to define: “the perceived price in the bundle/subscription should be a price you are willing to run the game at a standalone price or discount on Steam” which has just been nuked, in favor of the shorter phrase above.
  • Valve seems more determined to crack down on low-cost Steam key hawkers: there’s new language here: “If you request an extreme number of keys and you are not offering Steam customers a comparable deal, or if your sole business is selling Steam Keys and not offering value to Steam customers, your request may be denied and you may lose the privilege to request keys.” (Some small companies have been buying out old games with achievements/cards, just to sell their keys in bulk, right?)

Of course, Steam hasn’t always had a clear ‘through-line’ on accepting or rejecting key requests. But more recently, the platform has been becoming even more stringent in giving out hundreds of thousands of keys for brand new games, we reckon.

And in this new text, they lay out clearly: “When reviewing Steam Key requests, some of the things we typically look at include the level of customer interest on Steam, the total number of keys that have been issued and activated for the game and the additional number that are being requested.”

In particular, this phrase stops ‘junky’ Steam key bundle sites in their tracks: “A request will usually be rejected if there's an imbalance that suggests the developer is not making an offer to Steam customers that is comparable to what Steam Key purchasers are offered. For instance, a game with a few hundred units of lifetime sales requesting tens of thousands of keys, or more.”

Where this puts the bigger, more ‘legit’ key sites like Humble or Green Man Gaming, we’re not sure. Will Valve enforce 5,000 keys per game for the next Destiny DLC after this one? Probably not. But it sounds like it will be a negotiation with a clear starting point (‘you get 5k keys, how many more do you need?’) for all titles, going forward.

Big legal trends for video games in 2023?


You may not want to think about lawyers and government regulation. But if you operate a big video game in 2023, you’d better have somebody who thinks about it for you! And the folks at UK lawyers Wiggin did a neat article on these trends recently.

Isabel Davies from Wiggin went through a bunch of notable game biz trends from a Brit-first perspective, focusing on online safety regulation and consumer protection legislation. But we wanted to highlight two other particular trends of interest:

Do you know what your kids are playing? (Does the gov?)

Firstly, age assurance - making sure games know how old their youngest players are - alongside ‘age-appropriate design’ are super-important areas to focus on. This is because both national and regional jurisdications get involved here.

And obviously, after Epic’s mammoth $275m fine under the U.S. Childrens Online Privacy Protection Act for not gating under-13 players correctly, a lot of people are paying attention. In the UK, the Children’s Code is the major piece of legislation, something Wiggin wrote in detail about late in 2022.

Isabel adds: “The Children’s Code is heavily impacting legislation abroad, such as the highly similar California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act and New York’s proposed Child Data Privacy and Protection Act. The EU has also stated its plans for an EU code on age-appropriate design and standardising age assurance and verification in Europe as part of its ‘Digital Decade’.”

It’s still the Wild West out there, in many cases. For example, Steam as a platform requires you to be at least 13 year old, which is presumably (?) why games like Goose Goose Duck believe they can then operate with open voice chat for all.

But how do you decide where age gating appears, and who takes responsibility for that? I’m not sure - which is why I’m not a lawyer, and these other people are!

Dark patterns - still a hot (don’t press that…) button topic

The second big trend is governments getting grumpy about ‘dark patterns’, aka interface choices they consider unfair or misleading - which we covered in detail when the U.S. FTC made Epic pay $245 million in refunds around Fortnite.

If you recall, the FTC said Epic “has deployed a variety of dark patterns aimed at getting consumers of all ages to make unintended in-game purchases”, citing Fortnite’s “counterintuitive, inconsistent, and confusing button configuration” and single button presses to buy with no confirmation.

Isabel points out how widely this is starting to get looked at, across UK, European and U.S. regulators. This includes (language hers):

  • the UK Competition and Market Authority’s discussion paper covering ‘Online Choice Architecture’ which explores a number of different dark patterns and their potential harm.
  • the European Data Protection Board’s guidance on dark patterns in social media
  • the EU Commission’s guidance on dark patterns under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (which includes an example around loot boxes)
  • the US Federal Trade Commission’s announcement around increasing enforcement for use of dark patterns.

Davies adds that “the first express prohibition of dark patterns in legislation is in the EU’s upcoming Digital Services Act. Although further guidance is required to flesh this out, the definition of ‘dark patterns’ under the DSA is broad, and covers dark patterns that would otherwise fall outside of existing consumer and data protection legislation.”

As we’ve previously discussed, ‘dark patterns’ is an incredibly wide phrase that could include a number of IAP/upsell tactics. So we’ll see what ends up getting penalized, and why. And thanks to Wiggin for rounding up some of these notable trends.

The game discovery news round-up..

(Via Zach Bussey’s Twitter - his Today Off Stream newsletter rocks, btw.)


Starting out this week’s roundup - here’s a new kind of discovery chart! This is a Twitch ‘test feature’ that better graphs how streamer discovery works. (It’s only visible if you’re the streamer in question, tho.) Here’s what else we spotted, discovery-wise:

  • Did you know that Valve got way ahead of itself and has announced dates for all major and first-party ‘themed’ sales for the rest of 2023? Good job, them. For the record: “Spring Sale: March 16-23; Summer Sale: June 29 - July 13; Autumn Sale: November 21-28; Winter Sale: December 21 - January 4, 2024.” Plus June and October Next Fest dates and another 9 themed sales…
  • Sony surprised us by announcing that ‘open world sandbox adventure’ Tchia will launch in PlayStation Plus Extra & Premium, timed ‘Day 1’ with its PS4/PS5 debut next month. (Surprising because PlayStation has largely been telling devs they won’t do this, with Stray being the main exception. One-off or change in strategy?)
  • Also at DICE last week, its awards had Elden Ring and God of War Ragnarok as the main winners, and its ‘genre’ trophies meant that Dwarf Fortress grabbed the Strategy/Simulation Game of the Year, Tunic got Outstanding Achievement for an Independent Game, and Vampire Survivors was Action Game of the Year. (Woo!)
  • There won’t be many Steam Deck only games - at least not until the install base gets way higher. But look, here’s Windosill: Steam Deck Edition (out Mar. 7), which “supports both touchscreen and controller input & has been reformatted to fit the Steam Deck screen, as well as utilizing the gyroscope for a special Dynamic Gravity mode.”
  • Two TikTok things: yes, almost 15 HTML5 ‘instant games’ from Voodoo & others are being tested on TikTok in the UK, and no, the company doesn’t intend to add a ‘Games’ tab to its app, but “games are a great way for people to engage with content or with a product in a deeper way.”
  • Re: ‘metaverse platforms’, did you hear about South Korean company Naver’s Zepeto? I didn’t, but according to Wagner James Au, the Second Life x Roblox-ish mobile virtual world has 15-20 million MAUs, 1.5 million user-created items sold daily, with 60% of the users in Asia, and 15% each in Americas/Europe.
  • Nintendo Switch’s latest firmware update has been data mined to reveal newly banned words, which includes ‘ISIS’ and various real names of mass shooters (sigh), with phrases “adjusted for wider detection” including ‘chatroulette’, ‘bong’, and lots more too rude to print in this newsletter. User moderation, huh?
  • It’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, and The Verge makes the point that: “Despite the ‘World’ in Mobile World Congress, MWC Barcelona feels increasingly focused on Europe… the [U.S] mobile market continues to be an effective duopoly made up of Apple and Samsung devices.” There’s some game content there, with HTC having a big Vive VR presence, but very much from a telco angle…
  • When having microtransactions at launch with paid PC/console games, you really need to get it right. Blood Bowl 3 is the latest game having issues with that, with a large Steam thread/explanation from the developer not tamping down negative reviews. (Another way to go, as TemTem tried, is adding monetization later..)
  • We know that Nintendo sees itself differently, and this interview around Super Nintendo World’s launch has Shinya Takehashi saying “I think people view Nintendo as a gaming company… but we have always thought of ourselves as an entertainment company.” Interesting that the company is finally collab-ing more!

Finally, as part of a new Sotheby’s auction just opening for bids, the aforementioned cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson teamed with Lord Of The Rings physical effects house Weta Workshop, and the results are game-adjacent & gorgeous (and $$$!):

Simon Carless @simoncarless

[We’re GameDiscoverCo, an agency based around one simple issue: how do players find, buy and enjoy your PC or console game? We run the newsletter you’re reading, and provide consulting services for publishers, funds, and other smart game industry folks.]

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