Talk of the Ninja: Steam Badges — Spending Money on Virtual Trinkets

A friend recently retweeted a snarky article from this site called Play4Real, which is basically a gaming equivalent of The Onion. The article is called “Valve Adds Button to Steam That Says Give Us Money, Makes 2 Million Dollars in 3 Hours“. The article bugs me, though not for the reasons you might be thinking.

So Valve has this weird system with trading cards and badges that cost real money and put knickknacks on your profile and give you a chance at getting games you want.

Wait, hang on, I’m getting ahead of myself. Tell you what, I’m gonna give you a little history lesson about Steam and its monetary infrastructure.

Once upon a time, on April 29th, 2008, Valve made a big announcement about a new Team Fortress 2 patch called the Gold Rush Update. This added a new gamemode and map to TF2, but much more prominently, it introduced a whole new system of items. Players would randomly unlock alternate class weapons while playing, and these weapons would provide different benefits and drawbacks to allow for varying playstyles.

See, up until that point TF2 had been criticized for its lack of total content but praised for its balance. These two went hand in hand — there was so little on display because enormous time was spent ensuring that its maps and its nine totally different classes were all well-balanced. It was an impressive feat. With it now revealed that they would be adding more and more different items, it quickly became clear that the game wouldn’t have the same careful balance it once had. It sacrificed that for variety. Personally, I liked the change, as did many. But many others didn’t.

But I digress.

More and more weapons were added, as were cosmetic hats, and many players became frustrated at not getting the items they wanted from the random drops. So eventually Valve added a trading feature to TF2. You could trade items with other players in-game. Finally! I could give my medic friend the Kritzkrieg he wanted and he could give me that Backburner I was lusting after.

A robust TF2 item economy emerged, but trading in-game was inconvenient, and there swiftly became many servers devoted to trading. People would hop on a game server not to shoot dudes, but to spam the chat with the item they’re looking to trade or trade for. To streamline the trading process, Valve added a feature to Steam itself where you could trade items directly with Steam users without logging onto TF2 itself. This meant each user had a Steam inventory, with various sub-inventories for TF2 and other games that had similar item systems, like the free-to-play MMO Spiral Knights.

It still was confusing to keep up with the item economy and how much each item was “worth” when there wasn’t a solid form of currency tying everything together. So eventually Valve took a bold move and added another new feature: the Steam Market. Here you could buy and sell items not with other items, but with real money. Suddenly an item wasn’t worth X number of TF2 scrap metals — it was worth $X.XX! This drastically streamlined the process of getting what items you wanted. You could sell what you didn’t want and use the money to buy what you did want. This also meant that you could sell lots of TF2 items and use that money toward a Steam game you were interested in.

But with this feature Valve introduced something else, something odd: Steam Trading Cards. How it works is that each game opted into the system gets a set of trading cards. It can be 4, or 10, or however many. Each one has a neat piece of art provided by the developer. You get up to half the cards by playing the game itself. But if you collect them all, you could craft a badge, which you can feature on your Steam profile. It also increases your Steam level, which adds some tiny features like more friends list slots (there’s already a huge cap so it doesn’t really matter) and more doodads you can put on your profile.

So to get them all you have to buy the ones you don’t unlock on the market. (You can technically trade to get them, but since nobody gets them all themselves, the market is basically a necessity.) If you want those neat cosmetic bonuses on your profile, you can spend the money. If you don’t, you head right to the market and sell them. And it seems like most people don’t care, because most of the cards tend to sell at around 10 cents.

This was a weird feature to introduce. Everybody questioned it, but most people saw the worthlessness of the cards and sold them right away. At the start only ten or so games had cards, but as the feature grew, more games were added, and now almost every game that comes out has cards.

Enter the Steam Summer Sale.

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One comment

  1. Definitely agree. Just because something is digital doesn’t make it valueless. Given the amount of time I spend online, really do not see why spending money improving my experience is a bad decision.

    The only difference is that the restrictions on pricing and availability are more obviously artificial online.

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