Steam is making significant changes to its Trading Card system to combat fake games and help the store's discovery algorithms.
Trading Cards were introduced in 2013 as small collectibles that the Steam community could collect by playing games. It was a way of showing off their favourite games, and players could trade these cards with other Steam users. Some players wanted to collect as many Trading Cards as possible, whereas others were disinterested and sold them on the Steam Community Market.
Steam felt that this added extra value to developers' games, and it did, uptake of the Tracing Cards has been significant to the point that an economy has cropped up off the back of it.
This is where "bad actors" have emerged, who are creating "fake games" to abuse the system. These developers are building basic games, generating thousands of keys for these titles (which Steam allows developers to do), and then handing them out to 'Steam account bots' that idle away in the background collecting trading cards. "Even if no real players ever see or buy one of these fake games, their developers make money by farming cards," Steam explained.
"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."
Valve says it has ruled out restricting the ability to generate Steam keys, because it would harm legitimate developers and it wouldn't guarantee the solution either.
So why is this an issue at all? If Valve is making money from market fees and gamers are getting the trading cards they want, what's the problem? In short, it's how it impacts algorithms.
"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," the company continued. "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."
Valve is introducing something called a 'confidence metric', which means Trading Cards won't appear until Steam is confident the game is being bought and played by genuine users. Once the game hits this metric, cards will drop to all users - including those that played the game prior to that point. Once the game hits its metric (and developers introduce Trading Cards), all players will receive their cards.
"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," Valve added. "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."