Ubisoft find themselves in the headlines once again as angry gamers flock to the forums, complaining that their Far Cry 4 keys were mysteriously deactivated without any warning or explanation. It eventually transpired that all of these keys were bought from serial key resellers, companies that buy and sell on digital codes at significant discounts, with Ubisoft claiming that the keys in question were "fraudulently" obtained in the first place.
It's an interesting situation and there usually two sides to every story, but in this case, I feel that there are three. Publishers, illicit sources of serial keys and gamers stuck right in the crossfire. And everyone has something to learn here -- Ubisoft especially.
To be clear, the sale of Steam, Origin, PSN, Xbox Live and Uplay codes is legal and most sites comport themselves openly and legitimately. Everyone from Green Man Gaming to GamersGate, CDKeys and SimplyCDKeys. However, this is apparently a special case.
"We regularly deactivate keys that were fraudulently obtained and resold," a Ubisoft rep told Eurogamer yesterday. "In this case, we are currently investigating the origin of the fraud, and will update customers as soon as we have more information to share. In the meantime, customers should contact the vendor from whom they purchased the key."
There's no denying the black market in keys purchased in bulk using stolen or fraudulent credit cards, or even stolen batches of serial keys sourced from boxes and jewel cases. The fraudulent purchase and reselling of serial keys has to stop. It's a practice that Ubisoft logically ought to take an active stance against. Ban the keys, shame the retailers into cutting ties with their illicit sources.
The names G2A, G2Play and Kinguin also keep popping up just to throw fuel on the fire. We tend not to post deals from any of these sites because... well, I'm not going to stoop to allegations or accusations, but suffice to say that they have a reputation for not particularly caring about the providence of the keys they sell. Where they come from, or who they originated from. Whether unfounded or not, if sites do acquire their codes from illicit sources, perhaps this is a wake-up call.
If only things were ever that simple. Unfortunately, on a practical level, Ubisoft seems to have hit back against the wrong person. Not criminals, but gamers.
I'm willing to bet that the vast majority (i.e. 100% rounding up!) of gamers who used these resellers weren't looking to abet fraud or commit criminal acts. They just visited legitimate-looking sites that still exist legally, then bought a perfectly valid code at a discount. Killing their codes without any warning whatsoever doesn't send the message that serial key fraud is bad. It sends the message that digital distribution can't be trusted and that digital games are worth less money by extension. And, cast in the shadow of Ubisoft's hellish 2014, it looks for all the world like a witch hunt against the end user, gamers who bought their keys rather than pirating them.
But there's a harder question to be asked. Why are so many of us using serial key resellers, exactly? Could it be, perhaps, that money-mad publishers have marked up digital games to ridiculous levels, then sold them on proprietary platforms locked to wheezing DRM? Could it be that, compared to forking out £45 for a Uplay-only version of (oh, I don't know...) Assassin's Creed Unity with absolutely no resale value and no guarantee of actually working without massive technical errors, paying out a fraction of the cost to a serial key reseller seems to be the right choice? Especially when these digital games can instantly disappear without warning, making a mockery of the concept of ownership?
This is a problem, but the fact that serial key resellers are so prevalent is also a symptom. It's an understandable reaction to publishers obsessed with increasing their markup and dominating consumers, courting whales rather than fans, driving gamers to platforms that shouldn't even need to exist if Ubisoft, EA and the like understood digital retail the same way as Apple and Netflix seem to.
Everyone has something to learn here. On our part we need to be aware that sometimes things are too good to be true, or at least too cheap to be legit. We need to show a little canny caution and realise that the source is just as important as the price. Make sure that the site you're dealing with is transparent and trustworthy.
But by the same token and perhaps more importantly, publishers have to realise that their own greed is pushing people towards serial key resellers and away from their vision of digital distribution -- and that, if their own games were more competitive and considerate, perhaps we'd all be more willing to buy directly from them next time. Or in other words, be better, and next time try not to catch gamers in your crossfire.