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The Problem with Steam Trading Cards

Discussion & Analysis Steam

With Valve having recently released the full version of their new ‘Steam Trading Cards’ feature, after a surprisingly short beta period, there has been much discussion around the Internet about the purpose and usefulness of the system. Some have praised the system as another way for allowing users to get more involved in the Steam Community, and rewarding dedicated Steam users; others, however, have criticized the system as being gimmicky and even exploitative, and nothing more than a money-making scheme on Valve’s part.

A quick run-down for those of you who are unfamiliar with the system: Steam Trading Cards allows users to receive random trading cards for playing various games, which they can then craft into ‘badges’ in order to increase their ‘Steam level,’ a new, RPG-like feature added to Steam. Higher Steam levels grant users additional Steam features, such as the ability to customize their Steam profiles further, or have larger friends lists. Trading cards can obviously be traded with other users, and can also be sold for money. At first glance, the system seems like a fantastic idea: it rewards you for playing games you like, which you can then use to unlock additional features; meanwhile, people not interested can simply ignore the system altogether. Thus, everybody is happy. The truth is not that simple, however.

The Problem with Steam Trading Cards

The main draw of the new Steam Trading Cards system is in the rewards for crafting badges. Cards are used for crafting badges, which grant some great rewards to the user. And the rewards are really quite useful; profile customization allows users to add ‘wallpapers’ to their profile pages, adding something of a personal touch to them, and, while limited at the moment, will be expanded on greatly in the future according to Valve. The increased number of friends is also an obvious advantage for people who have hit the friends list limit. Both features are very welcome, giving some significant benefits to users who take part in the system. What’s the problem then?

Well, an important question stemming from all of this is: why aren’t these features available at the start? Why do we have to spend hours sinking time into various games, some of which we normally would not play at all, in order to unlock arbitrary trading cards to craft into badges to fill up an arbitrary XP bar, just to gain access to these features? If such features can be easily implemented, why would Valve add such pointless, unnecessary barriers? The fact is, the system was not designed with generosity in mind, or to truly benefit users. It was not designed simply to give users access to some awesome new features. The system was designed in order to encourage players to spend longer hours playing games for unlocks, ultimately benefitting Valve, and Valve alone. The result is a system that gives the illusion of ‘progress’ to users, by making them feel like they are receiving new features, when in actuality the system is doing little more than holding said features back and putting up barriers.

This ties in with the whole idea of ‘gamification,’ which has been the subject of much discussion lately. Gamification is the addition of ‘game-like’ features to non-game systems, with the aim of engaging users and encouraging them to spend more time on the system. In essence, it offers ‘game-like’ rewards for completing tasks that a person otherwise may not wish to perform. Steam Trading Cards, for example, rewards playing games with cards, which, when crafted, fill out an XP bar. In theory, this would encourage users to play games more, as they are receiving awards for play.

The problem with this idea, however, and one that Steam Trading Cards runs straight into, is that it does not promote an interest in the game itself; it, instead, simply encourages mindless ‘grinding’ for the reward at the end. When one sinks several hours into a game in order to receive a trading card, badge, achievement, or whatever else, they are not necessarily doing it because of their enjoyment of the game itself; they are simply grinding for the reward at the end. Steam Trading Cards most certainly does not exist to promote a love for games; it, instead, exists to encourage users to sink as much time as they can into games for the sole purpose of receiving an extrinsic reward at the end – a larger friend’s list, or profile customization options. Gamification, as a whole, is a glorified marketing ploy, and Steam Trading Cards is unfortunately no different.

All of that having been said, I am not trying to convince everyone that Valve have suddenly become an evil, money-grubbing corporation out to exploit its users. Valve have obviously done a lot of good for the gaming industry overall. They are most certainly not perfect, however, and their new Trading Cards feature is a very flawed system that should be addressed. In any case, while I don’t expect Valve to do away with the system entirely, I do hope they pay attention to, and work to correct the problems with it in the future.

Any opinions on the arguments I raised? Any possible suggestions for how the system could be improved? Please leave comments in the section below! Keep it polite please.


  1. I have no idea what you guys are talking about, I use steam for games, and dont have 100 friends. I honestly could care less about my steam wall or whatever my main page for my accounts called, I judt enjoy my games and as an added bonus I get trading cards! Its a really neat system, like little tiny achievments that are actually fun to get becuase all you have to do is have fun playin games! If your grinding for cards, your using your game wrong. Its for fun not for ″aw man I cant add this third random person from chinas friend request becuase I allready have 100 ″friends″!″ Just remember that… K BYE

  2. I sadly have to confirm this. Sometimes I start games and stay idle in them when Im not on PC to get card
    drops :/

  3. I really doubt that Valve did this to make people spend long hours to unlock cards. I reached my card drop limit for each of my card-providing games within an hour or two. After that, it’s pretty much all about trading (if someone really cares about collecting) and the average price for cards seems to be under 20 cents, so individuals aren’t even spending that much money.

    Originally, I wanted cards so that I could sell them and make money, but at such low prices there really isn’t much incentive to do that anymore. All in all, the trading card system seems pointless to me.

  4. Whoever wrote this article has not exchanged a single thing on Steam.

    When I buy a $10 wallpaper on the market, I pay another Steam user for it, not Valve.

    There is only a minor tax, a little going to Valve, and a little going to the publisher of the game’s cosmetic item.

    Valve does not sell or revenue from releasing player cards into the system. They are given for free to the individuals who play the game. Minor revenue is made from exchanging via the Steam Market. You could decide to exchange via third party as well, and then they would not make a single penny on that exchange.

    Get your facts right.

    • Get my facts straight? I don’t remember even mentioning the Steam Market in the article. And when did I claim that Valve received a substantial amount of money from Trading Card sales?

      The point of the article was to question the need for grinding in random games to receive trading cards, in order to unlock features as basic as wallpapers. You can’t even set wallpapers until you reach a certain Steam level; why is the ‘Steam level’ thing even necessary? Why can’t these features be available from the start?

  5. Yeah, I think you’re totally right. Honestly it’s bizarre that they’re doing this. Valve is just looking more and more greedy, less and less innovative. It doesn’t help that they haven’t released an innovative game in absolutely years (Portal was the last one, really), and that whenever somebody asks them what’s happening on the games front they just receive condescending silence. I can’t work out if they’re ashamed, or they they just know what they’re turning into and don’t want to tell the people who used to respect them.

    • @Gloone

      How is releasing player cards for free being greedy? How is giving free wallpapers and emoticons for crafting a badge with these player cards, greedy?

      They only earn very little, Valve, and the publisher in question, by tax added via the optional Steam Market exchange place.

      You do not need to exchange via the Steam Market, you can go to free trading websites.

      • From my understanding of ThePerson5’s article, the problem is not that the system is trying to directly make money, rather that it tries to make players invest more time in playing Steam games, and hence more time on Steam, even if they are not enjoying the games themselves. In that respect the features are not “free” because players must spend extra time unlocking them.

        Personally I don’t feel it is a serious problem as the Trading cards system has not affected me, but I do think it is worth discussing from a moral standpoint.

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