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The Great Escape of 30,000 Steam Keys

How an attempt to give away free copies of Wadjet Eye's Blackwell Deception went haywire, and tens of thousands of keys disappeared into the night.

There was always one house in the neighborhood that left a whole bucket of candy on the front doorstep. “Please take one,” a note would usually read. But no one did. You always took way more.

When Wadjet Eye Games designer Dave Gilbert decided to give away copies of Blackwell Deception, just one of his company’s highly celebrated point ‘n click adventure games, he didn’t expect it would spiral out of control. He didn’t expect resellers would run away with 30,000 keys.

2013 has been a slow year for Wadjet Eye Games. Gilbert and his wife had a child, and that’s chilled progress on the company’s next game, Blackwell Epiphany. Gilbert hoped to spark some attention for the next game by giving away free copies of Blackwell Deception on Halloween, as begins the PR machine for its next game, set for early 2014.

“It seemed like a fairly simple, straightforward thing to do!” he said.

That would not be the case, and Gilbert would spend the next 36 hours trying to grapple with the unexpected twists and turns that came his way.

At first, Gilbert was offering Blackwell Deception on the Wadjet Eye Games web store. Users entered a code, the price would adjust to zero, and players would gain access to a DRM-free copy of the game to play on their desktop. Every one of those came with a Steam key to redeem, as well. But, somehow, users were able to acquire multiple copies at once, amassing an army of Steam keys to resell. We’re not just talking about three or four keys, either. Some users were able to grab hundreds.

Gilbert was quickly pointed towards websites that were bragging about their ability to sell cheap Steam keys for Blackwell Deception. His response was to nix Steam keys from the equation, which still meant he was offering players a free copy of Blackwell Deception. That didn’t go over very well.

“The backlash was immediate,” he said. “People really wanted to play this game in their Steam client, even though it was a freebie. They didn’t like the non-DRM version, which they could play on their desktop. They wanted it on Steam. I was getting a lot of angry emails about this, even though it was free! So I thought ‘okay, maybe there’s something I can do.’”

Rather than dropping the whole plan entirely, Gilbert spoke with BIT Micro, the payment processing company he regularly works with. BMT had the ability to set up a page where free copies of the game, now again with bundled Steam keys, would be distributed on a per IP basis--one game per IP.

You can probably guess what happens next: this was exploited, too. Through IP masking and other exploits, some users were running away with hundreds of keys at a time. Gilbert was tired.

“At that point, I had been up all night the night before dealing with all this crap, and it was getting late in the day,” he said. “I was absolutely exhausted. [laughs] That was as far as I was willing to go for a freebie, so I asked BMT, I said ‘you know what, just cancel everything, revert it, just stop the whole thing.’ And they did. And I went to bed. I thought that was the end of it.”

When Gilbert went to sleep, he was sitting on 30,000 keys. In the morning, they were all gone.

It turns out BMT had removed the link to the key generator, but it hadn’t taken down the page with the generator on it. Some people figured this out, the link was quickly passed around, and as Gilbert tried to recover from the previous day’s madness, yet another problem was brewing.

“So I was, obviously, upset about this, and freaking out,” he said. “ [...] When you have people taking advantage of a free offer like this, and just digging in with both hands and taking as many keys as they can to sell later, that is stealing. That goes beyond piracy. That is stealing.”

Naturally, Gilbert felt bad for the folks who’d nabbed a code in the middle of the night, unaware the offer was supposed to be expired. Since the exploiters were using IP masking to cover their tracks, there was no way to easily determine which illegitimate keys to turn off. All overnight keys were killed.

One of this giveaway’s biggest problems, the reselling of Steam codes, comes at an interesting time. Humble Bundle, the beloved gaming bundling service, has struggled with this. Humble Bundle’s “Terms of Service” have always stated you’re not supposed to share or sell your extra Humble Bundle codes, but people did that anyway. It was overlooked. Humble Bundle did not track people down, and it was common to see people giving away their spares on Twitter. Since others resell them, about a year ago, Humble Bundle made it a $1 minimum to get Steam keys.

More recently, Humble Bundle introduced a new authentication system to make redeeming Steam keys even easier. The catch? If you already owned one of the games, it wouldn’t generate an extra code. Some users were upset, given that they were used to having the ability to share extra codes.

Humble Bundle said it was listening, though no changes have been announced.

“We'd like to apologize to all customers who are unhappy about the new Steam key OAuth redemption process,” said the company on Twitter. “We are listening to feedback.”

The selling, sharing, and gathering of Steam codes is not new, though it’s often overlooked. If you know someone who’s shared a Steam code over Twitter, chances are the person who acquired it wasn’t the person they intended. It’s easy for bots to crawl Twitter and other services for Steam codes. Gilbert learned this early on. When Wadjet Eye Games finally had its releases on Steam, he started pasting codes on Twitter to celebrate. They were quickly eaten up by bots.

“It’s so hard to believe that there’s such a market in that stuff, but there is,” he said.

The experience hasn’t been completely negative for Gilbert and Wadjet Eye Games, though. You’re reading an article about his company right now, and he’s seen a huge outpour of support.

"When you have people taking advantage of a free offer like this, and just digging in with both hands and taking as many keys as they can to sell later, that is stealing. That goes beyond piracy."

“I can’t imagine doing another free giveaway anytime soon” he said. “[laughs] I’m glad I did it. I feel like the CEO of Coca-Cola after New Coke, where it suddenly became more popular than ever, and he was being interviewed all the time. It was like “‘is this a publicity stunt?” And he said ‘I’m not that dumb or that stupid.’ I feel that way now.”

For now, Gilbert goes back to the grind. Besides an office assistant, Wadjet Eye Games is only two people, himself and his wife, Janet. These adventure games aren’t going to write, draw, and program themselves.

But players shouldn’t expect another game giveaway anytime soon.

“I feel bad for the people who just clicked on the link innocently, and now they don’t have their game anymore,” he said. “A few apples really spoiled the bunch, to use a trite phrase. [laughs] I don’t know what else to do. It was a freebie, and I had been up for 36 hours working on this, and there was only so much I was willing to do for a freebie. I just couldn’t do anymore. I’m one guy. I just can’t do it again.”

Patrick Klepek on Google+
166 Comments
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Posted by Spitznock

Yup. People on the internet are still insufferable.
A good number of them, at any rate.

Posted by themangalist

I'm still reading this, nice work patrick, but I don't get this:

Gilbert was quickly pointed him towards websites...

A mistake?

Edited by Atwa

I find it pretty off putting that people are actually complaining that they can't give away humble keys anymore.

You get a bunch of games for almost nothing already. How can you complain?

Posted by falling_fast

huh. I guess it doesn't matter to these resellers what game they're getting codes for. I wouldn't think illegally reselling keys for some obscure adventure game would be worth it, but it must be.

Edited by Itwongo

MAN that blows

Posted by patrickklepek

I'm still reading this, nice work patrick, but I don't get this:

Gilbert was quickly pointed him towards websites...

A mistake?

Mah bad.

Staff
Edited by keklolbur

Dat greed...

Never understood why some people absolutely have to have something on Steam. I mean, I like Steam alot and it has done alot of good things with all the digital stuff and so on but the rage that sometimes come if something isnt on Steam is abit scary.

Posted by SLowrAM

Amazing a programmer that can develop games can't figure out a quick solution to that.

Posted by mikjukuu

What's the video player for? It looks bugged and doesn't work.

Posted by Salarn

Great interview @patrickklepek it really is disheartening to see nice things being damaged by this kind of abuse.

Edited by BigDaveisCheap

Leave it to the unwashed masses lingering in the underbelly of the internet to ruin it for the honest amongst us. Actually, the sad truth is that honest people on the internet are an increasingly endangered species.

I own almost all of Dave Gilbert's games and I actually bought Blackwell Deception again and gifted it to a friend who's key got shutdown just to help spread the word about Blackwell.

Posted by TreeTrunk

I agree with the new humble bundle Authentication System, there should be a catch for paying next-to-nothing for games.

Posted by falling_fast

Dat greed...

Never understood why some people absolutely have to have something on Steam. I mean, I like Steam alot and it has done alot of good things with all the digital stuff and so on but the rage that sometimes come if something isnt on Steam is abit scary.

I can understand it, sort of. it's awesome having all your digital games in one place, and being able to redownload and replay them basically whenever. Steam and Valve aren't going anywhere any time soon, after all.

that's not to say that I'm one of those people who rage about games not getting on steam (I've paid for a bunch of games on gog.com and matrixgames myself), but I can kind of see their point.

Posted by Salarn
@slowram said:

Amazing a programmer that can develop games can't figure out a quick solution to that.

A solution to jerks and thieves? Not sure that's a programming problem. He was giving a promotional gift of his work and people abused it. There may have been better ways to do it that would have taken more time and effort to setup and coordinate, but it's hardly the programmer's fault that people took advantage of someone's generosity.

Posted by gerrid

Since you can add non-Steam games into your Steam list, why were people so desperate to have steam codes?

Similarly if you already own a game in a humble bundle, you will get a DRM free download of it, which you could easily gift to your friends.

Edited by Ramone

That sucks because I really like the stuff that Wadjet Eye does. Gemini Rue was one of my favourite games of 2011 and Resonance was pretty fantastic as well.

Fuck people. Why do people have to be such fucking dicks?

Posted by Humanity

The PC Master Race at it again.

Posted by Darson

What a bunch of colossal dicks.

Posted by Lanechanger

It sounds like BMT doesn't know how the internet works...

"BMT had the ability to set up a page where free copies of the game, now again with bundled Steam keys, would be distributed on a per IP basis--one game per IP."

"It turns out BMT had removed the link to the key generator, but it hadn’t taken down the page with the generator on it"

Edited by Hameyadea

Moral of the story: always barricade giveaways behind a payment wall. Even if $1, it will be enough to screen the freeloaders from the genuine supporters. Hope his project will be okay from this ordeal

Posted by andymacsa4

Interesting article, Patrick. I, too, am disappointed in the Humble Bundle change. During the Extra-Life live stream there were many users (myself included) passing out steam keys to Humble Bundle games we already owned. The ability to start impromptu giveaways like this often convinces me to purchase a bundle that I'm not particularly interested in, and save the keys for moments like the Extra-Life stream, or Unprofessional Fridays. Now HB has made it so these giveaways are impossible, and that is rather disappointing.

Posted by Rahr012

@humanity said:

The PC Master Race at it again.

Yeah, they pride themselves as the "master-race"

on consoles this could never happen

Edited by falling_fast

@rahr012 said:

@humanity said:

The PC Master Race at it again.

Yeah, they pride themselves as the "master-race"

on consoles this could never happen

well yeah, because on consoles they almost never give away games for free, but overcharge for them instead, and have a lot more security in place.

Posted by mitchell486

I feel really bad for him. In this scenario, he was trying to do right by the people. He was trying to give them things that they may want or want to try and basically got abused for it. That's completely understandable if he NEVER wants to try anything like that again. But hopefully that is not the case and he will not give up on the entire internet. I hope he will try to help the good people out there again by trying to possibly changing his tactics...

If he reads this, which I doubt but I want to offer it anyway, could you possibly do an email based system instead of a key generator style? It might take a little more prep work on the back end but, if you have a set list of keys that you have created previously instead of having them created at the time of "pull down". Then when an email address is authorized and verified as real, one of the codes is filtered from a list and fed to that email as a reply. Each code that is pulled would be either simply removed from the list or denoted as "taken" by the program that he would have to create. Then, when those run out, the (hopefully smaller) group that gets them this time will be limited to that and it will be via email only. The one other thing that might help in this scenario, is if it were to have a grace period for the free code to be returned via email reply. Even if it were just a timer, it might stop bots from being able to pull the keys/data since they work on efficiency/time and hopefully might not waste resources for that many steps. (PS - I am just spit-balling here to try and offer an outside perspective. Just trying to be a nice guy.)

I'm not a programmer but I do understand most it (trying to learn on my free time, ha). I know it would take a bit more work this way for less people to be reached, but hopefully it would weed out the bad seeds that ruin it for everyone else. In all honesty though... If he never wanted to do anything nice for a free group of people on the internet ever again, I wouldn't blame him. In fact, I would support that decision and simply donate rather than have a free handout, since the "bad seeds" ruined a nice gesture the first time.

I wish him the best of luck, and I'm sorry to hear that this happened to him. I supposed all he can really try to do is believe in what he does, do his best work, and be honest to the audience he's trying to reach. This story seems like a really good chance at all of those. Hopefully, he will be rewarded for his efforts eventually.

Posted by chiablo

@rahr012 said:

@humanity said:

The PC Master Race at it again.

Yeah, they pride themselves as the "master-race"

on consoles this could never happen

Because Microsoft would never allow a free game to be released on their platform, let alone an indie title. Why give away what you can charge for?

Edited by Humanity

@chiablo said:

@rahr012 said:

@humanity said:

The PC Master Race at it again.

Yeah, they pride themselves as the "master-race"

on consoles this could never happen

Because Microsoft would never allow a free game to be released on their platform, let alone an indie title. Why give away what you can charge for?

I just wanted to try out 1,000 versions before I bought it man. Try before you buy you nazis.

Posted by Ghost_Cat

And to have the nerve to bitch about free stuff after stealing hundreds of free codes/games from a husband-and-wife developer team? People are really scummy.

Posted by HappyCheeze

Thats just sad. The game is only 10 bucks too, I guess some people will suck out as much as they possible can to not pay for something, and even worse resell it themselves.

Edited by Isomac

@rahr012 said:

@humanity said:

The PC Master Race at it again.

Yeah, they pride themselves as the "master-race"

on consoles this could never happen

What about those MS points people seem to hoard? This kind of behavior happens everywhere.

Nice article Patrick, I always love reading these.

Edited by bybeach

Wow, what a suck-ass story about ppl.. I mean that, and for whatever could or could not be done, I have sympathy for the developer, a pox on the evil ones and something in between for the cry babies.. I need to go save a cat or something to make myself feel better. I wonder if one of my own is up to being stuck in a tree over a pit of fire for just a little while.

I'm a pc gamer and normally proud of it. This is a people issue, not a platform. Though initially it does make you think of piracy etc.

Posted by UltimAXE

As dumb/gross as this sounds, remember that people were (are?) stealing the Humble Bundle when it first started. Nevermind that it's partially for charity; you could pay literally anything for it. Like, you can't even be bothered to pay a cent?

Posted by Humanity
@isomac said:

@rahr012 said:

@humanity said:

The PC Master Race at it again.

Yeah, they pride themselves as the "master-race"

on consoles this could never happen

What about those MS points people seem to hoard? This kind of behavior happens everywhere.

You mean the points they bought with their money?

Posted by VargasPrime

@gerrid said:

Since you can add non-Steam games into your Steam list, why were people so desperate to have steam codes?

Similarly if you already own a game in a humble bundle, you will get a DRM free download of it, which you could easily gift to your friends.

This, exactly, is what I don't get about these people. I absolutely hope that the Humble crew move forward with that authorization step to nix Steam keys on games you already own. There's no reason! You're getting a DRM-free download of the game (and free updates whenever they're issued), and you can link non-Steam games to your Steam library, so people who are going to get angry over this are literally getting mad about nothing.

You want to share or gift to your friends? Just give them a copy of your DRM-free installer. It's a little more work, but if generosity is your driving motivator, I'm sure you can manage.

Edited by Sphinx

Those are fun games, people should play them...I would suggest however buying them on Steam or GOG legit...poor bastard, I hope it means an increase in sales with the next one though!

Edit: Also for those of you who think "it wouldn't happen on consoles" remember that whole Fifa Ultimate Team incident? It's slightly different because they were hacking accounts to buy them but still, there is value to digital things people.

Edited by Isomac
@humanity said:
@isomac said:

@rahr012 said:

@humanity said:

The PC Master Race at it again.

Yeah, they pride themselves as the "master-race"

on consoles this could never happen

What about those MS points people seem to hoard? This kind of behavior happens everywhere.

You mean the points they bought with their money?

I mean those promotion things that gave away free points. Then people found ways to get more than they should have. I guess it's not the same issue as this since they can't sell those points. Still always when you give away something these people will appear and ruin things for everyone.

Edited by Mustachio

@atwa said:

I find it pretty off putting that people are actually complaining that they can't give away humble keys anymore.

You get a bunch of games for almost nothing already. How can you complain?

One of the main reasons I used Humble Bundle was to give games to people who I knew were too busy to go through the process themselves. I have a friend who works night shifts at a hospital for days on end, so sometimes he simply never has the opportunity to even find out a Humble Bundle is on. With the keys system I was able to buy a second bundle and simply send the keys via Steam/Facebook chat and we'd be able to play together when he was next available. This new system completely snuffs that out, if I understand it correctly.

Posted by Phantomjak

I find this a classic example of someone trying to do a nice thing and other people ruining the spirit of it. While much of this is not illegal, it does seem a fairly crap thing to do to someone.

Thank you for writing this and bringing it to our attention. I feel that if there was a way that people could see behind the curtain it would be an amazing thing. I know Indie Game the Movie was an amazing opportunity to watch the people that make the games I enjoy and realize the pains that they went through to bring me joy.

Another great example of peeking behind the curtain is what Double Fine is doing for Massive Chalice. I have enjoyed watching the progress from vague idea to semi-functional test and the decisions that had to be made to get it that far.

I bring all that up because knowing that this fiasco was targeting a company that is a husband and wife team makes it all the more depressing. The online distribution model was supposed to help the small companies, so I was lead to believe, but in this case the loop holes have only caused the people who made the game and the people who want to play the game more trouble and pain.

Posted by KevinK

Hey Patrick, I always took one treat from those unattended Halloween candy bowls. Most of the time they were already empty. I was the boring honest kid. Now I'm the boring honest adult.

Posted by officer_falcon

@mustachio: Except that they've implemented a gifting system for that use case already.

Edited by VargasPrime

@mustachio said:

@atwa said:

I find it pretty off putting that people are actually complaining that they can't give away humble keys anymore.

You get a bunch of games for almost nothing already. How can you complain?

One of the main reasons I used Humble Bundle was to give games to people who I knew were too busy to go through the process themselves. I have a friend who works night shifts at a hospital for days on end, so sometimes he simply never has the opportunity to even find out a Humble Bundle is on. With the keys system I was able to buy a second bundle and simply send the keys via Steam/Facebook chat and we'd be able to play together when he was next available. This new system completely snuffs that out, if I understand it correctly.

Come on man... it takes about 3 minutes to create a Humble account, link it to a credit card or Google Wallet or something, and the Bundles last for 1-2 weeks each. Believe me, I understand the gifting aspect, I've done it myself, but it's easily exploitable and obviously people have no problems taking advantage.

And no, it doesn't snuff out the possibility of gifting. You still get a completely DRM-free version of each Humble game, so if you want to gift it to a friend, you can still find a way to send them a copy of the game (for the smaller stuff). OR, when you buy the bundle, you can select the "gift" option and send the entire bundle to a friend. The only difference is that you have to buy a second bundle and it's not through Steam.

Posted by Mustachio

@vargasprime: How does that effect bundles that don't have a no DRM option, though?

Edited by louiedog

@mustachio said:

@atwa said:

I find it pretty off putting that people are actually complaining that they can't give away humble keys anymore.

You get a bunch of games for almost nothing already. How can you complain?

One of the main reasons I used Humble Bundle was to give games to people who I knew were too busy to go through the process themselves. I have a friend who works night shifts at a hospital for days on end, so sometimes he simply never has the opportunity to even find out a Humble Bundle is on. With the keys system I was able to buy a second bundle and simply send the keys via Steam/Facebook chat and we'd be able to play together when he was next available. This new system completely snuffs that out, if I understand it correctly.

Who can't find 2 minutes during the 2 weeks that a bundle is going on, or one week for the weekly deals, to buy it, but will then have time to play the games? That's the most ridiculous thing I've read on the internet in awhile. And if that's actually the case, you can still gift bundles. You just can't buy a bundle and strip the keys out.

Posted by apoloimagod

Internet people are garbage.

Edited by Phatmac

Don't underestimate the effort people will go through in order to get more then they need. Hopefully he's learned a lesson about this. Sucks man.

Posted by bobafettjm

@mustachio:

You can always purchase another as a gift on HumbleBundle and have it sent to their e-mail address and they get all the games.

Posted by Hockeymask27

Again dicks ruin it for everyone.

Posted by RecSpec

I don't blame him for shutting down all the codes. Just unfortunate for the people who got theirs through legit means.

I also get why people would be upset at Humble stopping the code system, but come on. It's not like they're ripping you off. The only complaint I could understand is if you bought that one bundle without realizing they changed the system, but then again if it has always been in their ToS, not much you can do.

Edited by gbrading

I can see why the Humble Bundle change was entirely necessary. It was far too easy for profiteering individuals to resell keys generated by the Bundles further down the line. I think this way is fairer; true it doesn't generate giftable copies but I think that overall it is a more sensible system. If you have friends who you want to give the bundle, just gift them the whole thing lock, stock and barrel.

Posted by Mustachio

@louiedog said:

@mustachio said:

@atwa said:

I find it pretty off putting that people are actually complaining that they can't give away humble keys anymore.

You get a bunch of games for almost nothing already. How can you complain?

One of the main reasons I used Humble Bundle was to give games to people who I knew were too busy to go through the process themselves. I have a friend who works night shifts at a hospital for days on end, so sometimes he simply never has the opportunity to even find out a Humble Bundle is on. With the keys system I was able to buy a second bundle and simply send the keys via Steam/Facebook chat and we'd be able to play together when he was next available. This new system completely snuffs that out, if I understand it correctly.

Who can't find 2 minutes during the 2 weeks that a bundle is going on, or one week for the weekly deals, to buy it, but will then have time to play the games? That's the most ridiculous thing I've read on the internet in awhile. And if that's actually the case, you can still gift bundles. You just can't buy a bundle and strip the keys out.

Someone who's university course is split evenly between one month of placement at remote hospitals and care homes where he's basically completely out of contact, and one month at the actual university where he can have a normal student life. Sorry you find it so ridiculous, but not everybody on the planet has reliable internet access, even by phone.

Anyway, thanks to @bobafettjm, @vargasprime and @officer_falcon for clearing up the gifting thing. Most outlets made it sound like it was going to be a direct tie to your account and your account only.

Posted by Brenderous
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