Game Design

Why is CS:GO’s secondary market so insanely popular?

CS:GO is one of the most popular games in the world, and for good reason. The classic battle of counter-terrorists against terrorists has lent itself to a subtle reimagination every half-decade. With CS:GO’s take on the enduring franchise, however, something big happened: the introduction of weapon skins.

Skins have been around in Counter-Strike since it was a mod for the original Half-Life, but never in the way they exist now. In the old days, players hungry for a new look for their M4A1-S went to a site like FPSBanana and downloaded skin packs. They’d have to replace some files in the core game folders, test things out, and tweak settings until the skins worked just right. Valve, being the shrewd developer they are, saw this as an opportunity.

When CS:GO’s skins released, they used a traditional gacha box system, with one critical addition to the formula: the Steam Marketplace. The Steam Marketplace offered a sanctioned, purely digital marketplace for players looking to buy, sell, or trade their Steam items with other players, and when CS:GO’s skins debuted, the Steam Marketplace exploded.

Many other games are on the Steam Marketplace today, but none of them have items that are nearly as valuable as CS:GO’s collection. What makes CS:GO’s items worth so much? Let’s break it down.

Floating Point Values (Weapon Wear)

When you open a CS:GO case, the item you receive will randomly be assigned a certain amount of “wear” with a floating point value. Wear manifests in different ways per weapon, from scuffs and scratches to color drain. There are five different wear ranges, each with a nearly infinite number of floating point combinations. This means that almost every single skin in CS:GO is unique, if only by a few decimal points. The five different wear ranges, in order of quality, are:

  1. Factory New (0.00 – 0.07)
  2. Minimal Wear (0.07 – 0.15)
  3. Field Tested (0.15 – 0.37)
  4. Well Worn (0.37 – 0.44)
  5. Battle Scarred (0.44 – 1.0)

To see the difference between Factory New and Battle Scarred, check out the video below:

Not exactly subtle, is it? The difference in value for a high-rarity skin that is Factory New versus one that is Battle-Scarred is dramatic. Every skin in a single CS:GO case has effectively infinite wear permutations, creating an extremely long tail for players to chase. When you consider that each case has 18-20 items (some of which with StatTrak variations), the investment potential is evident.

This approach has several advantages:

  • Every skin is effectively thousands of skins, due to the floating point value
  • Cases can be released far less often, as they have much more “content” per crate
  • Wear is a procedural system built into Valve’s editing tools, creating huge ROI

…but a couple of significant downsides:

  • Getting the skin you want at harsher wear values feels awful
  • “Collection” feels impossible, and the extremity of the RNG is discouraging for less wealthy players

Pure RNG

While Valve have never publicly released its drop rates for CS:GO cases, it’s likely that CS:GO does not use a forgiveness mechanic. Considering that skins do not serve any functional purpose, there isn’t a requirement for higher rarity items to be dropped at certain intervals. This is a bad feeling for most players sampling the system, but it removes the price ceiling on skins, effectively creating the opportunity for huge resale value on top tier items. Add in the exacerbating variables of floating point wear values and StatTrak, and getting the “perfect roll” becomes quite elusive (and expensive).

Now retailing for $1,400!

This, of course, skews engagement substantially more towards whales: heavy spenders with cash to burn. Whales traditionally drive most of the revenue in games with microtransactions, but each game caps their spend potential differently. CS:GO’s system creates a cap so high that it’s almost certainly a whale-driven game, but it offers something unique: the opportunity to see a return on your skin investments. All “funds” are contained within Steam’s ecosystem, but the Steam Marketplace creates a stock market-like opportunity space for players who invest in CS:GO’s skin economy, which entices the chase even more. Seeing as Valve takes a cut of every Marketplace sale, the company creates a scenario where everyone involved wins (and, perhaps most notably, prevents the system from money laundering and gambling concerns).

Community-Created Content

Of course, none of these systems would matter if the skins themselves weren’t desirable. Valve’s initial approach to skin design for CS:GO was fairly standard. The assumption was that players only wanted skins that fit within the tactical theme of the franchise. This assumption was disproven when Valve introduced the Steam Workshop, a system that let players submit and vote on the skins that would end up in the game. Skins evolved into significantly more vibrant and eye-catching designs, revealing the true preferences of the playerbase.

You can make a living designing content for CS:GO

When Valve decided to let players create skins for CS:GO, they unlocked an entirely new batch of potential. Letting the community create content via the Steam Workshop has several key advantages:

  1. When players decide what to release, content has a much higher success rate
  2. Developers are freed from the burden of the “content treadmill” problem
  3. Community creators receive a percentage of content sold, resulting in higher quality content and a thriving marketplace

Leveraging the Steam Workshop or other community content creation tools can be huge for your game. Creating a pipeline to elegantly ingest community content and reward them for doing so is even better!

Cultural Relevance

If a game is popular, cosmetic content is significantly more likely to be successful. Vanity is a function of visibility both in and out of game. A game’s Twitch presence plays a huge factor in this, as many vanity items are only visible to the player currently using them. If that player happens to be broadcasting their skin to 20,000 viewers every day, the visibility of that item increases dramatically, and further adds value.

You don’t need half a million CCU, but it certainly helps

Developers can do a lot to surface cosmetic content in-game, but without a critical mass of players engaging with it, none of it matters. This is an unfortunate reality, but an important one to identify. It is entirely possible to do everything right and still fail based on whether or not the market responds to a game.

If you have any additional thoughts or feedback, don’t forget to leave a comment below!

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