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Steam Trading Cards: The next-gen of achievements?

With Valve's Steam Trading Cards, we glimpse a theory of next generation in-game achievement systems that are meant to motivate play, not just to reward it.
Achievements have long been seen as a necessary way of increasing and rewarding engagement with games. But they're subject to the same scrutiny of rewards systems we're seeing as the gamification gold rush starts to ebb -- how long can players be expected to be content with digital status items before those items lose all meaning? Trophies on PlayStation Network and Achievements on Xbox Live are now ubiquitous, constant pop-ups that provide, at best, a mild jolt of positive feedback, a small extra occupation for one's mind while they're focused on the main experience. At worst they can be so omnipresent that they're annoying, distracting alerts that interrupt dramatic moments or divert concentration. Tiny badges and banners can be an interesting way to direct players to discover more things in a game than they otherwise would, or can suggest new challenges for players. But they can also be a nagging demand, making a game feel "unfinished" even after a player has completed a title to their own satisfaction. An informal poll of some of my readers unearths a trend: Many players seem less interested in achievements and trophies than they once were. Being disinterested in earning achievements used to feel like a contrarian, unusual position, but is it now becoming the default? It's a fair hypothesis that our "always-on," increasingly feedback-oriented digital culture could desensitize users to these kinds of fundamentally-insubstantial reward systems, a suggestion gamification skeptics have been making all along. But if one of achievements' shortfalls is that they're "rewarding play instead of making play rewarding," how can such systems go further?

Enter Steam Trading Cards

With its Steam Trading Cards beta, Valve is exploring ways to implement in-game reward systems that will actually mean something to players. The beta, released earlier this week across a limited selection of games (Valve's own Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Team Fortress 2, Portal 2 and Half-Life 2, as well as Klei Entertainment's new Don't Starve), will let players earn and collect virtual cards by playing games on the service. These aren't just status badges for profile pages, but items that can be combined and allocated for actual virtual value. They'll be part of a broader system that could shape up to be as elaborate as a game itself. Cards can be collected through play of individual games, and sets can be crafted into badges that are shown on player profiles. But they also unlock shareable and tradable rewards and services on Steam, like emoticons for chat, profile customization elements and coupons for game purchases. Valve says the crafting process will also yield random, tradeable rewards. Even more, badges are now worth experience points that contribute to one's Steam Level, where enhancing the level earns owned bonuses like extra friend list slots. Higher levels unlock more elaborate "profile showcases," where players can display items they have up for trade, favorite screenshots, and even their favorite workshop mods and Greenlight submissions. Interestingly, once a set of cards has been crafted into a badge, players can re-earn the same card set to level up the badge. So instead of obtaining a single score, Steam users will be able to proclaim proficiency and devotion of individual games to a very granular level, and then translate that devotion into further accoutrements. To recap: Valve's achievements for Steam will evolve to include not just digital pats on the head, but collecting, crafting, trading, leveling and social status elements -- actual game mechanics. That's potentially a more in-depth system of encouraging and rewarding players than has been offered alongside traditional social and online games so far.

Altering how you play a game

The further gamification of digital rewards is a reasonable next step, now that the ubiquity of such systems has inured some portion of players to their motivational aims. Of course, it's tough to say whether this is a long-term value add. Many of my friends have said they dislike the way achievement systems have changed their play style, shifting the focus from minor goal fulfillment and a fixation on points instead of a more naturalistic, spontaneous approach to immersive play. Surely in a system where your earnings can actually create things you as a player want, from service functionality to possible game coupons, those incentives are going to alter the way you approach games. Can this kind of system be implemented in a way that's agreeable to game developers and doesn't deeply affect or alter their approach to goal design? When, for example, Microsoft mandated achievements for all Xbox 360 games, a few developers privately grumbled at first -- how will it affect developers if walled-garden platform holders require the implementation of more complicated, embedded goal systems for its next-generation console social network? Can a reward system become so gamified that it supersedes the game? Valve's system is in beta primarily across its own games, presumably because these questions will need time, data and player feedback to answer on a grand scale. Over the past console generation we've come to accept that on gaming platforms big and small, achievements, trophies, leaderboards and their ilk are here to stay. And we can reasonably expect that we'll need meaningful evolutions on those systems in the generation to come. Valve's exploration into the next arena is an intriguing first step in that evolution.

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