Steampocalypse 2011: The Rise and Fall of a Coal Addict

By: George Weidman

Let this be a cautionary tale. Consumerism is a hell of a drug. Now that the year’s finally over, I won’t have to worry about relapsing soon.

Steam provides a great service but preys on the gullible. I’ve always been a sucker for Steam sales and have bought an embarrassingly huge backlog of cheap games (so big, in fact, that I’ve dedicated a new column to finish them all.)

However, I’ve never been a sucker for achievements. The soap-operatic drama of Valve’s labyrinthine network of achievement-unlocking schemes have always eluded me. This winter, all of that changed. I took a dive into a realm of mercantilism that was inhospitable and brutal, and I became a worse man for it.

For those not in the know, Steam has been hosting the “Great Gift Pile” event over the past two weeks. The idea is that accomplishing certain Holiday-themed game achievements during the promotion adds more content to one’s Steam account. The basic formula is this: each day six new achievements become available that, when accomplished, add either a random gift or a lump of coal to your Steam inventory. One lump of coal equals one entry into the grand prize raffle, the first-place prize being every single game on Steam ever.

But what are the chances of winning that? A more pragmatic option is to convert lumps of coal into gifts. Seven coals can be crafted into one random gift. How that process is supposed to work, no one knows. But it’s an effective hook. The “gift” is a total mystery. It could be anything. It could your favorite game. It could be your least favorite game. It could be a game you wouldn’t pay money for but wouldn’t mind having around for free. But they’re more likely to be mere coupons for future game purchases.

“Well, it sounds simple enough. Fat chance I’ll actually win anything, but I might just have some dumb fun with it,” I thought. The achievements for Day 1 were a cakewalk. First one: “Check your inventory- you’ve got a gift!” Wow, I’ve already won! Thanks for the “50% off Valve games” coupon! I’ll be sure to keep this around for when Episode 3 comes out!

New rule: “winning” a coupon is actually losing. They’re only valid for next January to March, and don’t stack on top of existing discounts. For any savvy Steam shopper, they’re effectively useless.

When the set set of achievements were revealed on day two, I decided to get more serious. Crafting a quick entry-level brew in Dungeons of Dredmor and joining a promotional Steam group were easy. As predicted, accomplishing these earned me coal instead of gifts. “No matter,” I thought. “Five more achievements and I can turn them into another gift, and it’ll probably something more useful.”

Creating a “Candy Stripe” in Audiosurf, a game that can best be described as “a faster Bejeweled with your crappy taste in music in the background,” was satisfying. Downing a few Christmas-themed zombies in Killing Floor netted another achievement. Doing other easy in-game tasks and trying out Steam’s repertoire of online services siphoned in a regular supply of coal. After a couple days of causal play, I had seven coals. Time to craft.

What did I get? A coupon. 50% off Shadowgounds. Gee whiz, thanks. A critically-flawed game in a genre I’m not interested in, a genre filled with cheaper and more well-respected competitors.

But it was a start, right? Maybe next time the crafting magic would create something really nice, like it did with this guy or that guy. Success stories were popping up everywhere. Just after introducing a personal friend on Steam to the Great Gift Pile, he randomly won Risen, the unofficial Gothic sequel he always wanted. “If it could happen to someone I personally know, the chances of me winning must surely not be that bad.”

This whole convoluted process is bogged down under layers of digital-age marketing abstraction. The inventory itself is an aberration, filled with intangible representations of items and salient trinkets that you can’t actually play with or use without taking them out of your “inventory” and putting them in your “library,” which are separate sections of the same account. If an achievement is accomplished and a gifted game is slapped in your inventory, you can’t play it until agreeing that you’ll never gift it to someone else. How we’re supposed to visualize seven lumps of goal being “crafted” into something else is a mystery. And of course, the gifts turned out to be coupons more often than not.

After my first failure to win anything cool, I decided to keep playing and obtain seven more coals. I toured more obscure games, particularly a suite of free-to-play MMO’s that weren’t any kind of fun. Raking up 200 points in a snowball match in CrimeCraft: Gang Wars was way more frustrating than it needed to be. Slapping any opponent at all with a snowball in Spiral Knights was a maddeningly unpredictable process that lasted hours. Eventually I found myself trying to install Rusty Hearts, a free-to-play Korean MMO that I never managed to launch because the launcher crashed while patching the patcher’s two patches. Or something. I gave up the achievement for that one.

The next tier of achievements were more difficult. Rise of Immortals, a free-to-play spin-off of League of Legends, featured an indecipherable interface and the intimidating “Supporter” achievement, which requires one to get 10 kill assists in a match. Since there are no more than five players on a team per match, this achievement requires you to passive-aggressively defeat (in an “assisting” fashion) the same players 10 times in a row. As I was completely new to this game and this genre, I had no clue what I was doing. I forfeited.

Participating in the Gift Pile steadily became less about dumb fun. It became a perverse carrot-on-a-stick chase. In chasing after the coal, I no longer cared about prizes or coupons or even the one-in-a-kazillion shot at winning the raffle. I just wanted a chance to win something. I wanted to win anything comparable to the minor victories of other people, both the strangers on reddit and the personal friends in real life. I wanted something comparable to the people who just happened to have better luck than me. I felt bitter and inadequate, and the embarrassing depths I stooped to while pursuing this coal made it worse. I wasn’t having fun anymore. But I needed to win. I had already invested so many hours into winning. It would be stupid not to invest more.

The next day, I was introduced The Binding of Isaac. It’s a brutal game in every way, one where you play as a pink and naked abused boy who is locked in the nightmarish dungeons of his mother’s basement. The walls are made of excrement, your primary weapons are your tears, and the bosses are bubbling and bloated biblical metaphors. The worst part: it’s designed by Super Meat Boy people. If there was one game to defeat me, this was it. The Christmas achievement: find and kill Uncle Krampus. A few hours of gameplay later, and I gave up. Krampus is a late-game boss who you can only find via a random roll in an entirely randomly-generated game. The predicted probability of encountering Krampus over the next day roller-coasted from “he’s definitely gonna appear this time!” to “I’m more likely to find igloos in Hell.”

After looking wistfully down at Isaac’s permanently-streaming tears, I realized something. For the past two weeks, I’ve been playing the worst game ever. I’ve been jipped into a digital ponzi scheme where my worst emotions had become commodities. My raging desire to win something cool was also my desperation, my inadequacy, and my bitterness. And those were being invested back into Steam as game purchases and exposure to marketing. Even as I knew this, I didn’t want to stop.

Another day unveiled a more merciful list of achievements. Collecting dropped gifts from zombies in Left 4 Dead 2 was easy as pie. So was linking my Facebook account to Steam, though I’ll likely be regretting that decision all the way to the afterlife. But I had a raging desire to win right now, so regrets weren’t important. With my fingers crossed, I slid over to the inventory and double-checked that I had seven whole (non-existent digital representations of) coal lumps. With the three coupons I already acquired, my losing streak would surely end soon! That’s how probability works, right?

I eagerly pressed the “craft” button, hoping for the best.

A cold sweat. My nostrils flared. My eyelids twitched.

Valve: I give up. You win. I lost. I’m done with this. I’m putting your coal and your achievements and your sale away. I’m just gonna go play fun games that I want to play now. Thanks for keeping me from doing that for past two weeks of my life.

Image source: Valve

Laugh it up, you gluttonous beast.

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30 thoughts on “Steampocalypse 2011: The Rise and Fall of a Coal Addict

  1. i got dota 2, l4d, garshasp, tian quest. I created numerous steam accounts, with the gifts in the main account, i gifted to the other accts i made, so they would activate, once active, i participated in the gift pile with 6 new accounts. After the 4 games mentioned above, i only got coupons on the other accounts. haha, this was so much fun, and i was desperate running form computer to computer in my house setting up trades with myself basically on different accounts. I love valve and steam and pc gaming ftw

    • People like you are why they ran out of prizes days early. Let me guess: you bought a bunch of Humble Indie Bundles for a penny and set up some fake Steam accounts for those too.

    • Scumbags like you are why they ran out of prizes days earlier than anticipated. Did you buy a bunch of Humble Indie Bundles for a penny and run fake Steam accounts for those too?

      • I remember when that happened earlier this year. I know (virtually) the creators for Cogs and Crayon Physics so I shot them quick e-mails just a few minutes after it happened. They were not too happy and neither were the HIB guys. I have no idea what possessed that person to try something so… just… wrong.

    • Well, I didn’t buy anything I didn’t want, and I didn’t even try those achievements that looked boring or heavy. I didn’t get really much: Spacechem, which is fantastic, I already owned, so I gifted it, and a couple of 50% tickets of Valve which I hope they let me use on DOTA 2, CS:GO or even HL:EP3 before they expire.

      What I really thought was ridiculous where those tickets giving you a 50% discount in a game that was already discounted 75% in the sale. Those were filler, and really left a bad taste. Valve dropped the ball there.

      • Damn, this last reply should have been a comment in the thread. Damned white screen followed by F5.

        Well, I’ll use the opportunity to say again how much elpibepiolarlos sucks.

  2. all i got was coal and coupons, but i don’t regret it. afterall i didn’t pay anything for valve to gift me games. and i got games at very low cost on sale. they even gave free entries into grand prize. i see people rage on forums that they only got coal, whereas many got games, skyrim etc. i don’t understand, why are they so butthurt? did they lose money? if they bought games for achievements supposing they would get free games, can that be losing money? you got the games cheap and those are well worth.

    • The Great Gift Pile was simply an effective sales event. People bought a whole bunch of stuff and were exposed to a whole bunch of other stuff in the process. The rage comes from mixing gambling into the process, by having players work to earn a chance at rolling slim probabilities that only a minority will win at. Clicking that “craft” button and watching my hard-earned coal melt away undoubtedly felt like rolling some kind of diabolical slot machine.

      Naturally, some bitterness is going to crop up when people see others win while they lose. Especially when the winners don’t have to work very hard to win. Did these people pay anything for Valve to gift them games? If they are trying to earn any achievements on a game that isn’t free, then they most certainly did. For all intents and purposes of the coal-crafting mechanics, old game purchases suddenly became down payments for gambling. And of course, there’s the all-important payment of time invested into earning the achievements.

      Metaphor: It’s like a casino where players don’t gamble for money but instead gamble for prizes, and players are charged on a game-by-game basis.

  3. I never bought into achievements and the social part of modern gaming. When possible, all of my game purchases happen outside platforms like Steam. And I’ve never been suckered into ruining my fun for a shiny trinket.

    I had fun this Christmas playing games I love. Happy New Year, and tread lightly next time.

    • I am with you on this man. However, I am a sucker for Steam deals. I used to be an achievement monger in my early 360 years, but learned that they were not what made a game especially when a lot of the time the goals really weren’t true achievements of any sort. I think it’s necessary for people to realize that it’s technically gambling when you buy into this stuff and as a common rule of thumb, it is not often that something beneficial comes out of it. So you either own up to your own choices, or you look like a jerk for blaming everyone else.

      • And in that vein, you hear way more gambling horror stories than gambling success stories. I don’t think I have an addictive personality, but episodes like this keep me guessing.

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  5. If you simply game for enjoyment, and don’t give a rats ass about useless achievements. It’s a much more enjoyable hobby.

  6. DOD: Source and 2 50% coupons of Valve games. (Still not sure if they are stackable.)

    Glad I did not waste time on those harder achievements or buy any games I hate.

  7. Hence, why I always completely ignore these stupid “competitions” and “promotions” and what not.

    Waste of time. I do like these sales though, EYE for 2 euros, LA Noire for 13, Fallout NV DLCs for cheap too..

    although I would like them even more if I could pay in dollars :/

  8. quite a bitter bunch of FOOKs… if it was easy to win.. we would al lplay the lotto every day.. eat at McD’s duing monoply etc.. The goal is not to get you to play crappy games.. it to get you to play games you might never have tried.. guess the cup is always half empty for some.. you are whinny twit.. you basicly said you dont like games.. or did i miss you likeing ONE in the whole post? I know free is your RIGHT! glad you posted your rant for us to read. I didnt try to get anything free.. as you said.. Im not a senseless achievement whore.. my e-penis is not a concern.. so I played the game I liked, and had a great wekend.. right up till this story …. WIth that said.. its jut an opinion.. yours and mine.. good luck on whatever games you do enjoy..

    • This article is simply about my experiences, and not about anyone else’s. I didn’t ask Valve for anything for free, but nevertheless experienced disappointment when I saw others getting better stuff without trying as hard. I can’t even say that I’m not grateful: the event exposed me to Jamestown, a game so good that it’s getting it’s own post shortly.

      The other assumptions you gathered from the article sounds like stuff you came up with on your own, to be honest.

  9. I’m glad with my coal addiction. I crafted 7 carbons and won Sanctum, with it and several discounts, I traded them for a game I like, Rock of Ages (amazing).

    Later I keep on playing and I won Left 4 Dead 1, that I gladly gifted to a friend. And now I have several discounts yet, I could trade for a minor game or a discounts I of games I want.

    Conclusion, I’ve loved this promotion, and I want to thank Valve for this clever and sweet version of capitalism.

    • I considered trading, but unfortunately coupons for Shadowgrounds and Dead Island weren’t in particularly high demand, especially since they were already on sale at the time. Valve’s coupons didn’t stack on top of existing discounts, and since the Holiday discounts were pretty heavy the relative exchange value of the coupons was nearly zero. That’s the bait-and-switch behind this coal crafting game: if you play for hours and hours on end to earn enough achievements for seven coals, you’re guaranteed to win something either of value or something of extremely low value. But either way, you win “something,” and that’s what kept me going, even when I actually had nothing to show for it.

  10. Thank you.
    Thank you for putting into words what I thought would have been a complete and utter waste of my precious holiday time over Christmas.
    In fact, I went hiking, I re-played Torchlight, and am now messing around with its mods, and having a fun old time with it.
    I recently gave up playing Eve Online for the exact same reasons you concluded with, I wasn’t having fun anymore.
    So my sincerest heart-felt condolences go out to you, dear friend, for having being lured by the beast of Valve’s Marketing, and here’s hoping we all get to enjoy the forthcoming Torchlight 2 and Diablo 3 (whenever they shall appear in our gaming mitts!) 🙂

  11. eh guys dont craft coal you could sell it for games on steam tradings forum … i bought terrara for 3coals then sold it for 25 buyed then much indie games for similar coal prices loking on second page of forum buyedthen 3x dead island forc25 coals each unpacked one other one sold for 89c and last one traded for dota. i was doing this for a long time until i had all games i want and still had 243 coal

    • Damn, that really is what I should’ve done. For some reason throughout this process, I was under the impression that coal was untradable. I remember it not being easily selectable through the Steam trading window, or experiencing some other interface problem clouding the process. I only tested the value of my coupons in the marketplace, and was sadly disappointed.

    • I somehow had gift copies of Portal, Ship, and Dirt 2 and with the 4 coal I actually worked for, I traded in for Payday. Could not be happier, and I have coal to thank for this.

  12. Pingback: Jamestown PC Review | truepcgaming

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