The toll Steam Trading Cards take on indies

You'd think that Steam Trading Cards are harmless. It's a relatively simple idea: play a participating game on Steam, and within a few hours, a series of four or five trading cards (usually out of a total of eight) will drop at random intervals. Since you can't get all the cards yourself, you'll need to trade with friends or buy them on the Steam Market to complete the set. Once you have all a game's cards, you can craft a badge, which will compensate you a random emoticon and background related to the game. What could be so bad about that? Plenty, if you're a small indie developer that takes pride in their work.

Meet Miguel Sternberg, a veteran pixel artist and game designer with a penchant for cephalopods. He makes up half the team at Spooky Squid Games, best known for their hardcore 2D platformer They Bleed Pixels. In it, you play as a girl with purple skin and lobster-like pincers, chopping your way through Cthulhu-like enemies and vaulting over innumerable deathtraps. It was one of the first games to incorporate Steam Trading Cards during the beta--a process that Sternberg describes as "fairly informal and simple, as these sorts of things go."

There wasn't much barrier to entry. "[Valve] sent a bulk email to all the developers, saying 'Here's how the cards work; if you want to do them, this is what we need from you,'" says Sternberg. "It was very much open to individual developers whether they wanted to implement them or not." Some guidelines do exist regarding the badge bonuses: you can only make a maximum of 10 emoticons tied to your game, and as a developer, you're required to make a few of them Uncommon and one of them Rare. Foil versions of each card will drop at random, kicking up the rarity of some cards even higher.

"You can't just make everything easy to get, which I think is unfortunate, but understandable," says Sternberg. Like so many collectibles, you'll need to coordinate with your buddies--or strangers--if you want any hope of catching 'em all. Sternberg's no fool--"I get that what they want to do is get people trading," he says. "I'd love it if we could just sell backgrounds and icon packs to people directly. [But] I know the reason this stuff's there is because Valve wants people to get more invested in the community and Market."

To gather up all the emoticons and profile backgrounds for any given game, you'd have to craft multiple badges, a feat that can only realistically be done by rummaging through the Steam Market. "I like the idea of having little artifacts associated with the game, and stuff that people can use in the community," says Sternberg. "But the whole collector/psychological hook stuff I kind of wish wasn't there. What I worry is that it's the same sort of thing that Facebook games and casinos have. You get whales: people who are massively invested [in trading] and spend way more money than they necessarily have on it."

Market history for the Foil "Squidy Thing" card. Each point on the graph marks a successful sale.

The addictive nature of card collecting fuels the Market, where supply and demand play out as clear as day. The most popular Steam Card games, like Dota 2 or Team Fortress 2, have players in droves, and the surplus of cards drives the prices way down. But for lesser-known indies, the comparatively tiny playerbase means cards are few and far between, and savvy sellers know they can charge more for them. Sternberg recalls seeing They Bleed Pixels cards listed on the Market for over $10; foil cards have sold for as much as 30 bucks. The game itself costs $9.99.

When people are paying more for a valueless trinket than they are for the actual work that spawned them, it can be devastating to a developer's ego. "Honestly, it's a little bit depressing to see the cards selling more than the game is," laments Sternberg. "That to me feels kind of broken." The worst case scenario is that your labor of love, the game you worked hard to create, is being played for profit instead of pleasure by the majority of its users. "You do hope that if somebody is buying [They Bleed Pixels], they're buying it to play and enjoy the game," says Sternberg. "The cards throw this weird psychological thing in the way of that."

That being said, there are plenty of upsides, and Steam Trading Cards have done a lot for the success of the game. "I've definitely found more people buying it since we've added Steam Cards," says Sternberg. "Our day-to-day sales jumped to roughly double, and maintained being double what they were before, ever since we got the cards." That's great news, especially for a game like They Bleed Pixels, where sales have been primarily driven by half-off flash deals.

Crafty gamers can also use Trading Cards to front the bill for cheaper indie experiences. "I think some people were buying it for the cards--not because they wanted the cards or anything to do with them, but because it meant that they could sell them and the game basically cost them much less," says Sternberg. "I definitely saw a few people on my Twitter feed who were like 'Bought this game, sold the cards. Game basically cost me nothing.' And I'm totally OK with that, because we make just as much money if they sell the cards or don't. If it means more people getting the game--especially people who are in a low income situation--I'm OK with that part for sure."

But the fact remains that with digital items, there will always be those who are mindlessly collecting and selling them for profit; you might refer to them as farmers. And the increased exposure that comes with Card functionality can be a double-edged sword. "Particularly for the people whose games are not wildly, massively successful, I can see there being a lot of pressure to add cards from a financial standpoint," says Sternberg. Yes, more people notice the existence of your game--but from the creative standpoint, if people are buying your game just to idle for some virtual cards, your efforts were all but meaningless.

It's not that Sternberg thinks Steam Trading Cards are so terrible. But if more and more developers catch on to how much cards can boost profits, adding them might start to feel like a requirement. Sternberg would rather spend time polishing the game design and ironing out bugs, instead of trying to craft the most desirable set of badge rewards. "I would like to have the choice economically to decide, per game, whether we need to do it," says Sternberg. "I think it would be terrible if I felt we always had to, no matter what, for our game to be successful."


  • larkan - August 3, 2013 8:48 p.m.

    This trading card system does more for customers AND developers than anything Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo have attempted on their systems. Customers get prizes for playing games, developers get more money (the ones that aren't whining, anyways), and really everyone wins.
  • TokenGamesRadarFurry - August 4, 2013 4:26 p.m.

    Agreed. The system isn't perfect, but it kind of sounds like these guys are being kind of pretentious.
  • avantguardian - August 3, 2013 12:27 a.m.

    and here i thought everybody thought the steam cards were a stupid waste of time and money. shows what i know.
  • Bloodstorm - August 2, 2013 4:19 p.m.

    Interesting read, and I can see the concern. I think the system is currently set up in the interest of Valve alone. I feel they begrudgingly added the booster pack mechanic to try and take away from the obvious fact that you are going to have to spend money on the market place, or you aren't finishing your badge. I love Valve, but the system is kind of broken. I understand this from a developers concern as well. As much as a developer wants to make money, which trading cards has caused by boosting sales, an involved developer who loves what they've made and want to experience their audiences love of the game might and will feel like the sales are cheapening their personal investment in the game. Sales numbers are not as rewarding if the general consensus is "got my card, uninstalled." But it is a double edged sword. On the other hand, it can get people to play your game, and subsequently like your game, just because they wanted to get the card drops. I know that the trading cards made me try several indie games I had sitting in my library from Humble Bundle purchases that I've never launched before. So, in the end you hope it pans out in a way that is positive, but there is definitely room for the negative to take over.
  • Brother-Captain-Stern - August 4, 2013 1:16 a.m.

    It's the old false dichotomy of idealism vs practicality. To developers like Miguel, Coffee Stain, Jonathan Blow, Unknown Worlds, etc, their game is a work of art, just as much as a rock song that a musician might compose and perform. They want people to like the work of art for it's own sake, for it's own intrinsic value. But, if you want to make a living, you've got to be a pragmatist too. If the cards get people to spend more money on your stuff, that means, literally, more food on the table as well as more funds to develop more games. (or in the musician-example, more funds to repair worn out equipment, buy that nice synth to get just the sound you had in your head but couldn't do previously, etc) In other words, they are not mutually exclusive.
  • TDnevermore - August 2, 2013 3:30 p.m.

    It's a shame. I can see both sides of the argument, but I'm one of the people who really enjoys the game. Too bad it will take me a long time to collect the badges, as I won't be paying more than the game itself to complete a badge (or 3 more to finish the set).
  • SirNinja - August 2, 2013 2:34 p.m.

    The trading cards are neat, but the system needs some work. In particular, booster packs need to drop way more often across the board. I've got a ton of eligible games and a decent Steam level (which affects drop rates), but I still only get about one pack per week if I'm lucky.
  • Bloodstorm - August 2, 2013 4:04 p.m.

    One pack per week? I've only gotten 2 since they implemented the boosters.
  • GR_LucasSullivan - August 2, 2013 2:17 p.m.

    Glad the article got you thinking!
  • miguel-sternberg - August 2, 2013 2:32 p.m.

    Hey Eightboll812, This is Miguel the dev interviewed for this piece. If your reading this as self contradictory your reading it correctly! That's kind of the dictionary definition of being conflicted about something. I was asked my opinion on trading cards. I have mixed feelings about them so that's what I talked about. The headline is kinda sensational and not how I'd frame things but that happens. What can you do? *shrugs* Some clarifications on the points you brought up though. I'm not blaming players for being OCD, just like my concern over how They Bleed Pixels is received (my "ego" problem) these are things human brains do and there's no point blaming either the players or myself for that. I think talking about whether or not a *system* is potentially exploiting that OCD tendency to the long term detriment of both players and game developers is worthwhile. You may not. That's cool! I actually do have long term concerns about Steam sales and what effect they may have over time, but that's another topic . I'm not concerned that everyone likes They Bleed Pixels, that would be impossible and I think games for niche audiences are important! But if someone spent money on it I hope they like it, that is natural. If I made a sandwich and someone payed money for it I'd hope they liked it to. I do look it as a form of marketing and unlike many forms of marketing it's pretty easy and inexpensive for small devs to implement, that's why we decide to give it a try (upside!). But I still prefer marketing that doesn't have to rely on random positive re-enforcement (downside, hence conflicted!). I know some other indie developers feel the same: So TL;DR point form: * Players are free to do whatever they want after they buy the game (or not buy it at all!) * I'm free to be concerned about the systems and framework in which I and other devs sell our games. * You are free to not care about my concerns. Cheers!
  • miguel-sternberg - August 2, 2013 7:27 p.m.

    I don't think you have much to worry about in terms of cards lowering the quality of games *in their current form*. Implementing the cards take a tiny tiny fraction of the over all time needed to make a game. A little over a weekend in our case and from what I can tell it basically acts as a buff for sales. If your sales are decent, they'll get a boost but it's not a replacement for the time and effort spent creating a decent game. This could change if the cards get integrated into the game's design directly (eg kill 400 bad guys get a card) that would be a terrible idea. The money from actual card sales is minimal. We don't have results from any of the card stuff yet so I'm not sure what the total will be but the transaction fee that goes to devs is very small compared to what we make from game sales and there aren't that many cards out there so it's not going to amount to much in comparison. I get your annoyance at the used games sales thing from AAA devs. However realize that stuff has zero connection to most indie developers. It doesn't effect us and it's not on our radar. It would be more productive to focus your issues with stuff that towards the people involved. Re being puzzled by my negative reaction: Steam is a pretty great place to sell games without having large external forces compromise game design. It's one of the best, if not the the best market for that right now. Part of what's worrisome about steam cards is that they represent a (very) small shift towards a market that's closer to iOS, Facebook, free to play etc. For lack of a better term the casino side of games. In those markets (particularly Facebook) game balance and design get warped by the environment in which they're sold. It is increasingly hard to design successful games in those spaces that aren't built around the sort of psychological hooks that I'm concerned about. It would be terrible if Steam eventually fell into the same category. I want to make great games, not great slot machines. Again sorry if my comments came off to you as reprimanding players for their purchasing. My concerns are up the chain, not down. Remember that short articles like these by necessity boil down a longer more nuanced interview. I do think Lucas did a pretty great job in this particular case though! We chatted for a good 30 min to an hour on the subject. It's a lot to condense.
  • miguel-sternberg - August 3, 2013 9:22 a.m.

    You probably missed this bit: "But the whole collector/psychological hook stuff I kind of wish wasn't there. What I worry is that it's the same sort of thing that Facebook games and casinos have. You get whales: people who are massively invested [in trading] and spend way more money than they necessarily have on it." Which in case you misread it was a knock on Facebook games not the people playing them. From the dev side I see a big difference between 'lazy crappy' (not putting effort into a games design) and 'casino crappy' (putting a lot of effort into the games design to psychologically manipulating a population of players for the highest payout). But yeah it sounds like we're essentially on the same page there.
  • Brother-Captain-Stern - August 2, 2013 3:37 p.m.

    You didn't figure out anything, you managed to shoot your mouth off in "two seconds while multi-tasking", but that's about it. Perhaps you should take your own advice and "Shut the f up" and stop hating on someone just for having an opinion and actual feelings about the work they've done. As a gamer... I'm sick of gamers like you. You're the poison that's killing gaming.
  • Brother-Captain-Stern - August 2, 2013 9:59 p.m.

    Let me explain this to you, since you're not getting it. You had some semi-valid points to make, although Miguel had already raised those points during the article, so they were redundant. Nonetheless, some of what you said wasn't complete drivel. But rather than just make your points, as you should have, in a civil manner, you chose to spearhead it with an unecessary insult, which makes you a fucking childish asshole. You didn't have to condescend to him, or tell him to "shut the F up", but you chose to do so anyway, knowingly. This is why I say that you're the poison that's killing gaming. Because you are. You and the thousands of other shitty, mean-spirited assholes that uncessarily make life hell for developers, when you could just raise the concerns you have in a polite manner, without being fucktards about it. As for your inane comments about "trash" and being a "successful professional"... *shrug*. I making a 5-figure salary doing IT for a local company, I'm part of the local indie rock scene, and I spend alot of money and time playing games. So if by "trash" you mean "white middle america", you're correct. In other words, I'm the consumer, I'm the main demographic that buys games. The same demographic that you are also a part of. So, you just called yourself trash, as well. Learn not to be an asshole. There are ways to make your views and concerns known to developers, and being a jerkbag isn't one of them.

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