Recently, the European Commission (EC) has been investigating the PC gaming market within EU member states. The result of this investigation is an official statement directed at Valve, which owns digital distribution platform Steam, and five games publishers; Bandai Namco, Focus Home, Capcom, Zenimax and Koch Media. The EC believes they are all involved in what it calls antitrust violations, due to the fact that they place geographic restrictions on their games.
The EC states that the accused are geo-locking Steam keys for games sold primarily in Eastern Europe, which goes against the EU’s aim of creating a single digital market.
The geo-locking takes place to prevent people from wealthier EU nations, such as the UK or Germany, from buying games in countries such as Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia, which have cheaper pricing, and then playing them in their own countries.
This is a common practice and one that is often employed by digital distributors. It involves distributors charging a lower price in countries with lower average incomes, then adding a barrier of some kind to prevent those codes from being used outside of particular countries. This could be a region lock within the code or it might require a local card as a payment method.
However, EU rules implemented in December 2018 specifically forbid what they call “unjustified geo-blocking.” These rules were introduced in an effort to create a single digital market for the EU, in the same way that the United States maintains a single basic price across all states.
Valve has responded to the accusations and has provided a statement that outlines its position. In it, it states that it turned off the majority of region locks within the European Economic Area in 2015, due to the EC’s concerns.
However, there are still some games - approximately 3% of their titles - which have them enabled. These are mostly activation keys, which are purchased through other avenues and then redeemed on Steam. Valve argues that it does not sell or make money from these and has stated that making it liable for any region locks on such keys is “not supported by applicable law.”
Speaking about a total elimination for EU region locks, Valve says that “the elimination of region locks will also mean that publishers will likely raise prices in less affluent regions to avoid price arbitrage.”
However, the publishers affected have yet to release a statement.