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Games Codes, Area Codes and Grey Areas.

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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.

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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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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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