Today, Valve announced it is making changes to Steam Trading Cards due to exploitation issues.
Back in 2013, Valve introduced Steam Trading Cards with two main goals: to serve as small collectibles to be traded by players and for developers to have an easy way to add extra value to their game, and provide rewards to their biggest fans.
According to Valve, after the release of Trading Cards, the number of players interested in them grew substantially, until it reached the point where the demand for cards become significant enough that there was an economic opportunity worth taking advantage of. And that’s when the bad cats showed up, aiming to make money by releasing “fake games” on Steam.
These bad cats — aka fake developers — soon began to take advantage of the feature Valve provides to all developers on Steam: the ability to generate Steam keys for their games. They generate many thousands of these keys and then dish them out to bots running Steam accounts, which then idle away in their games to collect Trading Cards. What this means is that even if no real player ever sees or buys one of these fake games, their developers make money by farming cards.
Further — and this is the real issue — the problem damages something Valve says it deeply cares about — and something people have criticized it for — the Steam Store’s algorithm. As you may know, the algorithm’s primary job is to look at data about games and players and ultimately decide which games it should show you in the ocean of games available on Steam. These Trading Card farming games are said to produce a lot of faux data, and as a result the algorithm runs the risk of thinking that one of these games is actually a popular game that real players should see: when it’s not.
So, what is Valve’s solution? To remove the economic incentive that’s at the root of the problem. Here’s what its doing:
Instead of starting to drop Trading Cards the moment they arrive on Steam, we’re going to move to a system where games don’t start to drop cards until the game has reached a confidence metric that makes it clear it’s actually being bought and played by genuine users. Once a game reaches that metric, cards will drop to all users, including all the users who’ve played the game prior to that point. So going forward, even if you play a game before it has Trading Cards, you’ll receive cards for your playtime when the developer adds cards and reaches the confidence metric.
The confidence metric is built from a variety of pieces of data, all aimed at separating legitimate games and players from fake games and bots. You might wonder why the confidence metric will succeed at identifying fake games, when we weren’t being successful at using data to prevent them getting through Greenlight. The reason is that Greenlight is used by a tiny subsection of Steam’s total playerbase, producing far less data overall, which makes it more easily gamed. In addition, Greenlight only allows players to vote and comment, so that data is narrow. Steam at large allows players to interact with games in many different ways, generating a broad set of data for each game, and that makes identifying fake ones an easier task.
With this change, we hope to significantly reduce the economic incentive for the bad actors to release fake games on Steam. We’re hopeful that this will have little negative impact on other developers and players, with a small number of games having a delay before their Trading Cards start to drop. On the positive side, it should significantly improve the quality of the data being fed into the Store algorithms, which is a good thing for everyone.
When these changes will roll out is currently unknown. Valve did say though that its next Steam Community post will talk about the Steam Direct publishing fee, as well as some other changes coming “soon.”