I’ve been experimenting with the Steam Trading Card system recently. Ever since it came out of beta on June 26th, I’ve always been aware of it’s existence, but I’ve more or less ignored it. Every now and then I’d get notified that I’d earn’t some cards through playing a game, but it was never something I interacted with. Then Steam announced their plans for the Living Room. In order to become a candidate for receiving a prototype machine, you had to earn a special badge they created. And so it began.
Getting the ‘Hardware Beta Candidate’ badge was relatively simple for me – I’d already ticked a lot of the boxes naturally during my four years’ service (of which I had a badge that said ‘4 Years’ Service). I even already had more than 10 friends, and I was amused to see how many people didn’t. From there, I noticed there was a ‘Pillar of the Community’ badge, so as an exercise in task completion I set out to get that badge as well. Meanwhile, earning these badges had notched me up a level or two, which had given me some stuff. Considering I had some cards anyway, I thought I’d take things further and start crafting some badges proper like.
It’s a weird system. As it stands, each game that has been integrated with Trading Cards has a number of free drops that you can earn just by playing the game. These ‘drops’ net you one card in that game’s set, and it’s randomised so you could get repeat cards. For Europa Universalis 4, for example, I got the same card three times. There are never as many free drops as there are the number of individual cards you need to complete a set. So, just looking through the sets I could potentially get right now, free drops range from 3 – 5, but the number of cards in a set can range from 5-8.
To get the remaining cards in a set then, you essentially have three options. The first two are relatively straight forward – if you have any spares, trade them with friends who have spares of the ones you need. If that isn’t an option, you can buy the cards you need on the community marketplace. Cards go for anything from five pence, to twenty pence, and you can sell your own spares too to raise funds for new ones. This is, deliberately I imagine, the simplest option. Steam and the maker of the game both get a cut of the sale (although we’re usually talking 0.01p here), and considering there is infinitely more people selling cards on the market then friends you may or may not have on Steam, it’s the easiest place to get the cards you need.
Of course, justifying to your girlfriend why you put the £4 minimum in your Steam wallet to devote towards acquiring digital cards to create digital badges whose only purpose is to rank up a level on a digital platform is another matter entirely.
The final option is just to wait to get a booster pack. Once you’ve used up all of your free drops, you become ‘eligible’ to receive a free booster back for that game. These booster packs are created whenever someone crafts a badge for that game, at a ratio of 1:1 (apparently). That booster pack is then randomly assigned to one eligible booster candidate, with everyone having a (theorised) small chance of winning, which gets marginally better when you hit Level 10 (And then that chance increases every ten ranks). No one knows what the base probability is, so it’s impossible to tell what the modified probability becomes. Since reaching level 10 last week, however, I’ve received one booster pack. Prior to that, I’d received zero booster packs for any of the games I was eligible for, and I was eligible for about four I think before I made an effort to play other games for cards. Booster packs contain three cards for that set, and you can open the booster and take the cards (which are of course randomised) or you can sell the booster as is.
This is the weirdest part of the system for me… I was talking to Ananda Gupta, Creative Lead for XCOM: Enemy Within (going to be epic by the way, y’all should get it), and he said he didn’t think the system would replace traditional achievements, but he liked it as an alternative, and he generally liked anything that got people playing games more. The only thing is, the Trading Card system only inspires people to play games more until the drops run out, and to get a drop I’m pretty sure all you have to do is be in the game for a few minutes (not tested that). Once you’ve earned all the drops, the amount you play that game means nothing. The chances of getting the booster packs remain the same, which I feel is a shame.
Trading Cards, at the moment, is rather obviously geared towards Valve trying to make money off gamer’s weird compulsion to collect things, to earn things, to better each other. I’ve got no problem with that – no one is going to have enough friends who all play the same game in order to do the badge thing by trading alone. I just wish earning badges, especially level two and up where you essentially have to collect the same set of cards again, only this time without the advantage of having had some free drops, was tied to something other than a randomised engine based on collective use of the badge system.
As it is, I don’t think Trading Cards will replace traditional achievements, but with Steam now gearing up to add a real home console competitor into the mix, creating their own unique brand of achievements would go together wonderfully with that. You could combine traditional feats of awesome in-game with the cards, so that playing a game still mattered. I mean, I’ve got the Level 1 XCOM badge because I love XCOM enough to buy the other cards to get the badge, and seeing as in I still play is a lot, I’d love to get the level two and above badges as well, but just up and paying for the cards AGAIN feels…weird. A waste of money, for one thing, but it also feels a little bit like cheating, and against the ‘spirit’ of a collectible card system. If I could earn cards or boosters through completely the already implemented in-game achievement list, then I think this whole trading card things could become something special.
Still, the concept has only been out of Beta since June, so we’re talking just less than four months here. Valve are probably still collating and analysing their data, so perhaps we’ll see an evolution or something sometime next year. Depends if they do want to make it integral to the Steam Machines or not I guess. One thing I will say though, you do get some interesting stuff whenever you create a badge – backgrounds for your profile are pretty cool, and you get randomised money-off vouchers for games. I’ve got a %66 off Portal 2 voucher, which I intend to use. The emoticons I could care less about, though.