God of Gaming
In our previous post, we described what we believe a successful Steam Store would look like, and why balancing the interests of all the players and developers made it an interesting challenge. In this post, we want to talk about another group that adds further complexity: bad actors exploiting the store algorithm for financial gain.
The reason this group exists is due to various systems that add value to owning games on Steam beyond having the game itself. The best example is Steam Trading Cards, which also happens to be the primary one that these bad actors are exploiting.
We added Steam Trading Cards in 2013, and they had two main goals:
- For players, they were small collectibles associated with games. They were tradeable, which meant you could collect ones for games you loved by trading away cards for the games you loved less. In effect, they were a way for you to show other players what your favorite games were. We knew some players wouldn't care about them, which was fine - they could simply throw them up on the Steam Community Market, and use the results to buy some other game.
- For developers, they were an easy way to add extra value to their game, and provide rewards to their biggest fans.
After the release of Trading Cards, the number of players interested in them grew significantly, until it reached the point where the demand for cards became significant enough that there was an economic opportunity worth taking advantage of. And that's when our group of bad actors arrived, aiming to make money by releasing 'fake' games on Steam.
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. 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.
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.
We could restrict the ability for developers to generate Steam keys for their games, but we hate to degrade tools that legitimate developers are using to make their players happy. We're also not certain it would actually solve the problem - there are many ways a bad actor could try to get their game owned by all their bot accounts, and they just need to find a way to do it that costs less than they're making from selling their Trading Cards.
You might wonder why this is really an issue. After all, if no real players are buying their games, and their cards are being traded on the market to players who want them, where's the harm? Isn't Valve making money from the market fees on their Trading Cards? While there's truth in both of these points, the problem is that these games damage something we care about a lot, because it affects all our players - the Steam Store's algorithm.
As we mentioned in our last post, the algorithm's primary job is to chew on a lot of data about games and players, and ultimately decide which games it should show you. 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 we've decided to take a different approach - remove the economic incentive that's at the root of the problem.
Here's what we're doing:
Instead of starting to drop Trading Cards the moment they arrive on Steam, we're going to move to a system where games don't start to drop cards until the game has reached a confidence metric that makes it clear it's actually being bought and played by genuine users. Once a game reaches that metric, cards will drop to all users, including all the users who've played the game prior to that point. So going forward, even if you play a game before it has Trading Cards, you'll receive cards for your playtime when the developer adds cards and reaches the confidence metric.
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.
With this change, we hope to significantly reduce the economic incentive for the bad actors to release fake games on Steam. We're hopeful that this will have little negative impact on other developers and players, with a small number of games having a delay before their Trading Cards start to drop. On the positive side, it should significantly improve the quality of the data being fed into the Store algorithms, which is a good thing for everyone.
As always, if you think we've missed something in the analysis of the tradeoffs we're working within, don't hesitate to discuss it in any major gaming forum (we read them all), or in our own Steam Community Forum.
Next post, we're going to talk about the Steam Direct publishing fee, and some other changes we'll be rolling out soon.