Steam Sales Are Encouraging Obsession

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Steam — Valve’s digital download service — Twice a year hosts enormous sales that discount its vast catalogue of PC and Mac videogames. For about two weeks during the summer and two weeks before the New Year, buying a title that may be less than a year old for less than 60 or 75 percent of its original cost is possible. Most of us who play games on our computers look forward to these sales. They’re a great way to grab up a couple of passed-over mainstream titles and an inexpensive way to try out indies that we may have overlooked during the rest of the year.

As great as these events are, they’re also starting to have the unexpected effect of making Valve look a bit evil.

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During past sales, incentives were offered that provided buyers with a chance to participate in the prize draw. These promotions typically invited Steam users to collect a certain number of limited-time achievements that had been added to the games on sale. Shooting down demonic Santa Claus monsters in Killing Floor during the holiday sale would toss virtual entries into a draw that, if won, awarded a lucky user with a bunch of games from their wishlist. Spending lots of time collecting achievements — and buying discounted games to earn even more — awarded entries to the contest, increasing the chance of winning the prize draw for “free.” This type of promotion straddled the line between innocuous fun and a dangerous encouragement of obsessive compulsion. The recent introduction of collectable digital trading cards has, I think, seen Steam stepping into the latter category.

“Steam is also a business, and coupling their sales with money-making metagames is a genius move.”

Just before the 2013 summer sale launch, Valve began adding digital cards to many of their games. These cards can be collected by playing titles that support them or, stranger yet, spending money on the Steam sale. The store’s users are encouraged to complete sets of cards so that they can turn them into badges. These badges are accompanied by little profile customization items (like page backgrounds or chat emoticons) and, similar to how accumulating PlayStation Network trophies works, an increase in the Steam account’s “level.” If someone is missing the one or two cards they need to make a complete set and craft a badge, they’re encouraged to hop onto the Market and buy and sell cards for real money — and provide Valve with a percentage kickback on each transaction.

The whole program seems like harmless fun at face value, but the mentality it encourages is pretty nefarious. Like many modern videogame developers and publishers, Valve understands the power of harnessing compulsion as a business tool. Its business folks are smart enough to realize that the same type of game players who will spend countless hours completing small tasks to “100%” (earn every achievement in a game) are likely the same sort of people who will strive to collect matching sets of virtual cards. They’re also aware that even the least obsessive person feels a nagging sense of incompletion when faced with little progress bars in their profile or store checkout page that are always just so close to filling up.

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As quick as videogame players are to condemn the kind of cynical free-to-play (or F2P) models introduced to so many iOS, Android and computer games (like buying experience points with real money), we seem to give Valve a free pass when it comes to the kind of psychological tricks they play on consumers. This can probably be attributed to the fact that Steam’s huge bi-annual sales offer buyers such great deals and that, in the end, nobody is forced to pay attention to their trading card or achievement-based incentives.

Steam is also a business, and coupling their sales with money-making metagames is a genius move. Just the same, it’s important to take note when a company attempts the kind of consumer manipulation that Valve is currently rolling into its sale. Whether someone objects to Steam’s recent practices or not, it’s always a good idea to raise awareness of questionable business strategies and how they affect the service’s users.

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