Gamers Messed With The Steam Sale, Then Valve Changed The Rules

The best conspiracy theory in gaming this week just might be that Valve fixed the game they built around their infamous Steam Summer Sale. Or the community figured out how to rig it themselves. Or something. Something crazy.

If you go to the Steam Summer Adventure 2014 portion of Steam's forum, you'll see thread after thread expressing utmost certainty that the whole thing's been rigged. Some suggest Valve did it for their own gain, others claim players put together a giant, number-manipulating plot. Where did this come from? What's going on? Here's what I found out.

How The Game Works

Let's start at the beginning: Steam's big seasonal sales are often accompanied by meta-games, many of which have involved collecting achievements within various video games to contribute to some larger, limited time event. These events exist to (hopefully) lend elements of fun and community to what would otherwise just be a simple set of deals. To make it more of an event, something to be involved in.

This time around 2014's "Steam Summer Adventure" is tasking players with picking a team—blue, green, purple, red, or pink—and crafting badges that earn points for your team or steal points away from other teams. According to the original rules of the 2014 Steam Summer Adventure, the team that makes the most badges in a given day wins.

Badges are made from Steam Summer Adventure trading cards, which can be unlocked in all sorts of ways: voting in a community choice sale, trading with other players, purchasing cards in the community market, crafting badges (yes, it's a vicious cycle), or buying games directly from Steam (one free card per $10 spent). Valve collects tiny scraps of money from each transaction, starting at a five percent cut per transaction.

Originally, each day's winning team—THERE COULD BE ONLY ONE, etc—would see 30 random members win the top three games in their Steam wishlists. Seems like as good of incentive as any to spin virtual cardboard into virtual cloth like some kind of mad alchemist, right? Many thought so, and the game was off to a rollicking start. Then things went totally off rails.

The Conspiracy Theories

After the first day of the event (Thursday of last week) something strange started happening. Individual teams began winning by a landslide while the rest got trounced more or less uniformly. First red, then green, then pink, then blue. A different team each day, but in almost the exact same fashion.

Millions of Steam users cried out in terror, but were never silenced because Valve doesn't really do the whole "communication" thing unless it absolutely has to. So conspiracy theories followed, many of "catching" big, clumsy Valve red-handed. They figured the house that Half-Life built was "rigging" it internally for their own greedy gain. There were gloriously grand, elaborate theories like:

Gamers Messed With The Steam Sale, Then Valve Changed The Rules

And, in the "rampant speculation about why Valve would do such a thing" column:

Gamers Messed With The Steam Sale, Then Valve Changed The Rules

Countless threads, especially on Steam and Reddit, raged over whether or not the whole thing was rigged, what anybody stood to gain from this, and where it was all going. Theory after theory got suggested, refuted, modified, suggested again, chewed on, and spat out. The rabbit hole grew deeper by the day. Down, down, down everybody went, into a darkness equal parts amused, bemused, and c-mused, whatever that means. Where, conspiracy theorists pondered, did the conspiracy end and we begin?

It didn't help that Valve took to locking up threads on the Steam forums, probably because scores of variations on "it's rigged" were cluttering up the boards. I can't say for sure what Valve's motivations were, though. I've reached out to Steam-powered studio and still received no response. Regardless, that only added syrupy gallons of fuel to players' speculative fires.

Pinning it all on Valve doesn't really make a lot of sense, though. I mean, super obvious score fixing each day? Valve isn't always the most subtle company, but they're not stupid either. And what does Valve gain if teams give up, resign themselves to the idea that it's all pointless? With that hungry little brain worm chewing away at their morale, you'd figure they'd spend less money on games or community store items, not more.

On top of that, the amount of money Valve is likely making off card sales isn't really enough to justify all the trouble. It adds up over time, but not to, like, millions or anything. Running the numbers based on how many cards have been sold in the past 24 hours, Valve probably makes a few thousand dollars on Steam Summer Adventure card sales per day. So there's not even really a huge monetary benefit on Valve's end, if you want to be entirely egalitarian/cynical.

Was Reddit Responsible?

The most plausible culprit, it seems, was front-and-center the whole time, written off by theorists who opted to instead look for cryptic messages in their cereal and/or system files. Shortly after the Summer Adventure kicked off, a Reddit initiative called Operation: Everyone Work as a Team gained serious traction. A whopping seven subreddits emerged, one for planning cooperative efforts and the others dedicated to a different team or, in the case of purple, splinters of the same team.

Here's the schedule, as allegedly first proposed by Reddit user DayZ_slayer (I've attempted to contact DayZ_slayer as well, and am waiting on a response):

Gamers Messed With The Steam Sale, Then Valve Changed The Rules

There are variations of this schedule on every team's subreddit, each with different days set aside. DayZ_slayer rationalized it like this: "If you 'fight' the other teams you're going to be spending lots of money. If you wait until they're not spending money you've got a much better chance of your team winning. Why fight when you can just agree on when to craft?"

On non-winning days, teams would hold onto their resources instead of pouring effort into scoring points. Then, when their time came, they'd unleash everything they'd collected all at once, gaining early momentum and (in all likelihood) encouraging non-Reddit-perusing Steam users to shift to their side. Why not place your bets on the fastest horse, right?

Steam user Colonel Panic broke it down especially well with a giant FAQ of their observations. They explained:

"It's not just a few people [manipulating the whole thing]... It's not just Reddit. Reddit is just a medium for helping spread the word. There's also word of mouth and various other communities including the Steam forum itself. Word travels fast."

"But it doesn't take a lot, either. The team rankings have momentum. They only need to establish a solid lead in the first hour or two of the sale, and after that momentum takes over. People on the winning team will continue to craft in order to get their name in the drawing as part of the prize, while people on the losing teams will realize they can't win that day and so save their cards for when they have a better shot at it later. It's common sense. You're not wasting money and effort competing right now when you're on the losing team, are you? No? See, Everyone else is just doing the same thing you are, and that's why we have this result."

Of course, that's all still speculative. It's merely the piece of speculation that—given how things have played out so far—makes the most sense. Now, however, Valve has finally stepped in, leaving very little room for doubt.

Valve Strikes Back

Mere hours ago Valve changed the system. Now instead of only a single team winning games, second and third place also "win," with 20 people from the second place team getting two games, and ten from the third place team getting one. The result? Chaos. Each subreddit has posted about the rule changes, but there doesn't appear to be a unified plan to react to them yet. Some players want to stick to the plan, only with the caveat that the non-first-place teams can duke it out for second and third. Others just want to scrap the plan entirely and charge into delicate, crafterly battle for honor, glory, and free stuff.

So that's where things are at now. The ending to today's scrap (which you can monitor in real time by clicking the link) should say a lot about how things are going to progress from here on out, although the Reddit conglomerate could easily regroup and re-strategize over night. And did Valve really change the game enough, or do things like the ability to siphon points from other teams and switch teams with relative ease leave it fundamentally broken?

It's all kind of ridiculous, honestly, but I'm not complaining about the entertainment. Is it in the spirit of the game as Valve originally conceived it? Probably not. But this is way more interesting, and it's like DayZ_slayer said to one particularly incensed Redditor:

"Calm down, it's all just for fun."

We'll keep you posted as this story develops. And if you've played along or assisted in organizing, feel free to get in touch. My email address is nathan.grayson@kotaku.com.

TMI is a branch of Kotaku dedicated to telling you everything about my adventures in the gaming industry (and sometimes other offbeat and/or uncomfortable subjects). It's an experiment in disclosure, storytelling, interviewing, and more. The gaming industry is weird. People are weird. I am weird. You are weird. Why hide that? Let's explore it.