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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
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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Katy Smith
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Ugh! It's unfortunate that an indie with goodwill had to go through this. What a bummer. :(

Jeff Leigh
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That is a bummer - from the video it is an interesting looking game.

I don't know if steam implements these kinds of codes, or if it is up to the developer. Would it be possible to re-run the event another time with a different sort of key generation/validation that required providing a steam ID that was hashed into the validation code? (The code only works for the person with the provided steam id, minimizing re-sale potential).

Daneel Filimonov
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Humble Bundle now does this (or they plan on doing it, from their recent announcement). I think it's up to the developer/distributor and how they utilize Steamworks.

Kai Boernert
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Yes, i can verify that humblebundle does it for their current bundle.
They require you to use the SteamAuthentification (OAuth ? Openid or something like that) and and give their website the right to add the keys directly to your account. So basically you never ever see the key, you only see the games appear.

Amir Barak
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Sucks... The nerve of some people... argh!

The Blackwell series are some of my favorites adventure games and if I didn't already owned them all I'd buy them again :D

What is the best way to do something like Wadjet Eye tried to do?
Would it be better for them to try something from their own website? were all of the keys specifically for steam?

Daneel Filimonov
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That's the problem, they _did_ use their own website to generate keys. Their key generator apparently wasn't very well secured. In fact, the way they were generated (click on button; get key) was quite easily abused, even with IP checking.

Jessica Smith
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Unfortunately, people doing this makes it difficult to have nice things.

I'd like to suggest an additional possibility - that the 'candy thieves' were actually intending to use the keys to legitimise steam accounts, rather than to resell, in preparation for the possibility that Valve does another raffle on Steam, in the vein of the problems encountered by the Humble Hundle:

Sean Sang
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Sadly there's always a portion of the population who will take advantage of any good deed. I guess you can take from this a lesson learned for the future.

Troy Walker
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reminds me of what happened the day people realized they could buy an unlimited amount of groceries for free with their food stamp cards... once the system was shutdown, people left the store shelves empty, and carts full of stuff abandon in the isles...

the truth is that we have lived for so long with a certain mind-set that "stuff has value" versus people have value then this is the type of society you end up with.

Jed Hubic
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See people only pirate games so they can try them first, and because they feel game studios try to cheat them. When a developer goes out of their way to show their appreciation to fans it goes a long way and they treat the developer with respect...


Amir Barak
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Wait, what? Are you saying that people pirate games then sell their pirated copies?

What happened with this promotion has nothing to do with the discussion about pirating games given that the promotion system here was flawed to begin with. The people that hoarded/downloaded these codes by the bucket-full weren't actually doing anything that wasn't supported by the technical aspect of the promotion, just the spirit of it.

Unless you're actually advocating that a dude who just downloaded 100 copies of your game equals 100 lost sales?

Paul Shirley
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Given there were problems with the offer even before the alleged mass downloads (Reddit has more details), there are still questions to ask about what actually happened.

example: get the IP check wrong and it can easily look like every download request from my ISP are coming from the same IP, I've been hit by the problems that can cause a couple of times and hacked around them.

We'll never know how many of these downloads were actually fraudulent.

Jed Hubic
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What I'm saying is that despite any moral high ground people try to take, sometimes people will screw you because they can. This article proves this point, I can't see how any other actual game dev would disagree. Just my opinion of course, but people being dicks is what I'm suggesting, make of it what you will.

Amir Barak
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Haha, can't disagree there, the internet definitely makes it seem like humanity's headed for the rubbish bin.

Adam Bishop
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For all of the good that Steam has done for PC gaming, this is one area where it presents more of a drawback. If you ran this kind of promotion through your own account service you wouldn't have to give out keys and rely on goodwill. Instead, you could provide a free copy of the game only to people who meet some sort of criteria (perhaps only to accounts more than 30 days old with at least one legitimate purchase on them) and then apply the free game directly to the account rather than giving a key that can be redeemed by anyone.

Of course, this would require running your own account service which you would need people to actually use in large enough numbers for the promotion to be worthwhile. But from a technical standpoint it's not an unsolvable problem where we just have to throw our hands up and say "Pirates ruin everything and we can't do much about it!"