Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

The Blackwell Give-Away – A Halloween Horror Movie

Posted by Rampant Coyote on November 5, 2013

While it wasn’t a horror movie, it sounds like it could have been. An innocent, fun Halloween celebration goes terribly wrong for an indie game developer. If you haven’t heard the story already, here’s my break-down, re-told as a horror movie plot. Hollywood, take note!

Like many a good horror movie, the establishing shot shows a peaceful, happy scene. Indie dev and all-around nice guy Dave Gilbert of Wadjet Eye Games thought he’d do something cool with his flagship supernatural adventure game series, and give away the latest game in the series for free during Halloween. What an awesome thing right? He thought he’d do something nice, and maybe generate a little bit of marketing buzz as he prepares the next game for release in the not-too-distant future.


Naturally, as it is a Halloween horror flick, what starts out as a fun little holiday romp is going to end in disaster.

Ah, Disaster Averted! All Is Well.

First of all, there was a goof with the Steam keys – they gave out not only The Blackwell Deception, but the entire catalog of Wadjet Eye games! OOPS! And unfortunately, Steam was hard to contact to help fix the problem, but he managed to retroactively delete the other games from the offer. As Dave phrases it, “the extra games got sucked out of everyone’s Steam library, so it was like it never happened!”

Yay! The disaster was averted. The danger is over. Everybody can go back into the water now. We’ve used that mystic puzzle box for a doorstop, so nothing could possibly go wrong now. We’ve had our glitch for the mission…

Evil Attacks!

The next thing Dave discovers, according to several accounts, was that the offer was hammering the crap out of the servers for BMT Micro, the e-commerce provider that Wadjet Eye Games uses (and that I use too, BTW – some pretty awesome guys).  Wow, could the offer be that popular? After a little bit of discussion, Dave discovered why. Resellers were using scripts to  “buy” hundreds of copies of the free game to stockpile the steam keys for later reselling.  They were botting the crap out of the servers (and preventing real, interested players from getting the game).


Fighting Back Part 1 – “Close the Beaches!”

Dave’s first response was to remove the Steam keys…. shutting down the problem entirely.

That led to a massive, angry backlash from people. Apparently, a free game isn’t good enough – it has to be be an official STEAM version. As Dave comments, “When I announced that I was going to remove the Steam keys from the giveaway, the backlash was immediate. Even though it was a free game, it’s almost as if it didn’t count because it wasn’t going in their Steam library. I don’t quite “get” it, but I know that’s the way things are these days.”

Yeah, I have issues with that. Anyway, closing the beach entirely was Not An Option.

Fighting Back Part 2 – “Seal the perimeter!”

Next, he worked with BMT (who, BTW, were not getting paid for any of this… as a free give-away, they weren’t making a cent, just going the extra mile to help out a customer) to set up a restriction to limit the give-away to only one copy per IP.

For you or me, that would be enough. I don’t have all kinds of ways of masking my IP or anything like that. But it turns out the pro hackers are really good at things llike that, circumventing the security measures with ease. They were right back with their server-hammering bots ripping off every free key they could get for future reselling.

(I wish I could get a better version of the main scene this clip refers to…)

Fighting Back Part 3 – “Nuke the site from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure!”

At this point, Dave threw in the towel. It was just a free give-away, something nice to do for Halloween, and was completely destroying his day and exhausting him. So he called it quits and canceled the offer a little bit ahead of schedule. He had BMT bring back the normal sales page, and thought that this disaster was finally at an end.

The Evil Is Not Dead!

He was wrong, of course. In the horror movie, the evil always come back just when you think it has been defeated once and for all and start to relax….

As it turns out, while all links to it were gone, the Steam Key generator at the BMT site was still active. And the resellers, expert thieves that they are, were already on top of it. While Dave slept, thinking the episode was behind him, they managed to rip off about 30,000 keys.

The Aftermath… Good Triumphs, For Now (“Hail to the King, Baby!”)

Dave posted something of an epilogue to the story in a blog post, “Blackwell Unbought.” An excerpt:

What makes me saddest are the small percentage of keys that were taken completely innocently by gamers who found the link on a forum after I cancelled the offer. I felt really bad that they were going to lose their games, but there was nothing much I could do. If it was just limited to a few thousand people grabbing one code for themselves and themselves alone, I would have just let it go and chalked it up to experience. It was the people digging in with both elbows, nabbing codes by the bucketful, that forced me to disable them all. To use a trite phrase, a few bad apples had totally ruined the bunch. The most I could do was to ask Steam not to ban anybody or get them in trouble for this.

He also notes that as the official business reason for doing this was for marketing purposes – to generate some buzz and goodwill – that it may have actually turned out to be a net positive. When The Escapist and even Forbes are talking about it, that’s valuable attention.

So …. lemons, lemonade.

As much as I like horror movies during the Halloween season, I’m glad this one has a (relatively) happy ending.

If I’d thought ahead, I would have contacted Dave for some comments on this story. BUT as I’m lazy and tend to come up with these posts in the middle of the night in East Coast time, that wasn’t so feasible. I think he might be a little tired of talking about it right now. But for everyone else — scary stories are often there to be cautionary tales. I’m not sure what this is really supposed to caution against (don’t ever do something nice like give away free stuff, because you will be devoured by evil predators?). But it does show what kind of environment is out there today.

Tread carefully. And – while you are at it – check out Wadjet Eye Games’ excellent adventure games. They (and their affiliated studios) are making some really awesome point & click adventure games in the tradition of the classics of the 1990s. They are really worth checking out.

Filed Under: Adventure Games, Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Stick Games said,

    Wow, that does indeed sound like a horror story! I hope things turn out okay for everyone at Wadjet Eye!

  • McTeddy said,

    Wow, I hadn’t heard that whole story. I knew there was trouble with people getting multiple keys and he had to pull the plug… but I hadn’t heard everything he did to keep it running.

    It’s amazing how hard Wadjet was about trying to make it work… and how low some people can stoop to.

    I’ve been interested in the Blackwell game but hadn’t purchased them yet. But with my newfound respect for the devs, I’ll be buying it soon.

  • Darius said,

    This sounded like an absolute nightmare. It sounds like he’s found a silver lining in the clouds, but that still has to hurt a lot.

    And this is why we can’t have nice things.

  • Rachel said,

    Oh my goodness, that’s terrifying. I was actually contacted by a game reseller site (they asked me to do free publicity, but I thought they looked shady). I wonder if this is how they get their Steam keys and sell them for cheaper-than-Steam prices… the downside to deals and bundles I guess. 🙁

  • Kyle Haight said,

    Yeah, it’s called arbitrage. If you sell for X, but it’s obvious you’re going to raise the price to Z at some point in the near future, some people will buy in bulk at X with the intention of selling for Y, where X<Y<Z. The bigger the gap between X and Z the more tempting a target you are.

    This is easier when the product being sold isn't physical. If someone bought thousands of copies of a retail boxed game they'd have to figure out where to keep them all. Steam keys don't have that problem. So you need to figure out an effective way to enforce "N to a customer" where N is some fairly small value. Unfortunately, as Wadjet found out, that's a hard problem.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Ouch. The sad part is, this isn’t something that could just be let go as, “Oh well, they were going to pirate it anwyay.” If the intention of the scalpers was to sell the keys, then it really is swiping potential customers; either from the full-priced game or future sale prices.

  • alanm said,

    Yeah those scripts weren’t whipped up at the spur of the moment. The perps have been at this before and were ready. This time they made a mistake with the throttling whichout which the whole heist might have gone unnoticed until much later. Maybe it was just the tragedy of the commons – each thief was doing his own throttling but overall they overloaded server and blew the game.