On…Steam Trading Cards and Gamification

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So those of us who avidly waited for the Steam summer sales and picked up a bunch of titles that we may or may never play, you might have noticed a new little feature: Steam Trading Cards. At first, I was utterly perplexed as to why I should care about it. Reading the Steam faqs, I was told that you got new trading cards from playing games and from buying games, and that if you collected a whole set, you could craft it into a badge. You can also earn emoticons, background images for your profile and possibly discount vouchers. I mean, whoop-de-doo, I have never been one to care about my Steam profile; I only vaguely remember noticing I had a Steam level bar when I first joined up. So what was in it for me?

The more I looked into the system, the more brilliant I thought it was. And the more I knew about it, the more intensely I wanted to collect these cards. The addition of trading cards is a step towards the gamification of the Steam platform, the idea of implementing gaming mechanics into traditionally non-gaming contexts. Of course, Steam as a platform is associated with gaming, but it’s not a game in itself – until now. Now, the whole act of playing games and buying games is entertaining in its own right, and all Valve did was add little virtual trinkets in the form of collectible, tradable cards. Who benefits from this addition?

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Well, as consumers, even if you don’t care about the little aesthetic touches to your profile, the trading cards come with the ability to sell them on the marketplace. I have to say, the trading card marketplace is really well designed. You click on your card, hit sell, and you can instantly see a graph of previous prices that the particular card has sold for in the past. You can then set your price, leave it and then wait to see if anyone bites. For the most part, during the summer sales, I saw most cards in the price range of about 10 – 15 pence. Obviously that’s not a lot of money. But it is free money , and it adds up. And when even AAA games cost less than £5 during the sales, you can potentially fill up your Steam library with great titles without having to spend any more money than your initial investment.

You see, you get cards from playing games. But you can only get up to half the total card drops from merely playing. The other cards you have to get from the marketplace if you’re intent on collecting a set. However, what’s fantastic is that after you’ve collected all the free card drops you can possibly get, you can randomly get a booster pack. Now, these booster packs have been known to sell for ~£1 each, which is a significant amount of money to get for basically free.

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Who is buying these cards? Well it would seem there are enough people who care about collecting cards that they are actively buying them up. The marketplace essentially self-regulates, as having all the information about price trends really helps to stablise the market at a certain price. I wonder if we’ll have trading card speculators. It seems likely, given that certain cards were only obtainable in limited quantities at particular times such as the summer sales ones. Already, just a few days after those sales have ended, I can see that sales of summer sale cards have dropped significantly, from 1000s sold during the sale to only a couple of hundred now. I’m holding onto a few of mine, on the off chance that I can profit more from it in the future and well, because it’s no good to me as currency now that the biggest sales are over.

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Of course, Valve wouldn’t be a business if they weren’t also benefiting from this. There’s the obvious monetary benefit as they take a cut out of every sale on the marketplace. The money you get from selling cards can only be used on Steam, and presumably that also drives sales. After all, if you have £1.50 sitting in your Steam Wallet already, you might as well buy a title for £5.00 knowing you have that small discount available.

Furthermore, game publishers get a cut of the profits too to act as an incentive to join the scheme. It was widely advertised during the sales which games had trading cards and which didn’t; if you were one of the few games that didn’t, it reflects badly on you to see your game compared to all these other games. It evokes the feelings of missing out some key feature of the games, even though really, the cards are peripheral to the actual game itself. The pressure of that market will inevitably drive more games to buy into the system, and more games means a larger marketplace, and a larger marketplace means more transactions and more profit.

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Honestly though, I think one of the greatest benefits of this whole system are the less tangible ones. The execution of gamification is primarily a marketing tool, one which increases user engagement, and taps into that part of the human psyche which finds gaming so addictive. Gamification has been criticised often for actually being anti-fun and for being rather trite and tacked on in some cases. But when gamification is used well, as it has been here, it can be an immensely powerful tool for keeping users invested into a certain product. I talked about the dangers of going full-Steam in a previous post here, and it looks like that’s only going to get harder if you buy into a system like the trading cards and start caring about your profile.

For example, why would you buy a game on a different platform like Desura or GOG if you can get the same game on Steam, and get cards from it? I mean, you’re basically getting a cheaper deal if you plan to sell the cards afterwards. But that money stays on Steam, and it’s only going to make your next decision much easier. Why would I buy the game straight from the dev if I could get it on Steam and save £2 on it because I built up this currency in my Steam wallet?

What these cards will do is cause users to become much more invested in their Steam accounts. Whether you engage in it as a medium for making money or whether you go for the collecting aspect and craft badges and profile gubbins etc., you’ve basically got an account which is just not comparable to anything else. Previously, when your accounts were just game libraries, there’s much less to hold onto there. Obviously those games have value – both monetary and otherwise – but it’s fairly interchangeable whether you have those games on Steam or, for example, Origin. I mean, perhaps you had a few things unique to Steam like your friendslist, but these were features that can be found elsewhere.

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Now, your Steam account has something special to it. And that something special is something which causes you to constantly reinvest more and more into that account to get the most out of it. It’s going to get addictive. It’s just as addictive as seeing those fantastic sales. We as human beings love to be rewarded. Even completely meaningless awards, like achievement score on the Xbox 360, will imbue us with a sense of satisfaction and pride. I found myself during the sales checking every few hours for the community vote, because I knew that voting 3 times would net me a free card. As Valve moves forward and implements new ways to earn more cards, I am sure that people will just spend more and more time on the systems they put into place.

But so what? Is this really so bad? Isn’t this whole thing actually rather brilliant, providing positive results for nearly everyone involved? Isn’t Valve right to try to push their platform to keep hold of their massive market share and dominance over gaming culture? Yes, of course these are good things. But these benefits have to be balanced out. It has to be balanced out with the risk of addiction, and the consequences of investing so much time and money into a single enterprise. We’ve all heard not to put all your eggs in one basket. We all know that choices and openness are key to a better consumer experience.

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But it’s hard to really have choices when the other distribution platforms seem to be so rubbish in comparison. I think what this addition to Steam shows is that you can’t drive consumers to your platform merely on the promise of games. Exclusivity of games just pisses people off, and it fuels a toxic attitude of fanboyism, which is ultimately anti-consumer.

What does do wonders for not only a company’s public image but also their financials, is to implement systems like this trading card thing which reward consumers for being consumers. Sales, of course, and low prices in general are hugely beneficial to consumers as well. Is it fair to say that Valve is one of the most loved companies in the gaming sector? So much of that is just their consistent demonstration and commitment to being consumer-friendly. How many times have I seen on Reddit an email reply from Gabe to some completely nonsensical proposition? Just little displays of showmanship like that are enough to make people like you. EA and Microsoft in light of all their bad publicity recently could definitely take a page out of Valve’s book.

So previously, I advocated that people take a more discerning eye and consider their purchases more carefully (and I still do), and now I’m well aware that is going to be much harder to do in light of these developments on Steam. I mean I know I don’t act entirely rationally when I buy games: the never played games on my Steam library are testimony to that. I don’t always know what platform is best to buy it on, which platform provides the greatest cut to the developers etc. I don’t necessarily keep up to date with any shady behind-the-scenes issues like those devs who lambasted Steam greenlight. I don’t have all the information to make fully informed choices. That’s only going to get harder to do when we’re being trickle fed these little treats and incentives which, arguably, will be a disproportionate consideration in where we buy our games.

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I love the trading card system. I think it’s fantastic for consumers, publishers, Valve and basically everyone. Regardless, I think we need to consider what the trade offs are and whether we’re willing to stake so much on a single platform. I think we need to take a step back sometimes and ask, “What is motivating my decision right now? Am I actually considering all the possible benefits and drawbacks? Am I being unduly persuaded by aspects which are really rather irrelevant?”.

Of course, that’s in an ideal world. In reality, I, like so many others, will just be frantically buying more games at cheap prices and enjoying the bonus of cards. The pressure of the timed-based sales, the whole excitement and buzz over them and now the added trinket of trading cards…I’m going to find it hard to ever buy a game not on Steam in the future. I only hope that by considering these issues, I at least have a better understanding of the consequences of my choices – even if knowing that doesn’t actually affect anything.

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