BloodRayne: Increasing Firepower

Act 3 of BloodRayne turns things even more Wolfensteinish by moving the action to a German castle. In something of a subversion, it’s not a Nazi fortress, but a Vampire fortress being attacked by Nazis, who want the final piece of that demon-awakening artifact they’ve been hunting. As with the Daemites in act 2, this means you have two sets of enemies that fight each other. In some cases, you don’t have to lift a finger to kill the people on your hit list: it suffices to stand back and watch them get torn apart by the monsters they unwisely antagonized.

It’s not like they came entirely unprepared, though. The Nazi vampire-castle-storming force is much better armed than the Argentina bunker defense contingent, with more guys with more powerful guns. Some of them even have jetpacks. Finally, I’ve reached the point where there’s so much fire directed at me that hand-to-hand combat isn’t cutting it any more, and firing guns back seems like a necessity of gameplay rather than just an additional part of the underlying power fantasy. Appropriately, the game chooses the beginning of Act 3 to introduce the sniper-zoom-in vision, one of the four supernatural-vampire-perception modes that you can switch between at will. (That isn’t what the game calls it. The official name of sniper-zoom-in vision is something much more highfalutin.) The other three modes normal vision, a mode that makes everything glow blue and highlights your current goal point, and (starting in Act 2) bullet time. Yes, this game gives you infinite bullet time; the only reason to ever not be in bullet time is because you want to actually get places at a faster speed than excruciatingly slow. To my mind, the chief virtue of bullet time mode is that it lets me actually follow the Rayne’s high-speed acrobatic combat maneuvers, which are otherwise a bit incomprehensible. I guess this is part of what made me prefer hand-to-hand throughout Act 2. I really haven’t found sniper vision as useful, though, even as I use guns more.

The pinnacle of the increasing firepower, though, is the Nazi mechs. They’re small as mechs go, and look kind of like Metal Gear would if it had been built during the 1940s. You get to take control of one at one point, although the game does much less with this than, say, Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay did. You don’t even get to stomp around on puny humans, which is to my mind the chief appeal of mechs. Instead, it basically just sends you to fight a number of other identical mechs in an enclosed space, after which you have to get out and continue on foot because the mech’s weight would collapse the stairs if you didn’t. It’s a little weird, narratively. Throughout the rest of the story, Rayne’s big combat advantage is her vampire powers. Even when she fights other vampires in the castle, they’re mainly just less powerful than her, and on the few occasions when she meets one that isn’t, it’s a puzzle-boss that she has to defeat with cleverness rather than force. But that mech fight? She doesn’t have any vampire advantages when she’s piloting a mech, and she certainly doesn’t have any training (dialogue suggests that she’s never even seen one before), but she manages to take on three other equally-powerful mechs at once and win anyway. Now, there’s a certain mythic tradition, seen also in superhero comics, wherein heroes who are strongly associated with a particular weapon or ability have to defeat one enemy without using it, thereby establishing that the real source of their continuing victories is their intrinsic worth as a hero, not their gear or their superpowers. And you could argue that the mech fight is an example of this, showing how Rayne keeps on kicking ass on a level playing field. It just strikes me as a little strange that the leveling is accomplished by giving her access to a walking tank with an infinite rocket launcher.

BloodRayne: Act 2

Act 2 of BloodRayne officially takes place in Argentina, but you wouldn’t know it by looking. The whole thing is set indoors, in a massive beige-and-grey bunker built into a mountain, and in the mines and caverns underneath it. As I said in my last post, it becomes like Wolfenstein, and not just cosmetically. The most recent Wolfenstein game at the time of BloodRayne‘s release was the 2001 Return to Castle Wolfenstein, which I remember being notable for three things: large areas created by cut-and-pasting entire rooms (chiefly barracks), wall-mounted alarm boxes that the Nazi troopers would use to call for reinforcements if you let them, and the addition of supernatural elements to the setting, including an excavation to recover a powerful ancient artifact that they ultimately can’t control. BloodRayne apes all three.

“Nazis try to obtain powerful artifact that they ultimately can’t control” is something of a cliché by now, probably mainly due to the influence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, although there the artifact was divine rather than eldritch. It definitely wasn’t part of the original Apple II Castle Wolfenstein, though, which was released the very same year as Raiders. Interestingly, though, BloodRayne reminds me a bit of that game due to the initial enemies. In Castle Wolfenstein, there were two sorts: common soldiers and SS officers, the chief difference being that the SS wore bulletproof vests, and were thus immune to your normal attack. If you wanted to kill an SS officer (rather than just avoid him), you had to use a grenade. BloodRayne similarly divides its enemies into the ordinary soldiers and the officers of the Gegengeist Gruppe, a special anti-occult division. GGG officers have special training in how to fight vampires, and can ward off your attempts at biting them, unless you attack from behind.

Rayne’s mission is one of assassination. You get a hit list at the beginning, and cross one name off it after each boss fight. The first few bosses are just vanilla GGG officers with particularly large numbers of bodyguards, but after a certain point they start going a little more Metal Gear. The first really difficult boss fight happens in a chapel, where the pulpit is actually an armored machine gun turret that can zip down the aisle on a rail, its occupant cackling, forcing Rayne to run back and forth. Another of the bosses is a fellow half-vampire, the only female enemy we’ve seen since Louisiana, wearing the incongruous combination of a surgeon’s mask and a shirt unbuttoned to her navel. This is the “prove your worth as a hero by defeating something that’s just like you only moreso” fight: she’s got most of Rayne’s moves, but larger breasts.

If you ignore the Louisiana section, the content generally follows the same paradigm as the original Tomb Raider: it starts off fairly realistic for a videogame, and becomes gradually freakier as you get deeper into it. The biggest turn comes with the reveal of the Daemites: fleshy skull-like levitating heads with spinal tails. I’d almost say that it’s the return of the sex monsters, that the Daemites are basically giant sperm, except that it took me hours to even think of that connection, mainly because they don’t move like sperm at all. But at least they behave like a proper Alien-style rape monster, killing Nazis by forcing themselves down their mouths — not to reproduce, but to take control of their bodies by popping their heads off from underneath, like that one scene in Eraserhead. Although they’re at first presented in such a way as to make them seem like the products of Nazi mad science, it ultimately turns out that the mad scientists had simply captured them for study, from the caves below, where more twisted things await and the decor becomes gross and organic.

Daemites, like spider monsters, cannot be bitten, which makes the Daemite-heavy sections harder. They also don’t drop guns, which I suppose would be a downside for players who use guns a lot. I personally find that in this game I prefer hand-to-hand combat, except in situations where guns are clearly advantageous, such as when there’s a sniper on a ledge above you — and even then, Rayne can probably leap to that ledge and take out the sniper with a bite in about the same time it would take to shoot him.

BloodRayne: Sex and Violence

Although the main focus of BloodRayne is on a sexy vampire fighting Nazis, the story opens in the misty swamps of Louisiana, where you instead fight Zombies. The game calls them “mutates”, but it’s not fooling anyone, especially when the whole reason they’re there ultimately turns out to be a “voodoo ritual”. The zombies are suitably gross-looking, textured with glistening decay, although some of them have distorted arms and spiky hands that, to my expert eye, look less like mutations and more like animation glitches of the sort that tend to happen during game development. Perhaps that was the inspiration.

The zombie disease, we learn, is spread by spider-monsters, which are birthed by “bio-masses”, which are essentially just veiny, undulating, tentacled wombs with vaginas in front. Rooted in place and utterly passive, their only way of fighting back as Rayne slices them apart with her bat’leth is by disgorging more spider-monsters. The end boss of Louisiana is a gargantuan combination of the spider-monsters and the bio-wombs, called “the Queen of the Underworld”.

Combining sex with things deadly and grotesque is of course a staple of horror movies, from Cat People to Friday the Thirteenth to Alien, because it’s an easy way to make people ill at ease. But there’s something weirder than normal “sex = death” horror going on here. First of all, Rayne, personification of the “sex = death” equation, is the hero. Secondly, throughout the first act, the men that Rayne uses her eroticized bite attack on are gross and diseased. It would make horror-movie symbolic sense for a gross, diseased man to attack and kill people in a sexualized manner, but it’s the reverse here: the sexualized attack by the young woman is what kills them. It’s as if she prevents them from raping her by raping them first. Thirdly, although the most powerful beings on both sides of the fight are female, the female enemies are dehumanized, reduced to their reproductive functions. Because they’re not human, Rayne can’t use her sex attack on them.

I can see some symbolic sense in some of this. Rayne isn’t simply sex, she’s sex for pleasure, selfish hedonism without regard for the other party, as represented by the fact that she gains health from coupling while her partner loses it. Which is still a weird choice for a hero figure, but let it pass. Her enemies in the first act are potential negative consequences of this unbridled lifestyle: disease and unwanted pregnancy. From this point of view, it makes sense that the pregnancy-monsters can’t be attacked sexually, but what then are we to make of Rayne’s freedom in attacking the disease-monsters? Most likely I’m trying to make more sense of it than it supports, and the design thought only went as far as “let’s throw in some sexual imagery to make it edgier”.

The weirdest part is that, once the Louisiana mission is over, it just kind of throws all this away and dumps you into the middle of Castle Wolfenstein. But that’s a matter for the next post.

BloodRayne: Getting Started for Real

Giving up on RadeonPro, I try out another program with framerate-limiting capability, MSI Afterburner. Finding the option in its UI for limiting the framerate was something of a challenge. These programs aren’t really built with this use in mind; mainly they’re about making things go faster, not slower. To the extent that they support framerate limits, the intent is to make things go at a steady rate and to prevent “tearing”. Ironically, capping the framerate seems to have introduced a certain amount of tearing in BloodRayne. But it fixed the sound issues, so it’s an overall improvement.

So! Now I get to actually play the game, instead of just listening to the opening cutscene and exiting repeatedly. And that means it’s time to describe the premise.

BloodRayne‘s premise seems like something you’d get out of a random videogame premise generator, or possibly Mad Libs: someone started with the template “You’re a [adjective] [badass hero type] who fights [villain]“, and it got filled in with “sexy”, “vampire”, and “Nazis”. Actually, the player character, Rayne, is only half vampire, which gives the story permission to pick and choose what her powers and weaknesses are, and make them different from any Nazi vampires she winds up fighting. The first level wastes no time in letting us know through expository dialogue that she’s unaffected by holy stuff, but water hurts her, providing for some “the floor is lava” challenges in a flooded town. She can jump something like twenty feet high and run on telephone wires, all while wearing a tight leather outfit and high heels. She has some kind of arm-mounted blade weapons that look like Klingons would use them, and she can scavenge guns, but her most effective attack against humans is simply the bite, which is an instant kill and replenishes her health.

When Rayne bites a man (and it always seems to be a man), she leaps onto him, wraps her legs around his torso, and rocks back and forth a little while she makes slurping noises and little moans of pleasure. This is a basic attack, activated by one button-press. You grow very familiar with this animation very quickly.

Speaking of absurd sexualization, this game also features some of the most blatant examples I’ve ever seen of “jiggle physics”. Or, well, I’m not sure there’s any physics involved. It could just be hand-animated: since you view Rayne from behind during gameplay, like in Tomb Raider, you only get a good look at boobs during cutscenes. But when you do get a look at them, the designers want to make sure you get a really good look. Rayne’s mentor, Mynce — another half-vampire wearing a different style of fetish gear — has a habit of making sudden bounce-inducing gestures during conversation. Even the BloodRayne logo, which Rayne wears around her neck, is a stylized picture of boobs.

And it isn’t even particularly titillating. The game is, metaphorically speaking, standing there saying “Eh? Eh? Boobs, right?” and waggling its eyebrows. Maybe I’m just too old for this stuff. Maybe everyone over the age of twelve is. I’ll have more to say about weird sexual dynamics in my next post, where I’ll describe the game’s first act.

BloodRayne: More Failure at Getting Started

So, I’ve got my joystick set up (although it sometimes needs recalibration on starting the game). Occasionally the game freezes up, but I’m hoping this won’t happen often enough to seriously impede progress. The one thing keeping me from starting BloodRayne in earnest is that I’ve decided that the business of dialogue cutting off early in cutscenes is too distracting to be tolerated.

A little research suggests that the real underlying problem (in both this game and others with the same symptom) is that the cutscenes are running just a little too fast. That the triggers to start and stop sounds are pegged to the animation, and the animation speed is determined by your framerate. Perhaps it tolerates slower machines by skipping frames when necessary, but it doesn’t take too-fast machines into account at all. What I need to do is throttle it down to the framerate it was designed for, which is apparently 30 FPS.

It turns out there are ways to do this at the driver level! That is, the official software for my graphics card (a Radeon) doesn’t provide any such option, but there are some third-party apps that do. The one that seems to be the most-recommended online is RadeonPro, which is organized around the idea of “profiles” for different games that launch automatically when the game launches. Just one problem: it isn’t launching the profile I set up for Bloodrayne. Now, I’m new to this, so it’s likely that I’m simply doing something wrong. Apparently getting RadeonPro to cooperate with Steam has its own special problems.

And that suggests an possible eventual outcome. If I can’t get RadeonPro to cooperate with Steam, I do still have this game on CD-ROM. I could just play it that way. I wouldn’t even have the embarrassment of having Steam announce that I’m playing BloodRayne, of all things, to everyone on my Friends list. But if I did that, I wouldn’t get the cards. Would I be willing to idle, then, to gain the cards I felt entitled to for playing offline? Probably. But I’m still hoping it won’t come to that.

BloodRayne

Before I get back to recapping what’s been blogged before, there’s one game I’d like to get out of the way: BloodRayne. This is a true Stack item, that is, a game that I actually own on physical media. I won’t be finishing it that way, though. It’s long since been released on Steam, where I picked it up while it was on sale. It even now has Steam Trading Cards, currently priced at the maximum of 100 credits each on the Card Exchange. The cards aren’t why I bought it — they didn’t exist at the time — but they are the reason I’ve decided to play it just now. It seems like Steam card prices are generally controlled more by supply than demand: the cheapest badge by a large margin is for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, one of Valve’s most popular offerings, while the most expensive ones are for games that no one much plays. In the case of BloodRayne, I’m tempted to say that no one plays it because they’re embarrassed, but that’s probably giving the Steam “community” too much credit. All I can say is that I personally am somewhat embarrassed to own this game.

But before I get into the embarrassing content, there’s the adventure of getting it working properly. I remember having some problems with this back in the day of my first sally. In particular, back then, it somehow failed to notice when the joystick was centered, leaving the player character slowly walking forward or backward when she should have been standing still. This is the main reason I stopped playing it as early as I did. I don’t see that problem in the Steam version, although I don’t know whether the change is in the game itself or whether I’ve simply upgraded it away. Getting the gamepad appropriately configured in other respects is another matter. This game is old enough that it uses DirectInput instead of XInput. The chief effect of this is that, with any modern controller, the right joystick doesn’t work as intended: moving it up and down makes the camera pan left and right, while moving it left and right does nothing. This is because it mistakes the trigger buttons for a joystick axis. I remember there was a period when a number of games behaved like this and I didn’t understand why. Well, my current gamepad (a Logitech F710) has a DirectInput/XInput toggle switch on the back, so this is easily solved, leaving me with just trying to find out what the button assignments are supposed to be. In theory, I could bypass all this trouble by playing from mouse and keyboard, but I recall that this is one of those games that’s designed around a gamepad in a big way. For example, the player character has four alternate perception modes, or something like that. Why four? So you can select them with the D-pad.

Then there’s the sound problem. Spoken dialogue usually cuts off before the last syllable, with longer lines cutting off more. I’ve had this problem with other games in the past, and the solution is usually to turn off hardware sound acceleration in dxdiag. However, the option to do this seems to no longer exist! It’s been a while since I played a game that needed this, and in the meantime I’ve gone through a major upgrade. I have some other leads to pursue, but most of the advice online is “give up and read the subtitles”. I’ll report further in my next post, and hopefully describe the content a little.

Retro City Rampage

So, where were we? I had just finished Vice City, a game that can be described as “GTA, but 1980s”. Well, that description also applies to Brian Provinciano’s Retro City Rampage, just in a different way. The RCR project apparently started off as Grand Theftendo, a fairly straightforward attempt at a partial port of GTA3 to the Nintendo Entertainment System. At some point, however, Provinciano decided to abandon actual NES compatibility in favor of something merely NES-styled, and also abandon perfect faithfulness to the material that inspired it in favor of new content that fits that style better. The result is more stylized, faster-paced, and sillier than GTA. Put it this way: the first power-up you get is a pair of magic shoes that let you run as fast as a car and run down pedestrians on foot.

The engine is more like an adaptation of the original GTA than of GTA3, with its top-down view. Except it’s not quite top-down here. GTA, aiming at realism, rendered humans as they’d look from above, just a head between a pair of shoulders when you’re standing still, but RCR is in that naïvist-isometric view familiar from Legend of Zelda and the like, a grid of floor tiles seen from above but with side-view figures walking around on it. Not only does mixing dimensions like this make it look more retro, it affords jumping, which makes it play more retro. One of the player’s most effective combat techniques is jumping on enemies’ heads, Mario-style.

When I’m driving around and running over pedestrians, the style reminds me a lot of certain old coin-op games, particularly Capcom’s Speed Rumbler, which similarly let you use a car to run down enemies on foot. It really makes me realize just how connected GTA was to what went before. Apart from its open-endedness, it strikes me that the main difference is the moral one: even if you didn’t understand exactly what was going on in Speed Rumbler‘s brief opening cinematic, it made it clear that the people you were running over were bad guys. RCR doesn’t have that, but keeps things at a high enough level of abstraction to feel basically good-natured anyway, even as you run around doing slaughter sprees for high scores.

The setting is a big mashup of 8-bit videogame classics, and to a certain extent 80s pop culture and modern indie games. Mario-style green pipes and Sonic-style checkboard-pattern dirt cliffs are just part of the landscape here. Various set-piece missions are based on Bionic Commando, Smash TV, Paperboy, and so forth, probably including some that I couldn’t identify. Storefronts throughout the city have names that pun on classic videogame titles, with signage patterned after their logos. That last point might sound lame, but I’m still comparing it in my mind to Vice City, which also had jokey signage, except the jokes tended to be dick references and similar. I prefer the videogame puns.

All in all, it’s pretty delightful — moreso than I would have guessed from the title. My one big complaint is about the ending sequence. The final mission takes you out of the city and to an island fortress where a long sequence of set-pieces play out one after another. Some of them are quite difficult, but there’s no respite until the game’s end. Or, well, obviously you can just save the game and take a break, but somehow that doesn’t feel the same when you’re still in the middle of a mission. Throughout most of the game, missions have maybe at most three or four stages, after which you’re back into free-roaming mode and can decide what to do next: another mission if you like, or maybe try to rack up some slaughter sprees, or just go exploring and look for hidden packages. The endgame takes that freedom away from you for long enough that it feels like it’s breaking a pledge.

Steam Trading Cards: Confessions

Having acknowledged the problems with the Steam Trading Card system, I do my best to avoid them. Shortly after taking notice of the things last year, I adopted a few rules:

  • No idling. Obviously. Sitting in a matchmaking lobby for a multiplayer-only game that no one plays any more is permitted, as long as I do it in good faith and play a match if one appears.
  • No trading cards for money, or money for cards. “Not even once”, as they say. The Marketplace is a slippery slope, and besides, it strikes me as “easy mode”. Trading cards for cards seems like a better game.
  • No buying games just for the cards. Although if a game I was thinking of buying anyway just happens to have cards, well…

Even with those limitations, I’ve managed to reach level 57 — not the big leagues, but higher than anyone on my Friends list. My journey to this point essentially has three stages.

First, I just did a little occasional trading with Friends, if we could come up with a trade that gave us both something we wanted. Indeed, at first, your Friends were the only people you could propose trades to; if you wanted to trade with anyone else, you had to Friend them first. And then, to execute the trade, you had to be online at the same time as them. Trading took place in an interface similar to the ones for player-to-player trades in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, both players dragging offers from their inventory and then hitting an “Okay” button, which would become automatically unpressed if the other player modified the trade on their end.

I suppose Valve was unsatisfied with the amount of trading and badge-making that such an inconvenient system produced, because they soon added ways to make yourself available for trade offers from non-Friends, as well as the ability to do trading asynchronously, sending offers that people could accept or reject on their own time, which made the new game-specific Trading Forums much more useful. Just how useful varies a lot from game to game, even today. The useful forum posts, from my point of view, are the ones with subject like “[H] Gravity Well [W] Force Shield 1:1″. (“[H]” and “[W]” quickly emerged as accepted notation for “have” and “want”, “1:1″ means one-for-one, and “Gravity Well” and “Force Shield” are the names of two cards for Defy Gravity.) But a lot of the game-specific forums became clogged with spam along the lines of “1000+ cards 1:2″, without even any mention of whether those 1000+ cards included any for the game whose forum it was posted in.

My second phase began with the 2013 Winter Sale, when the reappearance of sale event cards provided additional impetus to complete badges. I had accumulated over 300 cards by then, simply by playing a lot of games and not making a lot of badges. Boosters, by the way, have never been a great source of cards. During the entirety of the Winter 2013 sale, when badge-crafting and therefore booster-dropping was at a peak, I got a total of two boosters. In the recent Summer sale, during which I reached level 50 and thus doubled my booster drop rate, I got three. But I keep on getting more card-bearing games — often without meaning to, through bundles. Even when I don’t buy any games, games that I already own suddenly get cards. At the time of the 2013 winter sale, the number of card-bearing games I owned and hadn’t got all the drops from yet was sort of perpetually hovering around 20-ish, despite my best efforts at milking them dry. So not only did I have what then seemed like a lot of cards, I had a seemingly inexhaustible source of more. So I tried my hand at being a card baron and posting general offers.

I didn’t spam the game-specific forums, mind you. I only posted to the forum of the official Steam Trading Cards group, the largest group on Steam. My terms were simple and, relative to the other card barons, fairly generous. I’d accept any 1:1 trade within a set, and any 1:2 or 2:3 trade across sets, regardless of whether I wanted the cards I received or not. My goal was simply to get more cards. And it worked for that purpose, for what it’s worth. I did quite a lot of trading for as long as I kept bumping my post to keep it on the forum’s front page, and made enough profit to keep my card count in the neighborhood of 300 even as I kept spending them on badges. I even managed to make a badge for a game I didn’t even own (Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 Multiplayer), which, at the time, seemed amusingly novel.

But at the same time, it was clear that most of my trading partners were taking advantage of me, securing my most valuable cards with greater quantities of what they considered trash. I wasn’t much concerned about market values, but the least valuable cards tended to be the ones from 15-card or 13-card sets. Consider cards as fractions of badges — for example, a card from a ten-card set is 1/10 of a badge. If you give me two cards from a 15-card set for one of my cards from a 5-card set, I wind up with more cards, but less badge. So I let my ad leave the front page and more or less stopped trading for a while, unless a Friend wanted something.

Phase 3 started when I learned about the third-party Steam Card Exchange trading bot. This completely changed trading for me. In particular, it let me follow the letter of the “no Marketplace” rule without following its spirit. The Card Exchange bot is a Steam user that you offer trades to like any other, but instead of a human being accepting or rejecting them, there’s a computer program, which usually means you get a reply just a few second later (unless it’s overloaded, as happened daily during the Summer Sale trading-frenzy). The bot assigns each card a value in “credits”, the value being determined by its price in the Marketplace, except that it assigns the same value to every card in a set, and values are not allowed to exceed 100 credits, to help prevent abuse. The bot will accept any trade where it’s getting at least as many credits-worth of cards as it’s giving, and if there are credits left over, it keeps track of them and applies them to future trades with the same person. It does have some limitations that the Marketplace doesn’t. If you want the last of a card it has in stock, you pay 50% more — presumably this is a big part of how it increases its stock. It won’t stock more than 8 of a card, so if it already has 8 of a card you’re offering it, your offer will be rejected. It won’t let your stored credits exceed 100.

(I find these limitations interesting, because they introduce some extra symmetry. You don’t just have lower bounds of zero cards and zero credits, but upper bounds as well. This means you can think of a personal store of n credits as (100-n) anticredits, which you can use to buy the gaps in the bot’s inventory.)

What this all means is that I now had a trading partner who wouldn’t try to bilk me, but which I could maximally exploit in good conscience. I’ve gone so far as to write a script to report the price of a full badgeworth of cards for every game in Card Exchange credits. (The Card Exchange has a page listing badge prices in US dollars, but this is misleading if you’re only trading with the Exchange.) I give it cards for expensive badges (when it lets me), and buy as much as I can of the cheap ones. I mentioned before that my first badge for a game I don’t own was an amusing novelty; at this point, if I make a badge for a game I do own, it’s complete coincidence.

I suppose the next step is day-trading: monitoring small price fluctuations and making a profit by repeatedly buying and selling the same cards. I haven’t gone that far yet, but honestly, I’m pretty far gone. Trading is no longer connecting me to other players, and I’m no longer aiming for badges for the games I like. The Card Exchange is almost as “easy mode” as the Marketplace. But hey, at least I’m not idling, right?

I few days ago, I idled. The game was Actual Sunlight, a short and text-heavy character portrait about depression and suicide, written in RPG Maker. Not exactly the sort of work you’d expect to have cards, but there it is. I played through it, assiduously seeking out every item I could press a button at to trigger an essay about how worthless the player character feels, and when I reached the end, and I still had one card drop left. So I started to replay it from the beginning, but got discouraged and stopped. (My patience was not helped by the game’s irritating unskippable opening cutscene, which includes an alarm clock going off multiple times.) I’m pretty sure I saw everything the piece had to offer, so I idled for a half an hour or so. The honorable thing would have been to just stop playing, and maybe pick it up again some time later, when I could look at it again with fresh eyes. But that last card drop itched.

Anyway, if you’re read this far, I invite you to trade with me. I currently have about 600 cards, and am willing to do just about any 1:1 in-set trade, as well as consider cross-set trades that don’t leave me with less badge.

Steam Trading Cards: The Downside

The last post described some of the benefits of the Steam Trading Card system. Well, the players, in their pursuit of cards or their indifference towards same, have wasted no time in subverting or destroying said benefits. The system itself enables this, and indeed encourages it, largely by linking cards to money.

If you don’t want to interact with your friends, the Steam Marketplace lets you sell your cards to anonymous strangers. You can use the proceeds to buy other cards, or you can save it up to buy games — I know people who have bought games entirely with the profits from selling cards. The one thing you can’t do with this money is withdraw it to spend on food or rent or anything else outside of Steam: the Steam Marketplace uses money from your “Steam wallet”, which you can fund from your credit card, but once money enters this captive economy, it doesn’t come out. Some people call it “Steambux” to differentiate it from “real” money (whatever that means). Also, valve takes a cut of every Marketplace transaction, although, since they’ve really already taken 100% of all money put into anyone’s “wallet”, what they’re really doing there is reducing the Steambux in circulation in order to convince people to convert more dollars into Steambux.

The Marketplace turns the card system into something like the free-to-play/pay-to-win games that have drawn so much deserved hate from the gaming community, and it deserves some derision just for that, but there’s an additional aspect that makes it even worse: the positive feedback of the booster drop rate. People who buy their way to Level 100 aren’t just cheating themselves out of the experience of doing it the hard way, they’re taking boosters away from the other players.

Mind you, I can’t say for sure that anyone’s actually bought their way to Level 100. All I can say is that there are definitely people paying Steambux for cards, because I know there are people selling cards, and there are definitely people who reached the higher ranks with suspicious rapidity, and who have thousands of cards in their inventory currently. You can find them in the various Steam trading forums, leveraging their massive stock by offering hard-to-find trades at terms that favor themselves, most often including a general “one of my cards for two of yours” as a default. And honestly, if people are biting, that could be enough to explain it. Simply being ahead of the curve on card-wealth would put them at enough of a trading advantage to be self-reinforcing. And that makes the card game somewhat less appealing.

To my mind, though, the single biggest perversity of incentive in the whole system is the one that manifests as “idling”: leaving a game running without playing it, just to get cards. Like I said, Steam has to be able to deal with games of all sorts, and doesn’t really have any way of knowing if you’re interacting with them or not. All it knows is when the game app is running. (And even if it tried to figure out more, I have no doubt that people would come up with ways to fake it, like they did for TF2 hat drops.) This is card-collecting for Bitcoin enthusiasts, rewarding you with virtual possessions for wasting CPU cycles. Now, you might wonder why anyone would do this, considering that the point of having games in the first place is to play them. But there are reasons: maybe you got the game in a bundle and don’t really want it; maybe you already finished it when it didn’t have cards yet; maybe you have a large backlog of card-bearing games and want to get their cards as soon as possible; maybe you have multiple Steam accounts just for card-farming; maybe you bought the game just for the cards and were never actually interested in playing it at all.

(Does this actually happen? Maybe, sometimes. If all you want is the cards, it’s generally cheaper to buy the cards on the Marketplace — I recall an article from last year in which a developer lamented how the cards for his game were selling for more than the game itself, and how lousy that made him feel, but that seems to have been a temporary thing, when the cards were new and therefore rare, limited in a way that a game on Steam will never be. Card prices are generally measured in cents rather than dollars, and only represent an upper bound regardless; just because a card is listed in the Marketplace as available for $20 doesn’t mean anyone is actually paying that much for it. But occasionally it can happen that buying a game and selling the cards can yield more than its price. During the recent Summer Sale, a 2D physics-puzzle platformer called Defy Gravity, which normally sells for $2.99, went on sale for 90% off. Its cards were priced at about 11 or 12 cents at the time, and idling would get you three cards, so you could actually make a few cents on that. SteamCents, of course.)

Regardless, all of these reasons strike me as bad ones, because they all come down to entitlement. The idler is saying “I do not wish to engage with this, but I want the spoils anyway”. This is a terrible way to play any game, metagames included.

But what is that to me? I’ll get into that in my next post, where I’ll describe my personal experiences with the cards, and how I reached level 50.

Steam Trading Cards: Gaming Gamified

OK, it’s been more than a month since my last post. The seasonal Steam Sale distracted me. It did this even before the sale proper began, by means of special promotional trading cards that kicked off a predictable trading frenzy which, for my part, hasn’t completely dissipated yet. Steam trading cards are essentially a metagame — a game that contains other games — and, as such, they easily take the place of the other chief metagame in my life, this blog. But since the card metagame is the chief game that’s occupying my attention lately, I guess I should blog about it a little.

Steam trading cards were introduced a little over a year ago. I, like many Steam users, didn’t pay them much attention until they were made the centerpiece of the promotion surrounding last year’s Summer Sale. Previous seasonal promotions had been more ad-hoc, involving special content in specific games — new themed levels, holiday-wrapped gift boxes dropped by monsters — and special tasks relating to this content that could earn you vanity items such as limited-edition hats for use in Team Fortress 2. I kind of miss that, but Valve seems to have regarded the cards as an improvement, because they’ve used the card system in every sale promotion since then.

Each participating game — and participation is completely optional — has its own set of virtual cards, with anywhere from 5 to 15 distinct cards in a set, featuring art provided by the game’s makers. The art varies considerably from game to game — some have concept art from the game’s development, some have screenshots, some have illustrations or cartoons inspired by the game, a few even have character stats on them like a baseball card. Obviously the art isn’t the appeal to the collectors here, though. If you just wanted to look at the pictures, they’re all easily found on the Web. No, if you’re collecting cards, it’s simply because collecting cards appeals to you. Because you’re an obsessive completist, or because you like the implicit trading game involved.

To summarize the rules of this game: Collected cards can be crafted into badges, which give you experience points, which help you get more cards, in a self-reinforcing cycle. I’ve heard people ridicule the whole system on that basis alone, asking “What’s the point?”, even as they happily play other games that are just as circular, just as pointless.

The cards initially come into the system as a result of people playing games they own on Steam. While you’re playing a game that has cards, you’ll just spontaneously receive a card once in a while. You only get a limited number of these drops, though, and the limit is equal to half the number of cards in the set, rounded up. Usually it takes a few hours to exhaust the drops (which, in some cases, may be enough to finish the game — I think of McPixel as an especially egregious example here), but once you’ve done that, you’re eligible for booster packs for that game. Boosters contain three cards, regardless of how many cards are in the set, and are just given out to random eligible users once in a while. Exactly how Valve decides when to give out boosters is unknown — all we know is that it’s linked to the rate at which players make badges, which may or may not mean that they try to keep a constant number of cards in circulation. When boosters are issued, your chance of being chosen to receive one is affected by your Steam account’s “level”, which is a concept that came in with the card system. There’s this whole system of XP, with levels taking arithmetically-increasing amounts of XP to attain. And that’s what badges are for: they’re the source of XP. A complete set of cards can be turned into a game-specific badge, or used to upgrade a badge you already have (normal badges can be upgraded four times), yielding 100 XP each time, which is enough to earn you an entire level at the lower tiers. Crafting a badge also gives you a couple of minor vanity items and a discount coupon for another game, but I consider these inconsequential — goodness knows there’s a glut of both out there. There exist badges that aren’t card-based — player profile attributes from older promotions got turned into badges so that they could also contribute XP — but cards are by far the dominant badge source. Cards can be traded between players, or bought and sold on the Steam marketplace, but badges are permanently linked to a single account.

There are a few other wrinkles, like “foil cards”, and how the system deals with free-to-play-games, but we’ll ignore those for now. I should probably say something about the promotional cards that kicked off this post. Each of the major seasonal sales (summer and winter) since Summer 2013 has had its own card set. There were several ways to earn these cards, but the most significant one for this discussion is this: starting about a week before the sale, crafting a badge for any game would give you a promotional card in the place of the coupon. (The coupons would have been pretty useless during the sale, due to not being combinable with other discounts.) The Summer 2013 cards worked pretty much like normal game cards, with a five-level badge and all, but subsequent promotions added two extra twists: there’s no limit to how many times you can upgrade the event badge, and any unbadged cards vanish when the sale is over. Thus, the sale produces a flurry of limited-opportunity card-trading and badge-making, and the limited availability of the promotional cards was enough to make a lot of users, including myself, hold off on pursuing badges while the Summer 2014 sale was approaching, so as to maximize our sale badge XP.

Now, before I start tearing this system apart, I’d like to acknowledge the ways in which it’s kind of brilliant. First of all, it links getting cards to actually playing games, which is good for the players, because it gives them an extra motivation to actually try out all the extra games they got in sales or bundles, and good for the developers, because having people play their games to get the cards stimulates interest in them. What’s more, it links cards to their games in a very content-agnostic way. If I had been asked to devise a trading-card system linked to playing games, I probably would have tried to link it to progress in the game — say, one card for every level you complete or something — but any such scheme would assume a lot about the sort of game it is. You can’t even really say “You get all your cards when you reach the ending”, because not all games have endings. The existing system only assumes that games are played in distinct sessions of nonzero duration — which may not be a safe assumption about games in general, but it’s fine for the sort of games Steam supports.

Secondly, it encourages player interaction, even in games that don’t encourage it otherwise. Booster packs come rarely enough that you’re unlikely to complete many badges without trading, and the interface for viewing your progress on a badge helpfully tells you which people on your Friends list own the cards you’re missing, to facilitate deal-making. Mind you, trading away cards effectively means giving up on one badge to complete another, which can be a tough decision: it’s natural to want badges for the games you like, so consequently giving up cards for a game feels like a statement that you don’t like that game so much, even though the very fact that you have those cards in the first place means you probably do. At any rate, trading means exposing your card inventory, which communicates something about your game preferences. Engines of commerce such as Steam are always trying to get customers to endorse products by rating them or reviewing them or “liking” them, but the card system gets something of the same effect without coming off as asking for an unpaid favor.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about some things I don’t like about the system.

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