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Exploring Valve's Revised Rules For Steam Keys

May 3, 2023
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Steam is an instrumental platform for developers and gamers alike, and Steam keys have always been an essential tool in helping developers distribute their games to players, generate more sales, and grow their fan base of gamers. The platform recently made headlines when Valve updated its Steam key guidelines, bringing new changes that seemed like they would impact developers’ sales on the platform, which – after closer inspection – appears only to impact the specificity of the guidelines and solidify a clear-cut set of rules that detail exactly when and where you can, and cannot, use Steam keys. Xsolla’s experts came together to unpack it all: the major changes Valve made in its update, what the new guidelines mean for developers and publishers, and how it might influence your direct-to-consumer sales.

The updates: What’s changed?

Valve Corporation, a renowned digital distribution platform for video games, recently updated its guidelines in late February 2023, which has generated considerable attention regarding changes to its Steam key policies. Though Steam keys will continue to be free to partners if it helps them sell the game through digital stores, Valve emphasized the importance of offering Steam customers a "fair deal" and not pricing keys significantly lower on other marketplaces. Valve is also taking a closer look at extreme examples of products on Steam that do not provide actual value as playable games. For instance, cases where a game has sold only 100 units but requests 500,000 Steam keys or has mostly negative reviews. THE MAIN IDEA: Valve’s aim here is to create a more transparent policy for sales outside of Steam to minimize gray areas in the key-acquiring process and prevent trading card farming or bot networks from impacting the overall value and service for players. Additionally, while Steam’s internal process for accepting or rejecting key requests has always remained vague, the platform seems to be getting more strict in giving out hundreds of thousands of keys for brand-new games. The shift helps maintain a quality gaming experience on Steam while ensuring fairness for developers, publishers, and players.

Key Takeaways

Although the rules and guidelines have generally remained the same overall, some tweaks and nuances are important to be aware of. 1. 5,000 Steam key standard. Valve has now established a new baseline of providing a standard 5,000 Steam keys per game, whereas they previously did not mention any specific quantity.
  • How it’s phrased in the update: “Games and applications launching on Steam may receive up to 5,000 Default Release Steam Keys to support retail activities and distribution on other stores. After that, all Steam Key requests are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. There is no guarantee that you will be provided additional keys.”
2. Restricting Steam key resellers. Valve appears to be taking a more resolute approach in addressing the issue of low-cost Steam key resellers, especially in light of companies buying out old games to sell their keys in bulk.
  • Here’s the new language: “If you request an extreme number of keys and you are not offering Steam customers a comparable deal, or if your sole business is selling Steam Keys and not offering value to Steam customers, your request may be denied and you may lose the privilege to request keys.”
3. No worse deals for Steam customers. Valve emphasizes the importance of not providing Steam customers with a worse deal, highlighting the need for consistent pricing and offers across all distribution channels, including Steam keys.
  • The phrasing remains the same, “You should use Steam Keys to sell your game on other stores in a similar way to how you sell your game on Steam.”
  • But now an additional phrase is underlined: “It is important that you don’t give Steam customers a worse deal than Steam Key purchasers.”
4. Improved Key Activation Monitoring. Valve has implemented enhanced monitoring and tracking mechanisms to detect and prevent the misuse of Steam keys, minimize fraudulent activities (like unauthorized key distribution), and maintain the integrity of the Steam platform.
  • Developers must now provide accurate and up-to-date information about key activations, including the source of each activation, within a specified timeframe.
  • The Steam operators added this phrase: “If your sole business is selling Steam Keys and not offering value to Steam customers, your request may be denied and you may lose the privilege to request keys.”
5. Public Betas using Steam keys are discouraged. State Override Steam keys, intended for small beta tests and press/influencer access, are now generally limited to 2,500 total, and directly selling Release-State Override keys is not permitted anymore. Still, they can be used as crowdfunding rewards within the 2,500 limit. For large-scale playtests, the Steam Playtest feature is recommended. 6. Updated Refund Policies. Valve has also revised its refund policies for Steam keys to simplify the refund process and provide a more consistent gaming experience. Previously, developers were responsible for processing refunds for keys sold outside of Steam, but the updated guidelines now state that Valve will handle refunds for keys sold through authorized marketplaces only.

The Impact: What do the changes mean?

It’s important to note the broader context that might have influenced Steam’s guideline rewrite: its current involvement in an antitrust lawsuit against video game developer, Wolfire. Steam keys in particular, have been a topic of discussion for this case. Since it’s rapidly advancing toward trial, it’s not a surprise Valve is adding clarity and standardization to its guidelines for its more ambiguous processes, like Steam key acquisition. Additionally, the updates are another measure taken up in Valve’s ongoing effort to combat Steam bundle spam sites in their tracks, with the recent updates including phrases like: “A request will usually be rejected if there's an imbalance that suggests the developer is not making an offer to Steam customers that is comparable to what Steam Key purchasers are offered. For instance, a game with a few hundred units of lifetime sales requesting tens of thousands of keys, or more.” How do they affect developers? So what, exactly, is the impact of Valve’s latest updates on developers? The most straightforward answer is that, though the updates mark a notable shift toward a more standardized set of rules regarding Steam keys for all game creators, the processes surrounding acquiring and selling Steam keys don’t change much.
  • More regulated guidelines for Steam keys. Valve has always had its own internal decision-making framework for whose keys get generated and whose don’t. These updates have just made it so that now there are transparent, regulated guidelines for every developer across the board. It’s even likely that the cap of 5,000 keys was always an unspoken rule now explicitly highlighted as the maximum amount available before “negotiation” – which means negotiating for more is also permitted.
  • Ensure fairness among Steam users and non-Steam users. Valve has also clarified that developers should use Steam Keys to sell their games on other stores, similarly to how they sell their games on Steam. This means that developers should not offer a worse deal to Steam customers than they would offer to customers who purchase their game through other stores. Steam designed these new policies to ensure that customers receive as good a deal as customers who purchase games through other stores. They also help to ensure that developers and publishers cannot easily abuse the Steam key system.
  • Increased monitoring for reselling. Valve is additionally monitoring and cracking down on its reselling practices; i.e., for developers, a request for an excessive number of keys may be seen as engaging in reselling or engaging in short-sighted commercial practices. The result might be a potential rejection of key generation requests or even bans for repeat offenders (except, maybe, for large-scale, established publishers like EA).
  • Continued encouragement to sell keys off Steam. Valve has also clarified that selling keys on their website or through third-party shops and retailers is permissible, which is a huge benefit for developers with their own landing pages or stores. This move is likely Steam’s attempt to curb gray market practices and limit resales.
Overall, while the changes may slightly impact some, they also serve as a means to regulate key generation and sales practices on Steam, supporting and benefiting those who do adhere to the guidelines.

Influence on direct-to-consumer sales

While Valve’s updates to Steam key guidelines may not have as big of a negative impact as initially anticipated, it’s important also to highlight the influence it might have on other methods of selling a game, like direct-to-consumer sales via developers’ branded sites and web shops. Developers’ direct-to-consumer sales might be able to take advantage of a few benefits due to the changes:
  • Encouraging developers to focus on quality over quantity. When developers have limited keys to distribute, they are more likely to focus on creating a high-quality game that will appeal to a large audience, leading to increased sales and revenue for the developer.
  • Giving developers more opportunity to use promotional tools. When developers sell their games on their own site or web shop, they have more opportunities to use different promotional tools like coupons, promo codes, discounts, and more – outside of those on Steam.
  • Building a closer relationship with gamers. Selling games directly to consumers opens a door to build a closer relationship with your fan base, leading to increased sales and revenue as well as more loyal and supportive players that will come back to purchase more.

Take advantage of Xsolla Game Sales

Though the process for requesting and acquiring Steam keys has shifted as a result of Valve’s recent updates, **[Xsolla Game Sales](https://xsolla.com/online-game-sales)** is a solution we’ve crafted to not only withstand industry shifts like these, but it also enables you to sell founder’s packs, pre-orders, and more for any platform, from Steam to your website. With Game Sales, we provide a white-label website for publishers and developers to sell game keys directly to consumers – with most of our distributed keys being Steam keys. Xsolla provides a go-to tool that can streamline everything from game key requests to game key distribution straight to your players.

How does it work?

  • Developers and publishers request keys from Steam.
  • You receive a file with the list of keys and upload this file to your Xsolla Publisher Account.
  • When a player purchases a key from your direct-to-consumer website, Xsolla distributes a Steam key to the buyer.

How to get started

1. Partner with Xsolla
Our team understands that crafting a successful revenue and launch plan takes time and effort. It’s important to find a partner well-versed in the unique challenge of video game sales who can provide expert guidance, so you can focus on your core strength: building your video games.
By teaming up with Xsolla and utilizing our suite of solutions and products, you can optimize your game monetization strategy and work with a partner that helps you unlock your game's full potential. 2. Learn more
Find out more about our Games Sales solution and create your free Publisher Account to easily set up and manage a winning strategy for your online game sales.
To learn more about how Xsolla can help you grow your game business, please visit our website or contact us today. 3. Already an Xsolla partner?
Log in to your Publisher Account or contact your Xsolla Account Manager to chat about the best game sales strategy for you.
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