Games Codes, Area Codes and Grey Areas.

By Kieron Gillen on July 6th, 2009 at 11:22 pm.

Lizardman: the poor man's Skaven.

It’s a story I’ve been following since, in the aftermath of raising an eyebrow at the forty-quid British Direct-Download sales price of Cyanide’s Blood Bowl, a gentleman mailed me and pointed me in the direction of sites which just sell the serial code for Blood Bowl. Sites like G2Play and Online Key Store, charging fifteen euros and twenty dollars respectively. They’ve both been operating for well over a year, doing it for a variety of games, but I suspect the unusual combination of factors (price difference, smaller size of audience) has given it greater prominence. Cyanide are strongly objecting. LewieP from Savygamer has been doing the heavy lifting on this one, so it’s worth going and reading his hard work, but here’s the situation as I see it…

The sites are buying codes in cheaper territories and selling them in more expensive ones. The comment threads on RPS have often noted the difference between US, European and UK prices – 50 Dollars, 40 Quid and 50 Euros respectively for Blood Bowl – but in other countries with lower earnings, the price of games are often put lower, both in an attempt to match the available cash and as a counter-effect to piracy. So for, say, Starcraft codes for sale, they may buy a load of boxes, rip out the codes, and sell to Westerners.

Clearly, Cyanide aren’t too pleased with seeing this happening. On the forum a spokesperson has said that all keys sold by these websites will be blacklisted and become unusable. To quote a little from the (not in the responders’ native language, it must be stressed) response to LewieP:

“Concerning the serials, we are checking how the website could have the serial.

If they stolen the keys it’s illegal. Furthermore G2play is not a partner so they are not authorized to sell the game.”

Which does cut to the heart of the matter in this case. While apparently there’s boxed copies in parts of Europe, you’d presume that Focus or Cyanide would be aware if they’re selling Blood Bowl considerably cheaper in any territory. Well, you would… but businesses are many legged beasts, and I wouldn’t bet that there isn’t a standard pricing for different countries which they didn’t foresee this happening with. The other alternative would be that the companies have a key-gen for the game and are selling those… except, from my cursory research, I haven’t seen a cracked version of Blood Bowl around and they’ve been in business long enough to make me suspect they’d have be squashed if it was that openly illegal. Certainly the companies in question defend themselves. When asked about the matter on OnlineKeySupport, a spokesperson says…

“We buy keys cheap from Asian countries so they cannot be blacklisted, this is a legitimate company not some cowboy illegal operation”

So… what now? Really, the legalities are beyond me to say to certain, and cut to the heart of both what we’re actually buying when buying a modern game and the nature of the global economy. And, as such, they’re beyond me as a layperson to the law. Can you really object to someone buying a game on holiday and then playing it when they get home? Because, functionally speaking, it’s the same thing as this – just made possible by the internet. Equally, to get this code to work you need a copy of the client, which you could only get via a friend burning it for you or by torrenting the client. But is it a crime to torrent a piece of software you can’t access unless you have a purchased code? And yes, it’s taking advantage of the difference in prices… but surely if it’s okay for companies to send work offshore to maximise their profits, it’s acceptable for a consumer to do likewise? As I said earlier, I honestly don’t know. It clearly feels well into the grey area, but that could mean many things.

I have no idea which way this one will go long-term, if this sort of activity flourishes. There’s two responses, as far as I can see – one which is draconian and will alienate a lot of fans (the blacklisting – even if it’s not illegal, it’s almost certainly against the EULA) and the other which is an incredibly hard line (you have one set price worldwide which is too high for the aforementioned lower-earning territories). With Blood Bowl, if I were Cyanide and a really hard-headed businessman, I suspect I’d go for the latter. Releasing at the higher price point seems to be an attempt to maximise earnings before its real launch later in the year, where I’m sure that it’ll appear as something approaching the normal. As such, you can wait for your money from those territories until later.

Well, there’s a third response: if they know the codes are legit let it go, knowing that they are getting some money, and that banning people will only reduce the size of your community, so reducing the chance of a game’s success long term.

We’ll see how this one goes.

****

Statement of Possible Conflict of Interest: I’ve previously worked for Cyanide, translating their earlier Chaos League. I was approached to do the same on Blood Bowl, to which I expressed interest but said wouldn’t do it for the same fee. Never heard back. So I could be biased positively or negatively, depending.

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230 Comments »

  1. Leman says:

    I have one of the codes from G2Play. I’ll see what happens.

  2. Duckmeister says:

    I find it hilarious how overly serious Kieron is (potential conflict of interest? whoa!), while quoting a variety of spokespersons who have bad english. The transition between the two just makes me laugh.

    Speaking of which, why so serious Kieron?

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    Because my reputation’s about the only thing I give a toss about, obv.

    KG

  4. Feintlocke says:

    If they want my money at all they’d better hope I buy a key from G2Play because £40 for a PC game is a ripoff. I could get 2 recent games for much the same moneys (and I will, hello Anno and Demigod).

  5. SuperNashwan says:

    Issue region specific codes, servers ignore IPs from outside that area, ‘problem’ solved.

  6. Vinraith says:

    $50 for a limited number of installs with no demo. You know, with those latter two stipulations, even $20 from one of these places is too much. Drop the DRM, give me a demo, and they might get $50 from me. If they do neither, they get nothing.

  7. Kester says:

    This seems similar to the case a few years back where one of the online music sellers (CDWow I think) got told to stop selling cheap CDs they bought in the Eastern markets. It was basically the same scheme, and in that instance they were judged to have violated some kind of protectionism laws. Whether that applies over the internet I don’t know.

    I never entirely understood why it’s in the government’s interests to allow big multinationals to artificially fix prices this way: maybe someone more economically minded could explain?

  8. qrter says:

    Blacklisting the keys sounds like a stupid and nasty thing to do – besides the website they’re in conflict with, they’d also be hitting the customer, who is genuinely prepared to pay money for their game, eventhough it’s at reduced prices.

  9. Kieron Gillen says:

    SuperNashwan: So if I move house, my game doesn’t work? Or businessmen on holiday? Or are you suggesting that we have a heirarchy, so people from richer countries games work when in poorer countries but not vice versa?

    KG

  10. Dominic White says:

    I’m guessing the codes are legit – the thing is, if they ARE standard activation keys from boxed copies, there shouldn’t be anything in the code itself to identify where it’s from.

    If you have gotten an OnlineKeyStore/G2Play key, then so long as you don’t go bragging on the Cyanide forums that you’ve gotten one of these cheap keys, then there’s probably nothing anyone can do about it.

    So exercise a little caution if you have.

  11. gulag says:

    I’m starting to get the sinking feeling that this perfect storm of high price digital only release, delay on retail release, issue over “grey market” keys, and a host of still to be resolved bugs is going to land Blood Bowl in the “remembered for the stink it caused” chapter of gmaing history. That would be a real shame, because it’s a cracking game, that does exactly what it says on the tin. They just need to get the tin translated a bit better, is all.

  12. Nobody Important says:

    How would they know if your key is from a certain region?

    This is the typical Internet reaction. If a game publisher messes something up, the Internet steps in to correct it. Oftentimes this is illegal, and nonsense occurs. Example: DRM.

  13. Gl3n says:

    To be honest, it was a bit of a cheek to charge 40 pounds sterling in the first place. Throwing a hissy that people are finding a way around cyanide’s rather extortionate region pricing isn’t helping their fledgling game’s cause.

    £40 isn’t $40.

    I can’t think of many other download-only games that charged this much at release, lack of polish aside.

  14. Wirbelwind says:

    I’d say the former option is the best one.

    There’s a (good) reason why games are sold cheaper in Poland and Russia. While I disagree with price differences between US/Europe/Similar countries, there’s no use in selling the same price in the troubled areas. Might as well not sell it there. Europeans/Americans will just have to cope with the fact that they’re lucky to be living in decent standards.

  15. haliotabott says:

    In regards to the banning via IP, i have begun to use “Ultra Surf” quite a lot – it’s sort of a proxy. I don’t see why Youtube and Fileplanet betas are restricted for me, just because i live in Europe. so, i adjust.

  16. Alexander Norris says:

    I would totally be down with African CD keys not working in Europe as long as mine work if I ever make the dreadful mistake of setting foot in Africa. Colonialism 2.0! Woo!

    More seriously, the £40 digital copy stinks of shameless profiteering which, to be fair, is entirely coincidental with Games Workshop’s regular pricing policies, so I can’t say I’m particularly surprised there.

    I really don’t see why buying a CD key in a foreign country should be anything less than fully legal. I know the chaps at Number 10 think 1984 is a user manual and that Sarkozy is looking to follow suite, but I’m not exactly town with being told what I can and can’t buy while on holiday, thank you very much.

    What are they going to do next, tell us we’re not allowed to sell our games second-hand or that we can only install them when and where they say so because we don’t own the software, or something?!

  17. TotalBiscuit says:

    Cyanide is in a hole of their own digging. Had the game not been released at such a ridiculously high price and with such a poor distribution model (21 days to download? Seriously guys?), I would not have thought twice about buying it direct. As it stands, I have my copy thanks to G2Play and will take my chances. If it does get blacklisted, then so will Cyanide on my list of developers not to buy from in the future.

    For a company involved in blatant copyright infringement with Chaos League, they sure are gung-ho about riding the moral high-horse now.

  18. jalf says:

    Issue region specific codes, servers ignore IPs from outside that area, ‘problem’ solved.

    Except that
    - It’s a bit late now to do that.
    - It would alienate a lot of people who bought the game from these sites.
    - It would alienate anyone who travels with their computer (perhaps you bought the game on holiday in Asia, then returned home to Europe or America. Or vice versa, you bought the game in Europe, and want to play the game on your laptop on vacation. Should your key get blacklisted for that?)
    - IP’s can’t be reliably used to determine location. ISP’s sometimes lease IP ranges from each others, so a German user may appear to be in America based on his IP. Blacklisting legal customers because you’re paranoid doesn’t make you a lot of friends.

    Anyway, I’m with Vinraith. I’m not going to fork over anywhere in the region of €50 for a game with limited activations. Especially not if, as is my impression, they don’t tell you it is limited activations until after you bought it. If they want to game the system in this way, I don’t see why customers shouldn’t do the same.

  19. Thrawny says:

    I wouldn’t even pay £40 for a boxed copy, let alone a downloaded version.

    Also there’s no way i’m going to buy a game without first trying a demo, even if i am a warhammer nerd, they can bugger off.

  20. BritishTexan says:

    @SuperNashwan

    Region specific serial numbers? Really? I emigrated to another country four years ago (Liverpool, England -> Arlington, Texas, USA), your so-called solution would see me prevented from playing all my legitimately purchased games.

  21. caramelcarrot says:

    I wonder if these companies can be done for not paying import duty on the keys? Presumably it’s a grey area of customs law, but it makes sense from a spirit-of-the-law perspective.

  22. Wisq says:

    Aren’t exchange rates supposed to deal with this? Or are they targetting different demographics in different countries?

    I could see how a low price in China could get you as much cash as a massive price in some other nation, but is that really fair? You’re saying “it’s okay to not pay us very much for our game, if you’re Chinese“. Discrimination based on wallet size, really.

  23. jrpz says:

    The thing is, the producers are very aware that for many Warhammer nerds, £40 is worth it. Any company would try to set up a tiered pricing strategy to induce those customers to pay the higher price first. Otherwise you are just leaving money on the table.

    It makes perfect sense economically, even if it leaves a bad taste.

  24. BrokenSymmetry says:

    Kieron: “So if I move house, my game doesn’t work?”..

    Just try moving to another country together with your Xbox (or Games for Windows) Live account. You can not change you Live country of payment, you can not pay with a credit card from your new country, and your only option is to create a new Live account, losing all your games. Or what most people in that situation do, semi-legally importing Microsoft point cards from your original country, and even then, IP restrictions on certain content can block you from re-downloading games you bought in another country.

  25. Gl3n says:

    Maybe they could stop G2play etc selling codes in a similar way that Sony stopped Lik-Sang selling PSP’s. In that they could argue that their sales are damaging Cyanide’s business.

    Not that i would condone such an action obviously, but the moment they start attacking those that have, in reality bought keys legally, they’ll lose almost all goodwill towards them and gain the ire of the feared internets.

  26. luminosity says:

    @Kester I think there are two reasons. One, those big multinationals are very big contributors to politicians running for election, and they don’t want to scare the money off, and two, they pay for those dodgy/bogus-sounding surveys where their estimated value to the economy is a bajillion dollars.

    This is the reason why you’ll see studies come out saying $100bn lost to Australian software development through piracy, or the like, even though everyone knows that the industry is probably worth only maybe a tenth of that. If you can sell yourself as a potentially massive growth sector if all that needs to be done is get those nasty pirates to pay up… well, politicians like to be able to talk about economic growth and are all too willing to believe it. Never mind that even if the figures were true, that money would only come out of not being spent on other things.

  27. BritishTexan says:

    @BrokenSymmetry

    MS do the same thing with Hotmail too, I was paying for some of the extra stuff on there and wasn’t able to renew the account when it expired a few months after my arrival for much the same reasons you state. Hello, Gmail!

  28. Clovis says:

    Ack, this kind of thing is confusing. I don’t want to steal music or games, but now I have to do in depth research to make sure I’m not buying a “hot” copy? You can’t rely on information from the distributor because it is in their interest to enforce idiotic region coding rules.

    How am I supposed to know if something is legitimate? What about sites where you can buy someone’s “used” MP3s? The idea seems preposterous, but so is the idea that the first sale doctrine doesn’t apply anymore.

    The root of the problem is that the actual worth of a copy is essentially 0. It costs nothing to reproduce. Without destroying the internet it might become increasingly difficult to buy things online legally unless you stick to the major websites, ie the “authorized” sellers. Well, screw that. I don’t want to buy everything from Steam, Impulse, Amazon, and iTunes. I want more competition.

  29. Mad Doc MacRae says:

    Man, I hadn’t even heard of G2play before. Thanks, Cyanide!

  30. Serondal says:

    For those of you asking how they can tell where the CD-keys are from ?Are you serious? They keep track of all their CD-keys it’s like a credit card number. I can tell from your credit card number what country you got it in, what state if your from the US ext (If I’m the credit card company) They know exactly where those CD-keys are coming from and they can tell where you are when you activate them, they can black list them. The problem is how are they going to know which keys were sold to these sites and which keys weren’t? Are they just going to black list all those keys if they’re activated out of the regional area they were sold in?

    It isn’t just video games where this happens. DVDs that work in the US probably won’t work on a UK player. All those old arcade games stated it was illegal to play them outside the country they were made for (japan, europe, america ect) So this is nothing new.

    This is a group of people that have played to many trading videos and found a way to buy low sell high and didn’t think of the legal problems behind what they were doing. I hope they smashed out of the internets if they are indeed doing something illegal.

    It seems rather shady to me just to sell serial numbers any how. If people are buying them how are they getting the client? I could see if they already had a copy and they were buying another key so they could legally play it on two computers> but if they’re downloading the client from illegal torrent sites that seem much more illegal to me ;P

    Are these the same kinds of websites that sell MMORPG Cd-keys that they were able to loot from bargin bins and 3rd world countries?

  31. LewieP says:

    Really, the optimal solution in my mind is that if the publisher decides that this grey market is such a big deal that they want to consider blacklist legitimate serials, then they should look more closely at their supply chain.

    G2play and Online Key Store are getting these serials from somewhere, and they are getting them in bulk. One of the distributors that Focus have a contract with is responsible for selling these copies of the games to retailers who just gut the serial numbers and pass it on.

    If they are not happy with this practise, they should stop dealing with distributors who enable it, and put tighter restrictions on who they will and won’t sell their games to. They should certainly not punish their own customers who are indeed paying their wages instead of deciding to pirate their game.

    As far as I am concerned, the publishers response boils down to “We have failed to control how we supply international markets effectively, and are now going to act pissy because we want more money”, simple as that.

  32. Gl3n says:

    So by torrenting a piece of software that is in fact completely defunct without a CD-Key is breaking the law?

    What about if you’re forced to download an online game away from the official mirrors and apply a legitimate CD-key?

    Are we paying for the CD-Key, or the ‘physical’ data?

  33. Serondal says:

    So what you’re saying LewieP is that this is like going into a store and nabbing an item that has the price mislabeled and getting it for 20 or 30 dollars less than the real price? It is the stores mistake; they’re the ones that should pay for it not their customers who would only have to pay the proper price?

  34. Kieron Gillen says:

    Serondal: I have a 10 quid regionless DVD player you may want to buy.

    KG

  35. Rich_P says:

    Back in 2007, Valve deactivated The Orange Box if it was purchased from Thailand but activated in a more expensive region. Since many gamers have lots of money invested in Steam, it’s best not to piss off the people holding the keys, so to speak, which is a potential problem with any such service.

    My unprofessional opinion is that, if your leadership is actively promoting a “global economy,” it should work all ways. If megacorporations can ship jobs overseas to cut down on labor costs, why can’t the little guy buy from overseas to cut down on purchase costs?

    Cyanide can go join the college textbook publishers in bitching about Americans/Canadians/Europeans taking advantage of cheaper international goods.

  36. Serondal says:

    Sell it to Barack Obama so next time he gives a gift he can make sure it works ;P

  37. frymaster says:

    Equally, to get this code to work you need a copy of the client, which you could only get via a friend burning it for you or by torrenting the client. But is it a crime to torrent a piece of software you can’t access unless you have a purchased code?

    Yes, in the UK. (some other countries allow you to exercise your fair use rights with illegal downloads) Is it immoral? Possibly not… I think in the cases where they buy physical copies, it’s possibly dubious (because having all the physical proof of a purchase apart from the key could mean people could possibly get a new key from support

  38. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    I only get EA games through sites like this…No way I’m paying 50 euros for an EADM download (half a year expiration&zero to none chance to back the files up) with limited installs…about 20 dollars for Mercenaries 2 was a great deal. Mass Effect, on the contrary, was not as I am one of those “lucky” fellas with the General Protection Fault error…AND YES, I do like cheap CD’s from CDWOW sent straight from Hong Kong warehouses. I just like how globalization work both ways, I think they should accept it and SHUT UP already…

  39. Gap Gen says:

    Will we then see programmer farms in Asia, with smaller studios outsourcing the bulk of their coding to other countries, as they do for manufacturing? This is a response I could see to the problem of recouping costs for games sold cheaply – making the production costs cheaper.

    Another option would be to persuade governments to heavily tax foreign electronic-only sales, although I’m not sure how this would work in practice.

  40. Aphotique says:

    Isn’t this essentially a ‘used’ market? It just so happens that the product is in ‘like new condition?’ Clearly there is a difference, but personally I see no difference in a company buying the keys and selling it to people and me buying a key and selling it at a frackin’ garage sale. They can complain all they want, and they can even go so far as to utterly crush the resale market, but in the end, its their own fault.

    Bring on the tariffs and the cartels!

    This is why I buy my absinthe from Germany, and my nudity-censored video games from the rest of Europe.

  41. SuperNashwan says:

    SuperNashwan: So if I move house, my game doesn’t work? Or businessmen on holiday? Or are you suggesting that we have a heirarchy, so people from richer countries games work when in poorer countries but not vice versa?

    KG

    I’m just saying what will almost certainly happen if selling game codes takes off. Authorisation/multiplayer servers will be region locked, like dvds, only far harder to get around. It’s a much cheaper solution than pulling a Levi’s or a Sony (vs Tesco, Lik Sang, respectively).

  42. Kieron Gillen says:

    GapGen: There already are. Outsourcing is a big thing in the industry for the last few years.

    KG

  43. Serondal says:

    Gap Gen – See every Korean MMORPG ever made. You want all our games to look like that? Shame!

  44. LewieP says:

    Apparently part of the reason that there has been so few reviews for this is that they are not giving review copies out to English/USA based sites until it gets a retail release in the UK/USA in September.

  45. diziet sma says:

    OK… so they overprice the game even for a boxed copy, don’t sell boxed copies at retail in the country in which it was created. Don’t release a demo. Overprice the game via DD which is cheaper anyhow AND then ban key codes from gamers who have bought the game ‘on holiday’. Roll on keygen, screw online play. I don’t want to pirate or keygen it but I want to experience the game before I shell out 40 quid, or pay less money. At least with the latter I won’t feel ripped off should it turn out to be not my cup of tea.
    Only in computing could you not get to demo a product before purchase. Even shops let you try on clothes, or are PC games now the equivalent of lingerie?

  46. Gabanski83 says:

    I hope this is clarified soon, as I really want to buy this game and join in the league a few mates of mine have started, but for £40 Cyanide can whistle. It’s just priced too far out of the budget I’m prepared to pay these days for a brand new, standard edition PC game.

    I mean, £40 for a boxed collector’s edition, with maybe a coupleof the miniatures to paint, a few American Football inspired flags or pennants, or even a studded, scuffed up Orc team helmet or something would possibly justify the £40. But a limited install, digital download only with no extras PC game, for that much? No way Jose, not worth it in the slightest, no matter how much I love the board game.

  47. Mister Adequate says:

    The idea that there can be any sort of regional controls on a global telecommunications network is pretty laughable. As evidenced by things like this and to some degree piracy, people aren’t going to stand for it. The pressures caused by such a contradiction will cause problems like this; the natural state of the Internet is borderless and imposing borders is both bizarre and counterproductive.

  48. diziet sma says:

    Err I replace the or between pirate and keygen with a /. Excuse the ranty style but I really want to play this game. I want to give it the love it no doubt deserves so why is the developer/publisher so intent on alienated their own customer base in this way? RPS, I’ll love you forever if you can get a reasoned response from the horses mouth that explains their actions included the insane distribution channel. Is this GW doing? They are a profiteering bunch after all.

  49. LewieP says:

    To add additional context to how expensive it is. This is cheaper.

  50. Serondal says:

    It sounds like whatever they do they’re going to end up making themselves a good target for pirates (even more so than normal games) They’d be better of just repricing the DD versions of the game to fit the region based on the exchange rate.