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.