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When a free game promotion went all wrong, Wadjet had to pull the plug
November 1, 2013 | By Kris Graft

November 1, 2013 | By Kris Graft
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More: Console/PC, Indie, Video



This is why we can't have nice things.

Yesterday, Wadjet Eye Games, the New York-based game developer behind great adventure games like Gemini Rue and Resonance, said it would give away free Steam download keys of the studio's spooky game Blackwell Deception, in the spirit of Halloween.

What happened next can be described as blatant abuse of a nice offer from a small independent game developer.

Within a narrow window of time overnight, opportunistic downloaders who found a badly-placed public link to a key generator for the promotional campaign took over 30,000 Steam keys for Blackwell Deception. This led Wadjet Eye's president Dave Gilbert to end the promotion early (it was supposed to go through today).

"Yeah, it's the equivalent of a candy store giving away some free candy on Halloween, and the customers go in the back room, and steal their stock," he tells us in a Skype interview.

Gilbert says he's not certain what the "candy" thieves were going to do with their ill-gotten stash, but suspects they intended to sell keys to other people or give them away.

"I know people like to give them away, and trade, and that's fine," he says. "If they want to give them to other people, or give them to themselves, that's fine. But what they were doing was downloading them by the bucket-full, and hoarding these codes to sell them later, which I didn't anticipate, sadly."

When he noticed what was going on, there was little he could do other than cancel the promotion and revoke the bulk of the downloaded codes. Gilbert says the backlash from players was almost immediate. "People really wanted to play this game on Steam," he says. "[But] it was just too much to deal with, and there was only so much effort I was willing to put into a free offer."

The offer was meant to be allow for one download of the game per IP address, and Wadjet had 50,000 keys to give away for the promotion. But people who wanted more than one code masked their IP, and perhaps used bots, Gilbert suspects, in order to obtain multiple codes. "It was a big mess," he says.

A large part of the issue was that BMT, the sales provider that Gilbert was using, had created a publicly-accessible site for the key generator. When Gilbert saw that people had found the direct link, and downloaded an initial 20,000 keys so quickly, he realized there was an exploit and cancelled the promotion, in order to keep opportunistic resellers from taking his sales.

BMT then last night took down the site that had the key generator, at Gilbert's request. Unfortunately, BMT did not take down the Steam key generator itself, and the remaining 30,000 keys were taken last night. "Yeah, [leaving the key generator up] was a mistake," he says.

While there certainly were willful perpetrators, Gilbert knows that there were likely a lot of people who just saw a link on a website, and innocently ended up with an illicit key. He says even if a couple thousand codes were obtained in such a matter, he wouldn't have even noticed, but the amount and speed of the downloads was extreme, even for a free offer, he says.

Gilbert says he now has to disable all of the 30,000 keys that were obtained after he ended the promotion, a move that he doesn't necessarily want to make, but there's no way to tell who received legitimate keys, and who didn't. He's not seeking to ban anyone who had one of those 30,000 or seek vengeance on their Steam accounts. Those copies of Blackwell Deception will just disappear from users' Steam libraries as if nothing happened at all.

What's rather unfortunate is that, as Gilbert and his wife (who makes games with Gilbert at the studio) have been busy with a new baby, Wadjet Eye's game output went from three last year to zero so far this year. The Blackwell Deception promotion was meant to help drive some catalog sales for the studio, and put the Blackwell series on peoples' radar, as Wadjet Eye continues work on a new installment in the series.

The silver lining for Gilbert over the past several hours has been an outpouring of understanding, support and sympathy from people, as well as a bit of press coverage, which helps outweigh the drawbacks of the situation. And he holds no ill will toward the innocent downloaders who just wanted to play the game, or even BMT. "I don't blame anyone but the people who were really exploiting it," he says.


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