How are we all getting on with Steam Trading Cards? Have you bought into Valve's latest scheme, either literally or figuratively? Or are you trying your best to ignore it?
I haven't quite made my mind up about it yet, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to post some musings on the subject and hopefully start some discussion with you, dear readers. I'd love to hear what you think, so make use of the comments and notes systems to make your feelings known.
For those who don't use Steam, aren't PC gamers or have somehow missed the introduction of the trading cards system, here's how it works: by playing games that support trading cards for particular amounts of time, you collect randomly-selected virtual cards that relate to that game. You're limited in how many "card drops" you have for a particular game, though. After that, you have a few options to complete your various sets: being randomly selected to earn "booster packs" of extra cards; trading with other players, or buying and selling cards on the new marketplace function.
Why would you want to do this, though? Well, collecting sets of cards allows you to craft badges for your Steam profile, which in turn increases your Steam Level and allows you additional benefits such as a higher cap on your friends list. You can also unlock special items such as backgrounds for your profile, emoticons for use in chat and in Steam's discussion forums, and even, in some cases, unlock in-game items. The music-based twin-stick shooter Beat Hazard Ultra is, I believe, among the first titles to actually unlock game content using the trading card system, allowing you to acquire new ships only by crafting enough badges using sets of cards. This is probably something we can expect to see more of in the near future.
The reason I haven't quite made my mind up as to whether or not this addition to Valve's increasingly complex "metagame" on Steam's built-in social gaming network is that there are both good and bad aspects to it.
On the one hand, collecting stuff is fun. Acquiring trading cards that, in their own way, track which games you've been playing and enjoying the most is a fun little game in itself -- though frustrating if your limited card drops reward you with a number of duplicates. And since the cards are put together by game developers and publishers rather than Valve itself, this means that each game's cards are very distinctive; it's enjoyable to see the different art styles that have been adopted to best depict the titles in question, along with the witty description text and titles that have been added in some cases.
On the other hand, I have mixed feelings about the kind of behavior that the system as it currently stands encourages. A good thing about the fact that so many games already support card drops is that it will give players an excuse to check out games that they might not have tried before; simultaneously, a less good thing about it -- in my opinion, anyway -- is that it encourages "snacking" on a variety of games to collect cards rather than diving deep into a single title to finish it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself -- it's actually quite a good means of discovering new games that you might want to play more -- but I do find myself wondering how many people will fire up a game purely to score its card drops, then never touch it ever again. I guess achievements are there as a means of rewarding players for actually making it through a game (or at least achieving specific milestones therein), but at present there's no obligation for those publishing games on Steam to incorporate this functionality if they don't want to, much as there's no obligation for them to add cards, either. (And on the non-mandatory achievements thing I say "good" -- but that's another matter entirely.)
Another potential issue here is that the trading card system could be seen as an indirect means of Valve getting certain types of customer to spend money that they might not have otherwise spent. You can't earn cards for games you don't own, after all, so those who find themselves particularly enraptured by the trading card system may find themselves spending a bit more money on games than they intended to -- games that, as noted above, they might not play beyond what they need to acquire the drops. We also saw during the recent Steam Summer Getaway Sale that Valve is more than willing to use trading cards as a means to encourage more spending -- every $10 that you spent, you received an exclusive card relating to the sale and the titles therein.
While there's a clear and convincing argument for the cards being a subtle means of marketing for Valve, one thing worth noting is that there's potential for users to make some money from it, too. Not only can users sell the individual cards, but they can also sell the various rewards acquired through crafting badges -- a potentially lucrative arrangement, as the depressingly high prices Port Royale 3's "weed" emoticon is selling for at the time of writing aptly demonstrates. (Get your hands on that emoticon and there's probably at least one "free" game in it for you, in other words.)
So how about you lot out there in Readerland, then? How has it been for you? Have you crafted any badges? Made any lucrative sales on the marketplace? Or do you just wish Valve would stop farting around with Steam metagames and get on with Half-Life 3?