How the internet tried to rig the Steam Summer Adventure, and how Valve is trying to stop them

Evan Lahti

A few days ago, members of the Steam community schemed to rig the Steam Summer Adventure competition, a metagame running in parallel with Valve's 12-day Summer Sale. Surprisingly, it wasn't the sort of malicious plan you might expect, but a kind of cease-fire alliance meant to bring equal victory to everyone on Steam. As intended, Team Pink won Sunday. Blue won Monday. Purple will win next, if things go smoothly. On Wednesday, a Red victory is scheduled, then Green.

Is a small collective actually having this big of an influence on a Steam-wide, public competition? Valve has already amended the contest to encourage more competition. I took a look at the evidence and spoke to a few of the people caught up in the dark business of virtual trading card market-manipulation.

How Valve makes money from the metagame

First, a run-down of how the Steam Summer Adventure works if you've been blissfully unaware over the past week, buying and playing discounted PC games rather than being concerned with your gamified game client. Most of Steam's seasonal sales have included a unique trading card set. Craft a full set of these seasonal cards, and you get something like a unique wallpaper or Steam chat emoticon or in-game reward for a few participating games. The 2014 Steam Summer Sale has its own special set of cards you can badge-ify, but with a twist: participating Steam users are randomly assigned to one of five teams during the sale: Red, Pink, Purple, Blue, or Green. Crafting a badge earns points for your team, and 30 members of the winning team get three free Steam games off their wishlists. Oh, and a few extra cards that they can use to keep crafting.

In review: buying games earns virtual cards which can be crafted into virtual badges which increase the rate at which you earn booster packs which contain cards which you can use to upgrade your badges. It's a circular system designed to keep you inside the Steam client, either nickel and diming you to complete your incomplete set of cards or by selling the cards you've been given to encourage you to spend that money on a game.

A competition to see who can craft the most badges, of course, makes money directly for Valve and developers by creating more activity on the Steam Market. Valve takes a 5% cut of all transactions, and the developer of the corresponding game takes 10% (a minimum of $0.01 in both cases).

If I sold one of my Steam Summer Adventure cards for its current value, $0.25, Valve would take three pennies and I'd get $0.22. The Steam Market tells me that 91,650 copies of that card have been sold in the past 24 hours, meaning Valve's profit of a single Summer Adventure card in a single day could be about $2,800. There are 10 of these cards, and another 10 “foil” variants, which run about $2 each.

The community's plan

Bottom line: we celebrate Steam's price cuts, but in the middle of the Summer Sale Valve has integrated a system that stimulates the Steam economy and nets them thousands of dollars a day from virtual, non-existent goods. Many cards and booster packs have risen in price throughout the sale; Dota 2 booster packs, for example, went from trading consistently at about $0.25 for the past month to hovering near $0.40 over the past six days.

The more trading volume and competition, the more the house wins. But a segment of the Steam community is wise to this. They know that a 12-day period when a five-dollar bill can get you our favorite PC game of all time isn't the best time to be engaged in what's essentially a spending war. So to discourage, or at least mitigate, frivolous trading card spending, some Redditors and Steam forum members have organized a coalition to take competition out of the equation. They've called themselves “Team White,” and they've proposed that each Steam team should win twice, on designated days, through June 28.

I spoke to one of the initial organizers behind the plan, Reddit user DayZ_slayer. “It's not really a fun competition when the only real way to win is to spend a lot of cash,” the European 20-year-old told me. “If they did some kind of event that involved playing games it would be a lot more fun to compete, but they didn't, so I figured we all may as well work as a group and give everyone a fair chance at winning some games.”

This seemed to arise naturally, according to DayZ_slayer: many of the teams who had organized individually were planning to compete harder on specific days, he told me, so suggesting that the colored teams take turns simply formalized that process. “I checked the Steam groups/subreddits for the teams and saw which days they were planning on winning, the first five days or so didn't really clash. I made the list showing who should craft on what day and then posted it on all of the team's subreddits under the name Operation EWT. A little later I made the thread on /r/gaming and some other guy posted it to /r/steam.”

I also spoke to Phil Lendon, a 16-year-old living in England who's bought into the concept of Team White. “I first noticed the schedule on Reddit on /r/SteamTeamRed which then spread to /r/Steam and I thought it was a really good idea because here on Team Red we're all about teamwork and communication.” When I asked Lendon how much he's spent toward the contest, he told me that he's “traded hundreds of pounds” to support Red on Wednesday. “Too much that it's unhealthy,” he says.

Valve's response

Up until today, the plan had gone smoothly. Each team won on its designated day. But today the plan is showing signs of falling apart. Valve, apparently unhappy with the lack of competition between teams, changed the contest to award second- and third-place prizes to the runners-up each day. Purple may still come away with first place, but at the outset of today it's already a tight race between the colors. “ The game has changed,” a post on the Purple team subreddit reads. “We need to let purple win but go for second,” a member of team Red comments. "What the heck guys? It's purple's day!" a Pink thread exclaims. Lendon, the Red team member I spoke to, wrote back to me this morning after he noticed Valve's change to the competition. "It's turned into a free-for-all, once I had heard of the news I knew it was going to go to hell. However, I believe, as many other Redditors do too, that the new rules for the competition were to prevent the rigging of the competition, as we saw yesterday when Pink one with over a million points above everyone else, Valve had to take action. However, I personally don't believe the changes to the rules are even worth it, as people's chances are even more reduces to win, as-if it wasn't hard enough already to get a winning three games, it'll be even harder for the 2nd place and 3rd place and not even worth the effort."

It's unclear whether this change will encourage competition enough to disrupt Reddit's plan. On the surface, it seemed wild to me that a small percentage of people could be driving the massive point swings we saw in the initial four days. After all, there's only a few hundred people each in these colored Steam groups, and just 140,000 on the Steam subreddit, most of whom probably aren't aggressively participating.

But the Steam Market tells us that just a small number of tokens that steal 1,000 points from another team—the most valuable item for influencing the Adventure competition—are trading hands. In the past 24 hours, just 88 have been bought off the Steam Market at between $8 and $5 each, and about the same amount of 500-point tokens were sold in that period. Even if a single team were buying those tokens, it isn't that much of a swing relative to the 1.2 million that the Blue team earned yesterday.

More likely, the organized non-competition pact by Reddit and the color-specific Steam communities created single, dominant leader, which not only discouraged the other “big spenders” who are engaged in this competition but probably discouraged some amount of casual crafters from chipping in too.

With the adjustment made by Valve, today will be an interesting test of the internet's ability to dictate the outcome. Purple, who's meant to win today, has a modest lead as I'm publishing this, but we'll have to see if the Steam Trading Card Illuminati's grand plan survives through the week.

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