Update: Since this screenshot leaked, a Valve representative has given the following response, clearing up once and for all the reason behind this policy.
“Steam keys have always been available for free to our partners to help them sell PC games at physical retail and on other digital stores. In return, we’ve asked that partners offer Steam customers a fair deal, similar to what they’re offering on other stores. None of that is changing.
But over the last few years, new features and additions to Steam have changed the way Steam keys were being used, for instance as a means for game-shaped objects to monetize on Steam through methods other than actually selling fun games to customers. Most notably, this meant farming Steam Trading Cards. We shared a lot of info about that issue, and our response to it, here.
While our changes did impact the economics of trading card farming for new products coming to Steam, there are still a lot of games and game-shaped objects using Steam keys as a way to manipulate Steam systems. As a result, we’re trying to look more closely at extreme examples of products on Steam that don’t seem to be providing actual value as playable games-for instance, when a game has sold 100 units, has mostly negative reviews, but requests 500,000 Steam keys. We’re not interested in supporting trading card farming or bot networks at the expense of being able to provide value and service for players.
It’s completely OK for partners to sell their games on other sites via Steam keys, and run discounts or bundles on other stores, and we’ll continue granting free keys to help partners do those things. But it’s not OK to negatively impact our customers by manipulating our store and features.” (Source: Gamasutra)
So bundle sites such as Humble Bundle and even marketplaces like Green Man Gaming have nothing to fear. It seems this is aimed more at devs taking advantage of the Trading Card System, effectively stopping card farming and the profit that can come with that.
Original Post: Valve could be looking to implement a new policy that limits how many keys will be available to developers, removing the automatic fulfillment process entirely.
In a screenshot that was leaked to Reddit and appeared on Twitter, Sean Jenkin, a software engineer at Valve, implies that Valve may soon start denying requests for keys by developers.
It reads, “If we are denying keys for normal size batches it’s likely because your Steam sales don’t reflect a need for as many keys as you’re distributing, and you’re probably asking for more keys because you’re offering cheaper options off Steam and yet we’re bearing the costs.”
“For example, say you’ve sold a few thousand copies on Steam but have requested/activated 500k keys, then we are going to take a deeper look at your games, your sales, your costs, etc.”
This has apparently leaked from a private Steam group so it’s important to take it with a pinch of salt. It does, however, fall in line with Valve’s attempts at dealing with illegitimate key sellers and gray markets.
Whether this is an attempt at dealing with shady key dealers, combating developers taking advantage of the key generation system or an aggressive tactic in a market they pretty much dominate is unsure.
It also makes sense that Valve would move in this direction if they’re having to shoulder a huge amount of cost when it comes to their infrastructure but only seeing limited returns directly.
What is definitive is that if this change is forceful in its implementation, it could have an effect on everyone from bundle sites to grey market sellers and more. The promising take from the screenshot is that the numbers used in the hypothetical situation have a massive disparity, (‘few thousand sold’ vs ‘500k keys requested’) meaning if Valve continues to follow this logic, indie developers should be relatively unaffected.
It’ll be interesting to see Valve’s official line on this as the story progresses.