On a mechanical level, injecting real money into games when you can already play them falls into a few basic categories. Diablo 3 is one of the few wholesale examples of “pay to win.” There are some people who leverage this by injecting capital, then using arcane, twisted arbitrage to leap to the top. There are also individuals who have spent hundreds or thousands of dollars to buy the top shelf stuff. The former is tempting, but I’ve stayed away; I can only imagine what the latter does to the human psyche. Probably some kind of nether-cognitive state where the sectors usually used for storing fun are overwritten and replaced with an urge to wax floors or mow the lawn with grim, fiendish glee. People who outsource fun make me nervous.
A middle ground is your Guild Wars 2s and your Neverwinters and your other free-to-plays, mostly. Throw in dollars, level up faster or somesuch. The most benign model–most confusing in some ways–is the Team Fortress 2 model, where cosmetic alterations can be purchased. Even TF2 has slid more towards the middle of the scale, since you can also buy weapons that are strictly better than the standard fare, so a better example would be Path of Exile. All three methods live in a weird space where players are paying real money for an immaculate rearrangement amount of data, but some find value in ways that merit separate discussion.
Steam trading cards are a different animal altogether. Fair warning: I usually think Steam is awesome, especially during sales, but Steam trading cards are stupid. Not, “I think they’re stupid.” They are absolutely stupid. And try to keep in mind that, unlike the above examples, they are not games; they’re a weird social hoarding exercise. The cards themselves are basically what they sound like–little rectangles that sit in your digital inventory. Games have somewhere between six and ten cards themed around them, and half of each game’s lot can be unlocked by being in the game for three hours or so. Not playing the game, just having it open on your machine. Or maybe minimized while you’re at work. Yeah.
The other half of a game’s collection has to come from other players, and the easiest way to get them is through the Steam marketplace, where anyone can post cards for real money and Steam takes a small cut of each sale. Cards are generally worth $.15-.50, though foil cards (randomly given out instead of their normal versions) seem to be worth a couple to several dollars depending. When you’ve collected all of the cards in a set, you can turn them into a badge. Making badges increases your Steam level (which has a couple perks, but mostly means a higher chance of getting a booster pack of several cards randomly over time) and usually gives you an emoticon to use in Steam chat, a banner image for your profile, and a coupon for a Steam game. The emoticons and profile images can, of course, be sold on the market. Own games, get cards, buy or sell cards, then get random frills or about a dollar to spend on games. If you get a full set of foil cards, you get a foil badge. It’s shiny. Whee.
As usual, the setup takes advantage of the lizard brain. Cards aren’t expensive, so buying a few is fine, right? But at the end of the day you’re still paying real money. It’s possible to get a decent coupon or a profile item that sells for more than the cards put into it, but it’s unlikely. How unlikely? I have no idea, and the only people who do probably wouldn’t tell you. On the other hand, some individuals clearly think real money for the decorative items and status is worth it. One can argue that you could just trade cards from various games to get one whole set of a particular game, but that’s still giving up real money for something no one will ever care about.
That’s a dark place. Cards indicate no level of involvement with a game, only ownership. That symbol of purchase is sold to a stranger, who then collects more symbols of such from other strangers. It is possible said collector has never even played the game in question. The collector then puts those together into a single thing, which declares, “Someone has played and/or left this game on long enough.” It’s not paying for status or privilege. It’s just…paying. A number goes up and you can make funny icons appear in Steam chats.
If that doesn’t give you cranky faces, think about this. When a card is sold, Valve makes a few cents multiplied by however many transactions (a lot). The game’s creator probably gets a cent or two as incentive to add cards to their games. When someone buys a game, cards are embedded in their purchase, so to some extent they’ve been paid for. They have value, because other people are willing to pay for them. When those cards are put into a badge, those cards disappear into the ether. Poof. They had value, Valve hasn’t lost any money (some players may get coupons they redeem, but Steam thrives on that sort of razor-edge profit margin), and value has been removed from the overall system. In some way, Valve has lost the opportunity for more money because those cards are out of circulation, and I’m not an expert economist, but doesn’t that mean new players buying games is akin to quantitative easing?
Brain ache? You’re not alone.
Valve has said they’re hesitant to tie achievements to cards, and I’m not really sure how to feel about that idea either. I don’t know whether it is better or worse to buy tokens of actual success instead of ones indicating existence. I know it would be hilarious to let someone skilled play on an account to earn a couple bucks. I’m thinking valve probably knows that too. I don’t use the word “Gibsonian,” but if ever there was a situation where technology and culture worked together to construe a situation that is ridiculous to rational, contemporary humans, this is it.
I made one badge to see what the process was like. I got a coupon for a Serious Sam game I played in high school. SadTrombone.wav. Otherwise, I have sold every card I’ve gotten. Because I buy 90% of my games on Steam, I’ve gotten enough cards to buy several games–real experiences with tangible value dripping from their jaws. Do I feel bad? Do I spend time thinking of the poor sucker on the other end of that deal? I do. I give them names and imagined histories, wherein they have transcended a need for non-card economies.
Which is fine, because they just bought the new Penny Arcade game for me.