The Genius of Steam’s Trading Cards

I popped open Steam today and saw something unexpected; a number one surrounded in green next to the letter icon by the top of the screen. I wasn’t expecting anything, so I found this curious. Lo and behold, I had received a Space Pirates and Zombies Booster Pack! SPaZ is a surprisingly fun and deep indie space arcade shooter title I recently picked up from a Humble Bundle that has since ended. Quite a fun title.

So out of all the games in my collection, and out of all the titles I just received in the Bundle, why did I decide to try out SPaZ? Simply… the cards.

If it’s a mentality that Steam knows well, it’s that of the gamer. We collect, we hoard, we have long term digital goals and there isn’t much that will stop us from reaching said digital goals. One of the first questions asked of new MMOs is always “What is there to do at end-game?” A new title can be months or years away, and we have already planned out that we will play it to it’s completion and want something more to do when we reach it’s highest peaks.


If you haven’t heard of them by now, Steam Trading Cards are collectible cards acquired by playing participating games through Steam. You collect a full set of these cards, combine them together, and receive more cards, items to customize your Steam background, emoticons to chat with your friends, and possibly receive a coupon for another Steam game. So, essentially, a collecting game on top of a game. Just what we need, a meta-game, right? Well, even if you have no interest, but still use Steam, it definitely behooves you to join in the Trading Card circus. 

So, okay, say you don’t care about backgrounds, hats, or other fluff. That’s cool. For you folks, there’s the Steam Community Market. Don’t like a card you have, sell it! Just like any MMO’s auction house, you can sell any card for a small profit. I do mean small, though, maybe about 10 – 20 cents per card. But they add up quick. Especially if you acquire randomly dropped booster packs just by logging in to Steam. $.40 here, $.20 there. With the funds, buy a small indie game that drops more cards, collect more cards, sell them, etc. No money needs to be invested to start on it, either, just sell them to other gamers. The more badges that are created, though, the more cards are handed out, to keep the card economy stable.

From my good buddy Windcaller. Play games to pay for other games. Simple and elegant. I like it.

Here’s where it’s a genius strategy and a Win-Win for everybody. We all know this and it’s the fact casinos use and was made famous in the movie Office Space: Small profits multiplied a million times over equals huge profits. This IGN article sums the math of Steam cards up nicely, so I’ll quote it here:

“…The company takes a 5% cut of every transaction, and a 10% cut goes back to the game publisher (encouraging widespread adoption of the trading card system). So those 115 booster packs sold yesterday? They made Valve $10 and 2K Games $20, as well as $175 for gamers directly. Of course, the “profit” gamers make goes back into each seller’s Steam wallet, ensuring Valve eventually gets a bigger payday.

$20 doesn’t sound like much, but individual Borderlands 2 cards and items are also for sale, to let people fill gaps in their collection. Around 2,000 were sold yesterday alone, for around $0.30 each. That’s another $40 for 2K and $20 for Valve. Around 225 ultra-rare “foil” Borderlands 2 cards were also sold yesterday, for around $1.85, generating $36 for 2K and $18 for Valve.

Suddenly, these numbers aren’t so small. Totaled up, Steam users selling Borderlands 2 digital goods generated $96 for 2K and $48 for Valve in a single day. That’s $35,040 a year for 2K and $17,520 for Valve. For one game. There are 144 (and counting) Steam games that support trading cards.”

See that? It’s not just Steam making the money off the sale of cards, it’s the developers of the games, too. Trading cards helps the companies who make these games, especially these great indie titles, even more money at practically zero effort on the part of the developers.  In the above example, $35k might be chump change for 2K games, but that’s not chump change for someone like Team Meat, makers of Super Meat Boy. That’s a nice payday and extra appreciation for their work.

So, overall, Steam wins, the developers win, and gamers win. What’s not to like about that?

// Ocho


2 thoughts on “The Genius of Steam’s Trading Cards

  1. All in all I made enough on card drops for games in my library that I crafted a few badges, sold some cards and got about 3 games out of it. Funny enough I did not spend a dime. Got my first booster pack that I know of today for DLC quest, selling it personally. Beat spaz, well for the most part. I beat the story. I could go for achievements but I don’t feel like it. Interesting game to say the least.

    • It is a surprisingly fun game. Sorta Privateer-esque, but in an arcade style. I will beat it, too, eventually. I’m just much slower on my progression these days.

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