Gimme! gimme!

The Wonderful World of Steam Trading Cards

Earn, Trade, Level Up

James Simpson
Jul 15, 2013 · 5 min read

There is something inherently appealing about Steam’s new trading card system, an appeal that has only been strengthened by the platform’s Summer Sale. The cards reward community-building and game-playing while tapping into our obsessions as collectors both old and young.

Summer of ‘96

Pogs, Merlin football stickers, Pokémon cards. I don’t know about you, but I spent most of my elementary school years watching some sort of collection craze unfold. Getting “shinies”, trading “swaps” and displaying them in a book or snazzy case seems to be an almost universal experience - I see kids here in Japan collecting small toys from cup noodle packs, trading cards, and gachapon capsules all the time.

This is a feeling that video games have tried to capitalize on for a long time. It seems a little weird to even admit to this, but I kept a spreadsheet of costumes I had collected in Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball for the original Xbox. Other people max out their achievements in games like Battlefield 3 and Monster Hunter and Pokémon fans will spending hours trying to “catch ‘em all”.

Steam jumped into this with its original achievements feature back in 2007 with the release of The Orange Box followed by badges in the summer sale of 2012. Achievements reward playing your games, badges reward buying your games. Trading cards are bricks that house the two, with XP and profile levels providing the cement to strengthen the system.

Earn ‘em

Many games in Steam now come with trading cards. You earn cards in these supported games by simply playing - typically an hour per card. In order to encourage players to trade, Valve has limited the number of cards you can collect through play alone (“card drops”) to around half the set or just under. That you have no control over which cards you receive simply makes the collection even harder to complete.

Just like when you bought your packs of stickers or Kinder Eggs - you might end up with a duplicate to swap. Using your stock of swaps, you can then try and coax your friends into trading with you, a feature Valve certainly wants to encourage given how important it has become to the Team Fortress community.

Rather cunningly, Valve’s limit on the number of card drops means you will almost certainly fall short of being able to complete your sets even with trading, so it is lucky for you (and rather profitable for them) that they are also giving out cards in their sales.

“As cunning as a fox who's just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University”

Also, in order to reward continued use of their platform, particularly with rising competition from non-DRM sites (like GOG), once your card drops per game have been used up, you become eligible for randomly-rewarded booster packs which will help you complete your sets and gives you more swaps to trade with. To further encourage spending, the eligibility for booster packs increases with every 10 levels.

It’s a complicated system, but it has Valve’s business goals in mind: encourage play, encourage Steam use, encourage sales.

Trade ‘em

Now, I don’t know about you, but I have barely any Steam friends. Even among those friends I do have, we are rarely on at the same time given different work hours and timezones. So how will you ever be able to complete your set? Well, you can post on Steam groups and Steam-related websites, but bots offer a much readier solution.

There are two well-established bot systems that I have used: Steam Card Exchange and Backpack.tf. Both run along the same lines. Their websites list the selection of cards that their bots are carrying and their buy-sell prices (in credits). These credits are based on the value of the game and the availability of the cards. You tell the bot what you want through the chat box and then add the items you are trading to cover the price in credits.

Given the price difference in buying vs selling cards, you are frequently trading at a disadvantage - one card might not be enough for the card you want, something which is less likely to happen among your friends. You are also looking at a long wait. The queues for bots from both sites took me over an hour to get through and if you miss the invitation to trade, you’re back at square one. Still, what other choices do we have?

Level up

Once you have your set of cards completed, you can convert the cards into a badge which gives you XP on Steam plus emoticons and other goodies. All the items are designed to keep you coming back to Steam and to keep you trading and playing. Collecting the same set of cards again and again will also allow you to upgrade your badge.

Badges are where the street cred lies: you put them on your profile to show how much of a hardcore gamer you are. Bling and swag meets PC gaming.

As awful and as materialistic as that all sounds, I prefer this to some of the other trends tearing through gaming: buy-to-succeed content packs and limiting the capabilities for new players to encourage them to buy the game lest they suffer for hours ( *cough* Battlefield 3 *cough* ) are not the way to go. People love to hoard crap, but don’t let it negatively affect our gaming experience.

No, at least with Steam’s community-oriented approach, I can get my collection juices flowing without having to give up on my family, work and wallet… wait, forget about that last one.

Game-Life Balance

A collection of reviews and features on video games by regular gamers juggling regular lives. (Image by @naosukeii)

    James Simpson

    Written by

    Ruby on Rails dev. Former contributor to War is Boring & Jane's Defence Weekly. Gamer. Kawasaki resident.

    Game-Life Balance

    A collection of reviews and features on video games by regular gamers juggling regular lives. (Image by @naosukeii)

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