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When you’re looking to purchase a video game online, you might come across sites which offer discounted game keys. These can save you money, so it would seem like a simple choice to buy a game through one of these websites.
However, there are things to bear in mind when buying discounted game keys online. Are the sites selling them legitimate? And are there any risks involved? In this article we explain everything you need to know before buying game keys.
What Is a Game Key?
Most games are bought online these days. Rather than going to a physical store, you log in to an online store such as Steam (see the best indie games to buy on Steam), Origin, or the Epic Games Store and buy the game digitally.
If you purchase a game using a different method, you may be given a game key—a serial number consisting of a string of letters and numbers. You enter this key into the relevant store, and the game appears in your library.
Additionally, if you search online, you’ll find many sites which are not officially affiliated with game stores offering game keys for purchase. These game keys are usually much cheaper than it would be to buy the game through the official store. Many people are tempted by this cheap way to access games, even if it is unofficial.
One of the most popular sites for buying game keys is G2A.com. You can also purchase game keys from other retailers like cheapestgamecards or gamekeydiscounter, or on auction sites like eBay. These are all unofficial resellers, so their status and reputation is murky. Hence us not linking out to them.
There are also official and approved resellers of game keys though, such as Humble Bundle. This site has agreements with game publishers to sell game keys for a discounted price in bundles and through its store, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity.
Are Game Keys Legal?
If many sites which sell keys don’t have official permission from the publishers to make the sale, are they legal? This is a complex question which is still being debated.
Often, a reseller site will buy up cheap keys in batches through the Humble Bundle or during a Steam sale. They’ll then sell these keys on to customers. Sometimes, sites say that they are not actually selling anything—they are only a platform on which sellers can interact with buyers.
Whether or not this is legal depends on the End User Licence Agreements (EULAs) put in place by distributors like Steam. Steam says in its user agreement that you can’t resell keys, so buying keys for cheap during the sale and selling them afterwards is clearly against their T&Cs.
However, people disagree about whether these EULAs are actually legally enforceable. There are ongoing court cases in various places around the world which argue that forbidding the reselling of digital items is anti-consumer.
There won’t be a clear answer to this any time soon. For now, reselling game keys remains a legal gray area, meaning it could be argued to be either legal or illegal, depending on your point of view.
The Potential Problems When Buying Game Keys
So if the law isn’t clearly against buying game keys, then what’s the issue? The biggest problem is the reliability of the keys. You may purchase keys from a store and find they work just fine. Only later, the game will stop working. This happens when publishers catch on to suspicious keys being used and cancel the keys.
Also, as the purchaser of a game key you may get in trouble if the key in question was stolen or otherwise obtained illegally. At worst, your account for a store like Steam might be deactivated. Then you’d lose access to all of your games. This isn’t very likely to happen, but it is a possibility.
Gaming Is a Worldwide Hobby
Another potential issue is with regionalization. Sellers of game keys can buy the keys cheaply when they are low priced in one region. Then they can sell the keys in regions where the costs of the games is higher than average, such as Australia. But if you buy a key that isn’t valid for your region, you may not be able to use the game.
Most stores have systems in place to detect which region you are located in. If you’re in the US, for example, and you try to use a key from China, it may not work. Or you might be able to play the game, but all of the settings and menus will be in Chinese.
Support Game Developers
Finally, game developers generally do not support the purchasing of game keys. When you purchase a key, none of that money goes to the people who made the game. For example, on the Mode 7 Blog, developer Paul Kilduff-Taylor has written about the problems that the reselling of keys cause for developers. If you care about supporting game developers you may want to opt out of purchasing game keys.
How to Know if a Game Key Is Legitimate
There are some sites, like Steam or Humble Bundle, which sell game keys legitimately. And there are other which are far more dubious. So how can you tell the good sellers from the bad?
You need to be particularly careful when buying game keys as you will need to enter payment information into a site to make a purchase.
Handing over your credit card details to a site you don’t know is risky, as the site could misuse your information to commit credit card fraud. You also don’t know whether you’ll actually receive a key, and, if you do, whether it will work in the longterm.
Looking for reviews of sites that sell game keys is always a good first step. However, you even need to be cautious here, as many businesses post fake positive reviews about themselves online.
How to Find Legit Game Keys
To be certain that a game key seller is legitimate, you can look on the website of the games publisher to see if they mention resellers.
For example, if you wanted to buy an Ubisoft game like Assassin’s Creed, you can look on the Ubisoft website and check whether the reseller you’re considering using is approved. Here, you’ll see that sites like Green Man Gaming, Humble Bundle, and Amazon are authorized to sell Ubisoft game keys and are safe to buy from.
If the seller you’re considering isn’t on the list, it’s likely to be dodgy.
You can also look on deal review sites like Is There Any Deal or Cheap Shark which collect prices for games. You can search for the game you want to buy and use the site to hunt down a legitimate key.
Be Careful When Purchasing Game Keys Online
With so many illegitimate key sellers out there, you need to be careful when purchasing one. Buying an illegitimate key could mean you lose access to your game, get your account suspended, or even have your credit card details stolen. However, there are legitimate sellers out there, and you can definitely save money on games by using these trusted sites.
However, even when buying from a legitimate seller there are reasons you might want to buy a physical copy of a game instead. To learn more about this subject, see our list of reasons to stop buying games on Steam.