One of the things I have been doing nearly since I started at Stardock is receiving and sorting through emails that come to our marketing and media accounts.
We get several key requests every week, and something I learned very early on was that not every one of them is legitimate. People will often pose as media outlets or Steam curators in hopes you’ll send them a key, which then soon appears on resale sites.
I’m sure it goes without saying, but these kinds of actions really hurt developers - specifically and especially indie devs who don’t have as much revenue and are trying to find their footing in the industry.
Recently, indie developer COWCAT Games - the minds behind the new BROK the InvestiGator game - called attention to people who are scamming and abusing the Steam Curator system. Frustrated that developers won’t always hand over keys, these fake curators have been posting bogus reviews insulting the game and encouraging people away from purchasing it.
I have to tip my hat to COWCAT here - these “curators” got caught with their hands in the cookie jar thanks to a clever bit of subterfuge on the dev’s part. COWCAT reportedly sent out preview codes to any curator who requested codes for BROK rather than full games. They knew that legitimate curators would claim the game, discover it wasn’t finished, and likely email them for a full code to the game.
Fake curators wouldn’t redeem the code because their intent was to sell it on the secondary market. It wasn’t until they started receiving refund requests from angry customers that they realized they weren’t given a full copy of the game, and so they began to review-bomb BROK as a form of retaliation.
As a direct result of this, some other indie devs are following suit and choosing not to reply to curator requests for Steam keys anymore. Steam’s attention is now also on the matter, and several of the disingenuous curators have since been banned.
You may be wondering how people who don’t own the game on Steam are able to leave reviews at all - and the answer is that it is a feature specific to curators. Sometimes, curators from press sites or other publications may own the game on one PC store but don’t own a Steam copy, or they reviewed on a since-revoked press key, or they have many different contributors with different Steam accounts so it’s impossible to pinpoint ownership to just one.
In order to see reviews from a curator, you must be following them - so it stands to reason that, if you’re following a curator, you likely trust or share in their opinions. In many ways, this serves to prevent bad actors from poisoning the well too deeply - but it is still a problem that needs addressing.
While there are some surefire ways to tell when an email is a scam, it isn’t always easy. Sometimes, people are obvious - like the key request for “the game Fences 4” that I got this morning for a gaming cafe in Ukraine. They want to hold Fences 4 tournaments! It’ll have the eyes of over 300,000 gamers on it! What a great deal!
…You did hear the sarcasm in the paragraph above, right? OK, good.
When someone contacts me for a key and specifically tries to get me to send it via means other than the curator portal, that's a fairly telling flag in many cases as well. Also, the very "form letter" style of a lot of these communications becomes very recognizably redundant before long, which is an immediate tip-off.
Other times, the trick is more deceptive. I’ll get emails that sound legitimate and when I go to match the email address to the alleged sender, it’ll almost check out - but then I’ll notice they’ve stealthily flipped two letters in the address in hopes it would pass a quick inspection.
I'm not always right, but I do my best. Developing relationships with the streamers and press who cover our games has been essential to ensuring that our keys go to the right people and don't end up on a secondary resale site. In all, it's a frustrating landmine to navigate because there are unfortunately people out there who seek to take advantage of kindness wherever possible.
That's not to say it's all doom and gloom, though: I have met many wonderful people in the industry with whom I have enjoyed great conversations and fun banter. It may be a double-edged sword in a lot of ways, but I try to find myself on the good side of things more often than not!
Overall, if you take away anything from the above discussion, let it be this: if you want to support a developer, make sure you're buying games either direct or from a reputable storefront. It also serves as a way to protect yourself! Saving a few bucks is hardly worth it for a non-existent return policy or some potential spyware hitchhiking onto your PC.
Thanks for reading - see you next time!