For the past six months, developer Loren Lemcke has noticed a weird trend every time his games are discounted on Steam: the majority of the people buying it are from Argentina. This is true for the violently cute 2D sports game Super Blood Hockey, but especially true for Over 9000 Zombies!, a top-down action game about surviving zombie hordes from 2015.
"I suppose it's not impossible the game [Over 9000 Zombies!] has just gained some popularity there through sheer luck," Lemcke told Waypoint.
Possible? Sure. Likely? Nah, especially since that popularity in Argentina hasn't shown a similar spike—positive or negative—in other regions. Instead, only Argentina stuck out, and resulted in Lemcke entertaining two theories on what was happening with his game sales.
- People are "region hopping," where players change the identity of the country they live in, to take advantage of region-specific pricing and build out their library cheaply. Game prices are different around the world, reflecting different economic conditions.
One of the cheapest places to buy video games in the world, it turns out, is inside Argentina. Mass Effect Legendary Edition costs $60 in the US—but costs $37 in Argentina. Resident Evil Village costs $60 in the US—but costs $36 in Argentina. An older game like 2016's DOOM costs only $5 on Steam right now—but costs $1 in Argentina. You get the idea, and it's not hard to imagine why people would jump through hoops to take advantage of this.
But Valve has been making region hopping more difficult over the years. For a time, it was possible to purchase a VPN and mask your location, buying games wherever. But in 2020, Steam required users to pay with "a local payment method" and made it frustrating to switch regions willy nilly. That became even more true this past June; now, you can only change regions every three months. It's still possible to region hop, but it's officially a pain in the ass.
There was also a stranger theory, posited by someone responding to Lemcke on Twitter.
- Over 9000 Zombies! costs only $7 ARS (Argentinian Pesos), but players could flip the Steam trading cards acquired by playing the game for $10 ARS. In essence, you could make money—or basically break even—by purchasing Over 9000! Zombies.
Steam trading cards are little virtual collectibles dropped by games purchased through Steam. In addition to buying and selling them, players can combine and craft badges to earn bonuses, like coupons to save money, chat emoticons, or artwork to spruce up your profile.
By comparison, $7 ARS is $0.07 USD. $10 ARS is $0.10 USD. The game is currently sold for $1.99 USD, and the pricing in Argentina (and elsewhere worldwide) is set to whatever Steam suggests for the region. (It's possible for developers to tinker with this on their own.)
It's not hard to find evidence of this in action. A guide on r/argaming, a subreddit for Argentinian players, explains how to farm cards from cheap indie games and turn a profit. The user who wrote the guide claims they spent $206 ARS buying games, turned that into $343 ARS in card sales on Steam's marketplace, and walked away with $136 to play with.
"I've done it with a number of games, and regarding what I made from them, it was either the same amount spent, or a small profit," said 32-year-old Argentinian David Fadrique Agustín Domínguez. "It's also not a sustainable way of making money. It's more of a side thing people do in order to grow their library."
For most of his life, Domínguez's relationship with games was synonymous with piracy.
"Before digital stores with prices in our currency started being a thing, very few people bought games," said Domínguez. "Retail stores sold pirated copies in CDs (and later, DVDs) and that was pretty much it. The rise of Steam and Battle.net gave a new life to gaming here."
"It's always been a matter of imports being very expensive, our coin has historically been considerably less valuable than the dollar," said Argentinian-based gaming narrative design teacher and "Modo Historia" (History Mode) podcast host Guillermo Crespi. "Except for a very particular period between 1991 and 2002, in which one peso equalled one dollar. So it was very common for middle-to-high class Argentinians to travel abroad and bring consoles or games [back]."
Many folks, including Crespi, experienced 8-bit games through NES hardware clones from Taiwan and cartridges with dozens of games. In Argentina, according to Crespi, the Genesis was more popular because of easier piracy. This was true in the 32-bit era, with modded PlayStation 1 and PlayStation 2 machines using burned CDs for illegal copies of games.
"Throughout those years, buying an original, boxed PC game (or home computer game before that) was a very rare occurrence," said Crespi.
Mining trading cards is a natural extension of this complicated relationship in a place that's been economically volatile for decades. The country was in the midst of a multi-year recession before the arrival of COVID-19, which has caused more economic havoc. More than 4 in 10 citizens are currently experiencing poverty, according to The New York Times.
But even with region-specific pricing that seems cheap, the situation is more complicated.
Argentina passed a 30 percent tax on international purchases in 2019. That was followed in 2020 by another tax that brought the total tax for a game bought through Steam to 65 percent. The $37 price for Mass Effect Legendary Edition, for example, now becomes $61. Not so cheap!
There are even situations where the opposite occurs.
"Lots of publishers/devs aren't aware of our digital taxes either," said Domínguez, "so they price games at a point they think makes sense, but don't take into account that we have to pay +65 percent on top of that."
That's roughly a third of what Domínguez makes in a single month.
On YouTube, an Argentinian creator with 14,600 subscribers, Philderan, has a 30-minute video running through a very similar guide to the one on reddit, instructing fellow Argentinians—or, presumably, anyone willing to jump through region hopping hoops—how to use services like Idle Master to mine (and then later sell) cards on the Steam marketplace.
"My nephew-in-law sells all his trading cards, which are called cromos in Spanish Steam, and then buys new games this way," said Javier Otaegui, co-founder of the Argentinian game developer Tlön Industries.
Otaegui scrolled through the reviews of Over 9000! Zombies and took specific note at how many seemed to be written by his fellow Argentinians, which he suspects are also kids.
"They browse for cheap games using the steam browser, and then they buy those games that are under 10 pesos, and get their money back with a small profit selling the trading cards," said Otaegui. "They just filter the games that support the trading card and then order them by price, to detect the opportunities."
His nephew, for example, is given $200 ARS per month ($2.06 in USD) to buy games on Steam. That's not a lot, even by the prices offered to Argentinian players, so his nephew sniffs out games that can be bought and mined for a profit, giving him more money to spend.
"Sometimes they even like the games they buy for free," he said. "I think that's what happened to Over 9000! Zombies."
This isn't the first time a developer noticed Argentina and wasn't sure what to make of it.
Former Gamasutra editor Simon Carless now, among other things, runs a great newsletter called GameDiscoverCo, which documents, examines, and probes how to sell video games. Carless was contacted by a developer this year seeing a spike in sales from Argentina (6-7 percent of total sales) disproportionate to its population (44 million vs. Brazil's 210 million).
"Developers get concerned about sales in countries like Argentina," said Carless, "if they start showing a long way up on their download counts for the game—more than 5 percent of all buyers—and they don't feel like those buyers are truly originating from that territory."
Carless said most developers and publishers haven't been shifting prices to existing games in response, but these trends, no matter why they're happening, can influence future pricing.
"This mainly feels like a platform issue, and indeed it looks like Valve has been taking additional steps to prevent people 'country hopping' to buy games," said Carless. "So in an ideal world, it wouldn't be something developers or publishers worry about."
But it can cause worry, both for creators and players. Note this post on the Steam subreddit, where an anxious Argentinian player pleads with people to stop region hopping, because it resulted in Sony boosting the price of Horizon: Zero Dawn on PC. It turns out this boost was a mistake.
"Every single week prices raise everywhere, food, services, clothes, whatever, it raises, except for salaries," wrote the poster. "That's always stagnant, lowering, or raised a little bit but not enough to keep up with inflation. Our salaries are significantly lower than a US citizen, yet we're expected to pay more (after taxes) than them? How come? How is this fair?"
And for a moment, it briefly gave the designer of Over 9000! Zombies pause, too. What if Steam's region hopping changes weren't enough, and these were just people who wanted to pay a few dollars less for a tiny indie game? We're not talking about a big budget game.
"It's a real bummer," said Lemcke on Twitter. "I won't raise prices because I don't want any real people to suffer as a result of these people abusing the system. It doesn't really fix the larger issue anyway."
Over 9000! Zombies will stay at its current price, Lemcke told Waypoint. Even in Argentina.