When Wastelands Interactive head Leszek Lisowski found a Steam key he thought he'd given to a successful YouTuber on a resale site, he knew something was wrong.
Lisowski, whose company recently brought Worlds of Magic to Steam Early Access, wrote on Gamasutra about being ripped off by people claiming to be popular YouTubers. Under normal circumstances, game creators are happy to hand out codes to press and YouTubers. Their game gets publicity, the critics gets something to critique—everybody wins. In theory.
The tactic Lisowski described is apparently not uncommon. He explained that over the course of Worlds of Magic's release week he received requests from tens of people claiming to be at least marginally successful YouTubers, and he thought nothing of it. However, he then found a listing of the game (with an undercut price, no less) on G2A.com, a popular resale site. Curious about the price discrepancy, he bought a key himself and discovered it was one he'd sent out to an alleged YouTuber.
Why hadn't he noticed people were tricking him, especially when he thought he'd been relatively careful? The short version is, he got bait-and-switched:
"I took a deep breath and began to thoroughly check all the emails that had been sent to me. Most of them were gmail accounts and had a single letter or number difference between the email name and the youtube channel name."
A slight change, in other words. If a game creator is frantically skimming emails because, say, they're busy dealing with all the other rigors of a stressful game launch week, it's super easy to miss.
Lisowski began requiring confirmations from alleged YouTubers—proof that they were who they claimed to be. Of 20 additional requests, only two were actually able to verify that they weren't conniving villains trying to tie the system to a set of train tracks. Two.
"So, as it turned out," Lisowski wrote, "roughly 70% of the keys we had given out were taken under false pretenses, or to use a more direct term, stolen. It left us asking ourselves: Were we really so blind and naive?"
That really worried Lisowski, so he decided to test just how far the "I'm a YouTuber" claim could carry him with other developers. The results of his experiment—wherein he took an email a rip-off artist sent him and modified it slightly—were not encouraging.
"I sent out 46 emails, which took me about two hours in total. In reply, I got 16 keys for 15 games (worth more than 400 USD)."
"Allow me to underline this: I spent 3 hours sending out emails to almost 50 developers simply asking them for a Steam key, claiming that I was a youtuber with 50k subscribers. In return, I received Steam keys worth over 400 USD. This means I could have theoretically made close to 150 bucks an hour."
And that was with a super slipshod attempt and only one request per developer.
Lisowski went on to share even more unsettling stats. For instance, many of these fakers request multiple keys and then do so again under different aliases. "In the end," he wrote," they may sell 10 or 20 copies of a game at half price." That adds up, and it makes diehard fans upset.
Now, if it isn't already obvious, YOU SHOULD NOT TRY THIS. IT IS A BAD THING DONE BY BAD PEOPLE. It does, however, highlight how easy it is to claim to be somebody in the modern age, both in the sense of stealing an identity and saying you're a Somebody simply by throwing around words like YouTuber, press, or reviewer. In all cases, greater scrutiny is necessary.
In the end, Lisowski returned the Steam keys he got during his experiment and advised game creators to use YouTube's built-in messaging system instead of only relying on email. However, that doesn't mean the giant sticky fingered beast is slain. "So far, I've been contacted with few of the developers [I ran the experiment on]," he wrote. "It seems they felt that keys were often taken under false pretenses."
The moral of the story? Game creators need to be more careful when they send out copies of their games. A lot of people in this world would very much like to have free games for various reasons, and some of them are absolutely willing to lie and deceive—emailing with shifty eyes and forked tongues—in order to pull off their little heists. This hurts game creators and ultimately, when it all comes back around, game fans. It sucks. Stay vigilant, folks.
And everyone, if you think something is fishy, don't hesitate to get in touch with the creators of your favorite games. Many of them would appreciate the help, I'm sure.