Small video games studios are asking the public to stop buying their titles from “unauthorised” markets, saying the sales cost them more than they earn.
Several have said it would even be better if consumers pirated their games rather than purchased discounted unlock codes from the “key resellers”.
One label is running a petition calling on the biggest such market – G2A – to halt sales of indie games outright.
But G2A has defended its business model.
It said the indies benefited from its policy of sharing a cut of sales made by third parties.
“Hundreds of developers earn money from selling their keys through marketplaces such as G2A,” head of communications Maciej Kuc told BBC News.
“We don’t plan on taking away that possibility anytime soon, as it would be hurtful not only to our customers but also to the many developers who use our platform to their benefit.”
He added that G2A already took measures to tackle illegal sales.
And he said developers were partly responsible for some of the scams on its site because of the “thousands of free keys” they had created for giveaways.
The campaign’s organiser, however, has dismissed this defence.
“They are harming our industry and the value of our games,” Mike Rose, from the Manchester-based publisher No More Robots, told BBC News
Several other industry insiders have also tweeted concerns.
The attraction for consumers of buying from key resellers is they typically offer titles at a fraction of the price they are available via either the games studio’s own sites or through online stores such as Steam, with which the publishers have a direct relationship.
Studios have complained for some time about the trade. But tensions rose after G2A increased its social media activity and online ads to promote special deals tied to its fifth anniversary.
G2A does not buy and sell second-hand codes itself. Rather, it compares itself to other online marketplaces such as eBay, which provide a place for third-parties to sell goods.
But Mr Rose claimed it did not do enough to combat dishonestly obtained keys.
When sellers received an order, for example, they bought a code via Steam’s Chinese store, where the keys were often sold at a quarter of their normal price.
To bypass Steam’s own ban on such keys being passed to gamers in other markets, purchasers were told they must add another account to their friends list to receive the details, Mr Rose said.
This new “friend” was in fact a bot, he said, which generated a link to a separate site where the Chinese code could be transferred without the exchange being detected.
And the result was the publisher received a fraction of their normal cut, while the fee they had wanted to charge became seen as too high.
In other cases, Mr Rose said, dealers cancelled the credit card transaction with which they had bought a key, after selling it on.
By the time Steam chased this up and voided the sale, gamers may have tried the title out and moved on, never noticing they had lost access as a consequence, he said.
But as a result, the publisher was not paid.
“I’m seeing my sales happening – and then at the end of the month 30% of them are disappearing,” Mr Rose said.
“I would rather people pirate the game.”
‘Face the consequences’
For its part, G2A said most keys on its market were sold by wholesalers who had bought large quantities directly from publishers at a discount.
It said only 1% of the transactions on its site were problematic in any way and it was easy for users to report suspect parties.
“If any key was illegally obtained, we’ll remove it, block the seller and provide their personal data to the proper authorities,” it said.
Furthermore, it said, a combination of the rating systems it provided and the anti-money laundering processes it employed acted as a deterrent.
“If someone wants to do something illegal, they know they will have to face the consequences,” it said in a statement.
The site said it would also start offering developers refunds worth 10 times the sum lost if they could prove keys had been sold on G2A after being bought with stolen credit card details.
This offer is limited to cases in which the initial purchases were made on the developers’ own stores and had resulted in the payment provider having to be reimbursed.
“We’re not doing this because we’re the ones to blame but because we want to finally stop the accusations we’ve been getting,” G2A said.
And it suggested studios providing keys to “fake influencers” was a bigger problem.
“If the developer doesn’t check them thoroughly, the keys sometimes end up in scammers’ hands,” it said.
“That’s why all the developers who participate in G2A Direct have access to our database and can check on their own whether a review key ended up on G2A or not.”
Mr Rose responded saying most developers relied on sales via Steam and other third-party stores rather than their own sites, so G2A’s refund offer was a “red herring”.And he said the problem of fake influencers existed only because they had places to sell on the codes they had obtained in bulk.
“Literally in the time I’ve been talking to you, two of them have appeared in my inbox,” he told BBC News.
“So much time in our job is taken up trying to deal with these people.”