EU probes Valve, game publishers over Steam region blocking

Digital copies are games are quite convenient. Without the need for physical access, they are easier to distribute and can reach as many as possible. In theory, of course. In practice, however, games don't always reach all countries, even countries that belong to the same region. That situation has prompted the European Commission, the European Union's legislative body, to take a closer look into the business of "geo-blocking" games practiced by Steam owner Valve and five game publishers to see if this almost ordinary way of doing things is, in fact, an anti-competitive practice.

Like anything that deals with business, laws, and games, the situation is a bit more complicated than it seems at first glance. At the heart of the Commission's investigation is what is popularly known as Steam keys. These activation keys are technically used to check if the game hasn't been pirated, that is, owned and activated already. But they have also been used to sell games, themselves, usually via third-party retailers or even some game publishers.

The problem is that these always keys don't work in all member countries of the European Union. A key, for example, might only work in the UK but not in Poland. The Steam store has never really made those regional restrictions a secret and warns users that while games bought from Steam are mostly not restricted by location, Steam keys purchased as gifts might be. Unfortunately, such a practice might actually be against the EU's antitrust laws.

There are various reasons for such a practice, but the biggest one would be of economics. Different countries in the EU have different economies and even different currencies. The price of a product in one, if unaltered, might be too high or too low in another member country. There's also local copyright or censorship laws to be followed, which could lead to certain titles being legally blocked from distribution in some countries.

The Commission investigations isn't exactly focusing on the Steam platform. Instead, it is highlighting the bilateral agreements between Valve and five game publishers, namely Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax. So far, the EC hasn't mentioned possible sanctions should the companies be found guilty of anti-competitive practices, and none of the six companies have responded yet to the formal announcement.

SOURCE: European Commission