Judge Allows Antitrust Lawsuit Over Steam Game Price Policies To Proceed
If you're a PC gamer, you're probably aware of Humble Bundle. For those unfamiliar, it's a site that got its start by selling the aforementioned bundles: packs of PC games, usually indie titles, where the purchaser can name their own price—thus the "humble" in the title. A portion of the proceeds goes to Humble Bundle itself, while the remainder can be divided among the game's publisher and a charity of Humble's choosing.
While Humble got its start doing the bundles, it now mostly serves as a storefront that primarily sells Steam keys. Humble was founded by David Rosen, who is also the fonder of Wolfire Games. Wolfire Games, along with a group of other developers and Steam users, forms the class action that is suing Valve, operator of the Steam storefront, over what it claims to be anti-competitive practices from the storefront-slash-games-service.
In a blog post that he made last year around the time that he filed the suit, Rosen alleges that Valve told him it would delist Wolfire's game Overgrowth from Steam if the company offered it for sale elsewhere—like, on the Humble Store—at a lower price. This is known as a "most favored nation" clause, and it's certainly questionable behavior, but in the legal complaint, Wolfire cites a policy on Valve's Steamworks site that specifically has to do with Steam keys.
That policy, as written, should not apply to Overgrowth sales that don't involve Steam. The policy states that Steam explicitly gets "most favorable nation"-style pricing specifically on games sold using Steam keys. That means that if you're using Steam keys to distribute your product, you mustn't sell it at a lower price on other sites. If Rosen was indeed intending to sell Overgrowth independently, on his own site without Steam's involvement, this policy has no bearing on the matter, at least by our reading.
Of course, we're not lawyers, and anyway, it's certainly possible that Valve told Rosen that regardless. In fact, the class-action complaint alleges that other developers have been told similar things. There could be a different policy not cited in the complaint, or this could simply have been a misunderstanding. Valve famously allows its employees a high degree of autonomy, and it's also possible this is the work of an overzealous account manager, rather than Valve company policy.
That sort of thing will surely come to light during the trial, which judge John Coughenour has decided should happen. According to Coughenour, the allegations made by Rosen "are sufficient to plausibly allege unlawful conduct." This suit is actually an amended version of an earlier class-action complaint that the court dismissed on the grounds that the complaint failed to plausibly allege that "game publishers suffer price and non-price-based injury from [Valve's] antitrust conduct."
Even in the amended complaint, the judge dismissed more than half of the arguments. The specific issue that will be tested at trial is the truth of the class action's claims that Valve threatened punitive action against developers for selling their games at lower prices on other storefronts, and that the developers were harmed by this. The case could have significant implications on the PC gaming industry, so we'll keep a close watch on how it develops.