Steam Trading Cards: A History for the Uninitiated and the Sane


The past year or so has been an interesting one for gamers hooked into the personal computer’s most popular marketplace, Steam. In August of last year, Valve launched Greenlight, a service which aims to give publishing power to the people when it comes to unproven developers. In December of that year, Steam launched Big Picture Mode, a push to make controller support on PC a standard and allow gamers to bring their PCs into the living room. Also in that month, they began testing the Community Market, a response to the various grey markets surrounding the economies that had been created around TF2 and Dota. In the early parts of this year, Valve opened Steam’s Early Access store, a place where games still in beta can find a massive audience before launch day. All of these moves have had growing pains, yet they all tell a story of Valve’s unique position in games, and their willingness to experiment more than anyone else in the industry.

On June 26th, Valve unleashed their latest experiment on the gaming populace, collectable trading cards that drop while playing games on Steam, with a mixture of supporting titles that range from crowd pleasers such as Borderlands 2 and Super Meat Boy to relative unknowns like Really Big Sky and Defender’s Quest. A gamer not already deeply invested in the Steam community might not understand what this truly means for the platform going forward, and they might wonder what the point of it all is. That opinion certainly prevailed when Valve added nine cosmetic items to TF2’s drop system all those years ago, but those naysayers are effectively silenced every time someone sells a Burning Team Captain for prices measured in three or four digits. Valve aims to make lightning strike twice, creating value for long time customers with huge libraries, as well as enticing new ones with promises of winning it big through trading. In essence, Valve is completing Steam’s transformation from a storefront into an MMORPG of sorts, but they’ve had lots of prior help from their community.

If there is anyone to blame for Steam’s metamorphosis besides Valve, it is probably the folks that kicked PC gaming in the pants a few years ago, the team at Humble Bundle. Their pay what you want collections of indie PC games turned Steam codes into a commodity all their own. Early on, buyers would buy hundreds of bundles for a penny each and then go on to sell them to those who were unaware for a tidy profit. Most of these loopholes have been plugged in the intervening time, but the ongoing popularity of Humble’s ongoing weekly sales and their many competitors have allowed users on Steam to build up large collections for very little money.


Eventually, as games were repeated in these bundles, the sheer volume of extra codes floating around caused sites like SteamGifts to pop up, allowing gamers to give away their spare codes and propagate the most popular titles to become almost unanimously owned by users of the service. Wanting to avoid giving away games to the masses at large, a new use was found for Steam’s group features. Users created guilds of like minded individuals willing to put money into acquiring titles for the group, and in return gaining access to exclusive giveaways of more pricey titles with a much higher chance to actually win a game.

Over time, this has bred a group of users on Steam who rely on deep community connections and price fluctuations to acquire all of their games on the cheap or free, much like gamers who earn enough in-game money in an MMO like EVE: Online to pay for their monthly subscription cost. The game collectors who keep adding games to their libraries without even scratching the surface on their backlog. The person who scouts low tier bundle dealers and international game shops for insane deals that are only open for a few hours or days.These power users were already playing Steam as if it were a game, and Valve didn’t even have to lift a finger.
This brings us back to Trading Cards, Valve’s attempt to make sense of this madness and increase their profits all at the same time. Bringing a TF2 type economy to Steam in general, trading cards also serve to distinguish between players of differing dedication. Every collection you obtain allows you to craft a badge for your profile, which gains you emoticons and backgrounds for Steam proper, randomized coupons for other games, as well as a small bit of XP. Just as in any other RPG, enough XP will increase your level on Steam, inching you closer to small increases in the number of friends you can hold on your friends list and modules you can use to customize your profile.


So, what does this mean to the average user of Steam? Nothing really. Everything in the trading card system is tradable and marketable, allowing you to gain the $1-2 value of the cards that come with some of the games you already own. At this level, you’re F2P, pumping cards into the economy while not taking part of it, allowing more invested users to collect the cards that don’t drop in their predefined allotment (because what would an economy on Steam be without trading and artificial limits?) To some it may seem like a soulless cash grab, and perhaps it is. Steam is nothing but efficient in its monopolization of the PC games market. But to those already invested in the system, and to those looking to get more than just enjoyment out of their game collection, Steam’s latest system can be a fun distraction.

And hey, no one is forcing you to buy any games.
Even if they are 75% off.
Even if they do include TF2 hats and trading cards.
Even if they do earn you Steam XP.
No one is forcing you at all.