I am a game developer, the head of Wastelands Interactive. One of the two projects we're currently working on is a 4X strategy game entitled Worlds of Magic. This all started on September 4th, when we announced that we were releasing our game on Early Access. It was quite a crazy time for the team of over 15, working long and hard on an enormous game. The decision to release it on EA was a tough one to make, but we felt that for the good of the project it would be better to remain independent. We believed is was wiser to open ourselves up to wider community rather than sign with a publisher.
So, our rather awesome Marketing Team Memeber sent out a press release. We announced that Worlds of Magic would be available on the 11th of September as an Early Access title on Steam. In the press release we encouraged journalists, editors, and youtubers to request a preview copy of the game, which we hoped would help us spread the word.
On September 5th we uploaded Steam keys for our Kickstarter backers to our website and posted an update with all the information they needed. Unfortunately, some of the generous folks that backed us over a year ago were unable to automatically redeem their keys, and I decided I would help them manually. During the next 10 days or so I sent about 1000 emails with Steam keys or with requests to confirm our previous emails. That was on top of my normal 40-80 emails a day, and an additional 50 due to the upcoming release. Needless to say, it was a hectic time.
Among all those requests from backers, I began to receive emails from youtubers. Some of them were pretty long, some rather short. Some were sent directly to me, some were sent via the contact form on our website. Some of them came from youtubers with an audience as small as 300 people and some of them from folks with more than 1 million. But they kept on flowing. We felt certain the game was going to be a success, so I was more than happy to send each one a key (or two or three).
Before the release date I had been approached by roughly 15 youtubers. We replied to all of them, sending the number of keys they requested, finding that sometimes they wanted more than one as a kind of “Thank You”.
During the release weekend we received another 10 or so key requests from various sites. The weekend was crazy and a flood of emails were being sent back and forth. Our forums exploded, and we were working like mad to fix a number of rather painful bugs. I happily answered all those youtube guys, sending them a Steam key, not even giving myself the time to look at the channels they ran, just being happy they were willing to help us spread the word around.
I expect I would have lived in ignorance for a long time if it hadn't been for one thread that appeared on the Steam forums. Some folks reported that Worlds of Magic was available for purchase for about 15$ at G2A.com. I was sure that something wasn't right as the price has been set up everywhere to be exactly the same. There might have been a buck or two of difference due to the currency exchange rate, but it was hard to imagine that someone was willing to sell the game for such a low price. I had no choice but to take a look.
I went to the store and bought a key using my credit card. Then I discovered that the key was one of those sent out to youtubers. Initially I thought that the guy had taken three keys, kept one for himself and sold two of them (the account on G2A was from Bulgaria), but after I checked it was clear that the guy had received only one key. It took me a while before I realized what is going on. You will find the explanation below.
I took a deep breath and began to thoroughly check all the emails that had been sent to me. Most of them were gmail accounts and had a single letter or number difference between the email name and the youtube channel name. Sometimes it was some popular regional mailing domain (for eastern Europe mostly). So double check it as many of people I know are really using the Gmail, so before judging please double check just to be sure.
We had to make a very difficult decision. In future, every youtuber that applied for a STEAM key would have to send us a message using their YouTube channel.
The first and second did so, as well as the third. So, I began to think that maybe I had exaggerated. Alas, that was not the case.
From about 20 additional requests, I received only two youtube channel confirmations.
So, as it turned out, roughly 70% of the keys we had given out were taken under false pretenses, or to use a more direct term, stolen. It left us asking ourselves: Were we really so blind and naive?
As it turned out, the answer was “Yes”, but we’re not alone.
The very next day I thought it might be worth looking into the scale of the scam, personally. I took one of the messages I had received from the fake youtubers and edited it a bit. It took me all of about 3 minutes. Then I created a Gmail account, which might have taken another 3 minutes. After that I launched the STEAM client and began checking out New releases and coming soon.
I sent out 46 emails, which took me about two hours in total. In reply, I got 16 keys for 15 games (worth more than 400 USD).
Allow me to underline this: I spent 3 hours sending out emails to almost 50 developers simply asking them for a Steam key, claiming that I was a youtuber with 50k subscribers. In return, I received Steam keys worth over 400 USD. This means I could have theoretically made close to 150 bucks an hour.
Imagine what I could accomplish if I were working on it 8 hours a day. Then multiply that by imagining that I sent out 10 fake emails to each developer. Just go to the auctions and see how many of your games are being traded.
The worst part is that only 7 of the devs I wrote actually spotted something wrong or asked for direct contact via the youtube message system. It may be a rather clunky and unfriendly tool, but at the same time it's the most efficient way to make sure somebody isn't ripping you off.
Of course, we have to consider if it's really a loss to give keys to people like that. After all, they wouldn’t buy the game anyway. However, in my opinion, the real story is that developers often end up giving them more than just one key. They may end up with two or three STEAM keys in a single email. And they'll keep requesting keys masquerading as different youtubers. In the end, they may sell 10 or 20 copies of your game at half price. Something like that can make your customers very angry and lead to complaints about pricing policy.
I feel that a game developer's job is as hard as any other, and I’m absolutely sure that nobody has the right to steal from us. It doesn’t matter how naive we are, we shouldn't be taken advantage of. And it really seems that the only way to prevent that is by asking youtubers to confirm their identity. Fortunately, they need to do it only once. As you release more games, you can keep in contact with each other (without bothering with confirmations).
I also found that, generally, companies with a dedicated PR person or those who make use of a PR/Marketing company/agent do much better. They keep track of who has received keys already, who should receive them, and who actually made contact through Youtube. It seems that most of these people know their jobs.
It's true that 30 companies didn’t answer me, however, I tried only once. I just wanted to see how easy it was, how much I could get just by sending out a single email.
If I had spent some more time on making my identity feel credible, or just sent more messages, I feel confident that this ratio would have been higher. However, with just one message, 25% of the developers had been robbed.
I allowed a handful of scumbags to rip us off. And, what’s worse, I did so with a smile on my face. The whole purpose of sending out all those requests for steam keys, my fellow developers, was to find out on just how large a scale we were being scammed and robbed.
What's my advice? Use Youtube's built-in message system. It may not be great, but it will do the trick. It's as simple as that.
Also, if this matters to you, please share this article with a #StealKeyRequest hashtag. This won’t hurt anyone and could help a lot of small time developers.
I did not register any of the keys I received from other developers. They all were e-mailed back already. So far, I’ve been contacted with few of the developers. It seems they felt that keys were often taken under false pretenses. I proved that his suspicions were valid.
If you would like to know if you are on my “naive” list, just email me.
I was planning to include a list of the channels those scumbags are using, but on second thoughts I felt that it might harm the real youtubers behind those channels. If you are running a YouTube channel and believe that somebody might be using your good name to steal keys, just send me a message on our YouTube channel. And ask your friends to as well. On a second thought I will try to contact all the youtubers and check did they really write to me.
Among other games we have received the STEAM keys for, are: