Valve is changing how Steam’s trading cards work, to cut down on “fake games”

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There’s an odd micro economy within Steam – but as with any economy, there’s a seedy underbelly that’s taking advantage of it. Steam’s trading cards function as a lucrative metagame within the digital distribution service. People buy and sell the trading cards that are awarded by games, sometimes making a sizeable profit – with the developers getting a cut. As you’d expect, there are shady developers making terrible games purely to make money from those trades.

Valve wants to put an end to that.

“These fake developers take advantage of a feature we provide to all developers on Steam, which is the ability to generate Steam keys for their games,” says Valve. “They generate many thousands of these keys and hand them out to bots running Steam accounts, which then idle away in their games to collect Trading Cards. Even if no real players ever see or buy one of these fake games, their developers make money by farming cards.”

It’s a problem that wouldn’t really exist if Steam was a properly curated service, and Valve knows that.

“Farming Trading Cards for profit as a developer isn’t rocket science. The primary difficulty is that they need to get a game up on Steam. For a while now, we’ve been engaged in an escalating war of disabling their latest method of gaming Greenlight’s voting mechanisms, where each time we succeed, they circle around and come up with a new way. Unfortunately, this approach isn’t terribly sustainable – they continue to get smarter and more large scale in their methods of generating tons of data, and we’re spending more and more time fighting it.”

While the system – and the inherent gaming of it – isn’t really hurting anyone, it is messing with Steam’s algorithms. The same algorithms that decide which games to show you, and which get lost in Steam’s flotsam and jetsam.

“These Trading Card farming games produce a lot of faux data, because there’s a lot of apparent player activity around them. 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.”

So how will they go about fixing the problem? They wont be removing the ability for games to have trading cards, or remove the monetary incentive behind them. Instead, games will only start dropping trading cards once they’ve reached a certain “confidence metric.” Once enough real people seem to be playing a game, its trading cards will come in to play.

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Valve explains how it’ll gather decide whether a game is “real” or not.

“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.”

The result, in theory, is that you as a consumer should see far less junk on the store. Developers and players may only start making extra cash from their trading cards later than they’d like, but it seems a worthwhile tradeoff.

Last Updated: May 17, 2017

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Geoffrey Tim

Editor. I'm old, grumpy and more than just a little cynical. One day, I found myself in possession of a NES, and a copy of Super Mario Bros 3. It was that game that made me realise that games were more than just toys to idly while away time - they were capable of being masterpieces. I'm here now, looking for more of those masterpieces.

  • VampyreSquirrel

    There goes Trev’s way of getting trading cards in most ways.

    • Alien Emperor Trevor

      Meh, trading cards are just the stepping stone to what’s really important… BADGES.

      • Pfffft

        • Alien Emperor Trevor

          Shut up. My digital knickknacks bring me joy.

  • Craig “CrAiGiSh” Dodd

    Would be happier if they could work on better pricing for SA …

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