There are two ways to acquire games on Steam: through direct payment to Steam, from which Valve takes a cut, or through third parties which sell keys that unlock the game on Steam. It’s this secondary market for Steam keys that Valve is seeking to crack down on. Valve will start reviewing key requests from Steam-integrated developers to refuse requests it deems to be too large.
Considering that Steam has to pay the hosting and other costs relating to game files, forums and players, it’s very likely that Valve is looking to reduce the revenue it loses to third-party key sellers.
In a leaked post from Steam’s developer forum, Valve employee Sean Jenkins explains that key requests can be denied if Valve feels a game isn’t earning its keep, though it isn’t clear how new this policy is in practice:
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 are bearing the costs. So at some point we start deciding that the value you’re bringing to Steam isn’t worth the cost to us.
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.
With companies like G2A causing huge problems with grey market keys, Valve probably has a good reason for this approach. But this isn’t the sole reason for this change. A few months back Valve negated reviews for gamers who got a free copy of the game on their marketplace. The clear aim here was to remove the influence of incentivizing positive reviews.
This new policy of reviewing key creation is another step in Valve trying to improve the quality and user experience on its platform.
Some users are concerned that this change might have a negative affect on developers due to unforeseen complications. One example being consistently brought up is crowdfunded games that need bulk keys before they generate any sales. But the example Valve gives would seem to apply to even the more popular crowdfunded titles. Games can make millions on Kickstarter, and only need less than 100,000 keys upfront. This is well below the 500,000 cited in Valves example.
It’s possible that this policy will have specific exceptions for games that have crowdfunding as their primary sales source.
Still, it’s unclear how strictly the policy will be applied, or what Valve’s ultimate intentions are—whether this represents a minor increase in hands-on moderation of third-party sales, or a significant initiative to keep game sales on Steam.