12,184 points. For a few minutes, that was a meaningless number on my Steam account, the quantity of points I have to spend on stickers and backgrounds in Valve's new Points Shop. Then I clicked a link that says "How points work," and learned that I earn 100 points for every $1 I spend on Steam. I did the math. Okay, that's only $120. Not bad at all. Except the points only started accruing a few months ago, back in January of this year. Somewhere in my brain, a crack formed in the wall that holds back unwanted, suppressed thoughts, and through it whispered a voice:
"But how much have you spent on Steam since 2005?"
I do not want this thought in my head, but now I'm stuck with it. Every time I stamp it down buying a new game on Steam will bring it up again, because I'll start racking up those points knowing what they represent. I've never run my Steam profile through the SteamDB Calculator (opens in new tab) because I really don't want to think about how much money I've spent on my hobby over the last 15 years. Does anyone?
For Valve, the Points Shop seems like yet another clever way to keep people absorbed in the Steam ecosystem, a little nudge towards spending more money. But I'm not sure the designers thought about what Points do if you never spend them. They'll just keep piling up with every purchase. For me, I think the Points Shop may actually do the opposite of what Valve wants. It'll make me hesitate, just a little guilty, every time I'm about to buy a game.
The Points Shop builds on top of features Valve has added to Steam over the last few years, like trading cards and leveling up profiles to unlock special emojis and bits of profile customization, to make Steam more than just a launcher. The Points Shop greatly expands that customization with more emoticons, chat stickers, effects like confetti, and profile background images. There's even an insidious golden profile that gilds your Steam page for a mere 5,000 points—but it expires after 30 days. Want to stay gold? Just spend at least $50 every month!
I don't use Steam for its community and don't care about any of these customization options. But many people do, and it's easy to imagine a few being lured into buying more games just to keep earning those points. I find it uncomfortable, in the same way I don't love mobile games monetization systems designed around the knowledge that certain players known as "whales" will compulsively sink thousands of dollars into them.
If Valve's goal here was to keep people more active and invested in Steam, pointing out to them just how much money they're spending actually seems like a bad idea. Sometimes we buy games because we know we want to play them right there and then, but many times—like right now, during a Steam sale—bargains tempt us into buying piles of games we might play, at some indistinct point down the road when we finally have All That Time.
This is why the Steam backlog is a universally understood concept. If Valve wanted to do me a solid, it would build a button into the purchasing process that says "Hey, we noticed you have 400 unplayed games in your Steam library. Are you sure you want to buy these five games, even though they're on sale?"
Think about how much money that would probably save! I've compulsively bought so many games because they were on sale and buying things gives me that little flash of excitement. And then, predictably, I've never gotten around to playing them. I could've just waited to buy those games in another sale five years later instead and invested that money. Factor in compound interest or a sensible stock purchase, and I'd be rich by now!
Okay, that's a lie. I wouldn't be rich. But I'd have literally thousands of dollars, instead of thousands of points which I can use to buy a Tub Geralt sticker or to simply stare at while contemplating my own bad decisions.
The system isn't all bad. I think it's cool that you can gift other users things, like "award" badges, to praise a review or Workshop mod that they made. That's a neat way to encourage more positive interactions in the community. And I hope developers that made stickers or whatever for their games get some benefit out of the system.
But I'd rather go back to a week ago, when every new purchase I make on Steam from here to eternity didn't come with a built-in reminder that it's a big ol' money pit.