PC gaming is an often expensive proposition. A capable machine costs many times more than a flagship console. If you work within the confines of a limited budget, every penny counts. You want to save money where possible.
Fortunately, it’s easy to save money on games. Sites like HumbleBundle make it easy to pad your library without spending a fortune. And Steam’s seasonal sales give gamers the chance to grab the latest AAA titles at a fraction of the ticket cost.
But what if I told you there’s a way to cut your game bill even further?
Introducing Steam Trading Cards
In 2013, Valve introduced Steam Trading Cards. The premise is simple. You play games and earn virtual trading cards. Not all developers participate, but many do.
Valve envisioned Steam Trading Cards as a way to facilitate cross-player collaboration. Suppose a game has sixteen cards. Even if a player finishes the game to completion, hitting every achievement, they’ll only get a fraction of those cards. Say, eight. And some may be duplicates.
If you get a full set, Valve lets you combine them into a badge. Badges come with a handful of perks, like the game-specific emojis and background, and points towards your Steam Level.
Players can trade Steam Trading Cards with others on the platform. This works a bit like baseball cards. “You have one I want, so I’ll give you the one you want.“
Alternatively, players can sell their cards on the platform for credit. While you can’t withdraw this to cold hard cash, you can use it to buy other Steam games or in-game items.
Don’t get too excited
It’s entirely possible you were oblivious to the existence of Steam Trading Cards. It’s a feature that caters to the most enthusiastic and competitive of players.
If — like me — you prefer single-player titles, you may have accumulated potentially hundreds of cards without realizing it.
To see your Steam Trading Cards, open your inventory. Then click on the drop-down menu and select “All Steam Items.”
But before you start loading your basket with titles, it’s worth noting that you’re unlikely to make a fortune selling your cards.
Like real-world trading cards, Steam Trading Cards vary in rarity — and thus, price. While some go for a decent amount, the most common cards have a value of mere pennies.
I sold my accumulated cards last week, with most bought for between ¢5 and ¢15. The most valuable card in my collection sold for ¢60.
Your returns are largely based on two factors: how many games you’ve played, and how lucky you are. After selling around 120 cards, I made around $4. Not great, but not awful either. Again, your mileage will vary.
How to sell Steam Trading Cards
Players can sell their Steam Trading Cards on the Community Market. Its most interesting feature is its dynamic pricing. As cards have no defined value, sellers can set their own prices.
In short: The Community Market is based on the established norms of supply and demand. That said, Valve helps sellers price their items by showing trading volume and average trade prices.
When you’re ready to list a card, select it and click Sell. Valve then prompts you to define your price. You can either choose how much you want to receive, or how much the buyer will pay. As you might expect, the company takes a healthy cut of each transaction.
Unfortunately, Steam doesn’t allow you to sell your cards in bulk. This means you must sell each item individually. Trust me, this is a tedious and repetitive process. Long, too, depending on the size of your collection.
Valve lists all Steam Trading Cards on the Community Market for fifteen days. If the card remains unsold, you can re-list it at a lower price to entice new customers.
The good news is that, in my experience, you don’t have to wait long to make a sale. The vast majority of my cards sold within an hour. It was weirdly gratifying to see the number on my Steam Wallet slowly increment a few pence at a time, crawling higher with each passing second.
Here’s the bad news: by default, Valve sends a confirmation email with each sale. My phone — and, by extension, Apple Watch — continuously vibrated for an hour.
The weird genius of Steam Trading Cards
Here’s a bit of trivia for you. In 2012, Valve hired Yanis Varoufakis as its economist-in-residence. His work initially focused on virtual economies, primarily the pricing dynamics for virtual goods.
Varoufakis is a giant of a thinker. He has lectured at universities across three continents, published countless works, and even served as Greece’s Minister of Finance between 2015 and 2016.
During this time, Varoufakis played an outsized role in the country’s economic recovery, negotiating with the so-called troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) to restructure Greece’s debt burden.
The Steam Trading Card system is so well-designed, that I can’t help but see Varoufakis’ fingerprints on its mechanisms. Valve effectively creates a market between players by introducing an element of scarcity. Remember, you can’t collect a full set of cards simply by playing a game to completion.
If you want to get a full house, you have to engage with the system, either by trading your cards with other players or buying them on the Community Market. The factors determining prices mirror those in the real world: supply, demand, and prestige.
And Valve ensures a level of supply-side liquidity by incentivizing people to sell their cards, even if they’re uninterested in building a collection themselves.
Meanwhile, Valve takes a healthy commission from each sale, giving them a reason to keep the market alive. It also motivates Valve to ensure the long-term future of the economy, by encouraging developers to incorporate trading cards into their upcoming games. It’s all very clever.
Most people, I’d wager, don’t find that nearly as interesting as I do. And to those people, I’d simply say this: can you argue with free games?
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