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Why hundreds of thousands of bots descended on one Steam arcade collection

Promotional image for Capcom Arcade Stadium.
Enlarge / 400,000 bots can’t be wrong.

Monday night at 11 pm EST, there were 18 players logged on and playing the Steam version of Capcom Arcade Stadium (according to SteamDB data sourced from the Steam store itself). Ten hours later, on Tuesday morning, the game peaked at over 488,000 concurrent players, putting it behind only perennial favorites Counter-Strike: GO and Dota 2 on Steam’s list of most-played games for the day.

No, the idea of playing classic Capcom arcade games on the PC didn’t get 27,000 times more popular literally overnight. Instead, the sudden “success” seems driven by automated bots taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity to score some “free” money by minting and selling Steam Trading Cards.

Steam Trading Cards explained

Since the launch of Steam Trading Cards in 2013, players have been able to earn, buy, and sell the purely digital collectibles in thousands of games on Valve’s online platform. For most supported games, a player can get half of the available trading cards just by putting in playtime. To get a game’s full card set, a player has to purchase the remainder from the Steam Community Market. There, other players can offer their excess cards for sale, with commodity pricing determined by floating buy and sell offers that fluctuate based on supply and demand.

Steam Trading Cards don’t have any inherent value outside of what the market of players is collectively willing to ascribe to them (kind of like NFTs, just without the decentralization or the “one of one” uniqueness). But many Steam users value the Trading Cards because a complete set within a game can be traded for a game-specific badge that will be tied to your Steam account and profile page. Those badges, in turn, earn XP toward raising your Steam user level, a visible online social distinction that can get a player listed on a global leaderboard if they’re really dedicated to the idea.

Most Steam Trading Cards are only worth a few cents a piece (or a little bit more in the case of rare 1-in-100 “foil” variation). But that little bit of profit potential does drive some players to earn and sell as many cards as they can. And because of this market opportunity, a wide variety of software “bots” have been designed to mimic human activity in your Steam games, thus earning trading cards without the need to actually take time to play the games themselves. While using these bots is technically against Valve’s terms of service, enforcement of this rule seems spotty, especially compared to the stricter actions against cheaters in online games.

A moneymaking opportunity?

Usually the value of Steam Trading Cards earned in-game is way lower than the game’s asking price, even in the case of extreme 99 cent sales. There are some exceptions, though, like when some Argentinian gamers discovered that the vagaries of currency arbitrage meant they could actually make money by buying certain bargain-priced games and selling the resulting trading cards on the open market.

To prevent players from farming “free money” from trading cards in free-to-play games, those titles usually don’t drop cards unless you spend money on DLC or in-game items. In fact, in 2017, Valve had to take action against “fake” game developers who were abusing the ability to generate free Steam codes for their own games to farm money from the generated trading cards.

The price for this digital trading card has plummeted since it became available to
Enlarge / The price for this digital trading card has plummeted since it became available to “free” players.

There have been some occasional, unintended exceptions to this rule, though. GTA-inspired shooter Geneshift, for instance, has seen brief bursts of popularity after automated bots realized the game was still giving out trading cards during a 48-hour “free game” promotion. Life Is Strange 2 also saw its concurrent player counts spike from hundreds to hundreds of thousands on September 17, 2020, when its newly free-to-play first episode was briefly dropping valuable trading cards.

Valve can manually turn off trading card drops for free games when it sees this happening, but often the damage has already been done by the time the company can react. The price for a representative Life Is Strange 2 trading card, for instance, plummeted from 10 cents to 4 cents after bots flooded the market last September. That price has yet to recover to its previous levels even though the game no longer gives trading cards for free downloads.

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