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What Xbox One and PS4 can learn from Steam's social capital (and why they won't)

Steam has changed the way we process and consume video games.

This has been discussed to the point of tedium, but the social aspects of Steam often remain unexamined, and the consoles have so far failed to steal any of the advantages that make Steam such a satisfying social and retail network.

It’s easy to sit down in front of your computer without a strong idea of what to play, only to glance over your friends list to make a selection. What is everyone playing? How can you join the group? Not only does your friends list serve as one of the most compelling advertisements for games on the site, but the service makes it simple for groups of people to join each other playing games.

Not only is the chat system universal, allowing you to talk to friends no matter what game they’re playing, but multiplayer games are often sold in four-packs for a slight savings, allowing groups of players to create their own small communities for less money than purchasing the games separately.

This creates an odd phenomenon where a friend of yours may actively try to sell you on a game they want to play in order to fill up the forth slot, giving them an instant savings on the game as well as another person to play with or against. The stories of players who sometimes purchase sub-$10 games for their friends to get a group of people together are common, as Steam makes it easy to purchase a game for another user.

Valve has multiple systems in place to keep groups of players happy, and to rewards friends who show up night after night to play together. This makes perfect business sense, and helps the players save money while having a more rewarding experience with their friends. It’s a win for everyone involved. So why don’t the console makers at least attempt to compete at this level?

Your friends are your community

This whole conversation began due to a tweet that caught the attention of Polygon editors. "One of the reasons I stuck loyal to X360 was because my friends were all there," Harmonix's Eric Pope wrote. "Why doesn't MSFT/Sony incentivize next-gen friend referrals?" The question was simple, and it's one rarely discussed. Why don’t Microsoft or Sony create bonuses that reward groups of friends for adopting one system over the other?

There are many people who will buy a game for the system their friends have, or they will agree before making a purchase to pick it up on a certain console or the PC so they can play together. What if Sony or Microsoft began offering four-packs of online games with a slight savings, helping to entice those groups of friends to one platform over the other?

The margin is already increased when the console holder sells a game digitally, it seems like using that price flexibility to woo groups of socially connected players would be a slam dunk.

Why don’t Microsoft or Sony create bonuses for groups of friends that adopt one system over the other?

Let’s take a step back from these already simple idea: If you don’t want to leave your house and you just realized it’s your best friends birthday, why the heck can't you gift them a copy of inFamous: Second Son or Titanfall using the consoles’ digital services?

How excited would you be if you came home from your birthday dinner with your family and saw that your console was loaded up with games from your wishlist? This sort of thing enables the laziness of others while making the recipient happy. There is no downside. It’s yet another way to incentivize people to buy online, which leads to higher margins for the publishers and fewer trade-ins.

It could even simpler than this: Imagine a process where you're given a one-time use code for $10 or $20 off a first-party game when you create a PlayStation Network account, but the code has to be used by another account. The idea is you give it a friend as a fun way to entice them to join you on that system.

If someone is having trouble deciding between the PlayStation 4 or Xbox One, even a small savings on a big-name game from a friend who already owns the system could go a long way to pushing them off the fence.

This works on multiple levels: Not only does the second player save money while the platform holder gets another digital sale, but now there is a reason for you to invite your friends onto your favorite system. You have an online buddy ready to go. That's the sort of friendly social pressure that builds gaming communities among small groups of friends, and Microsoft and Sony should be tripping over each other competing for those groups of players.

Why isn't there a referral system where you can gain in-game items, currency, or credit towards new games for friends who purchase games from your links or by using a code provided to you? There have been plenty of times I've talked friends into buying games so we can play together, and then they rope in their own friends, family, or even co-workers so we can fill a server.

It would be great if there was some system in place to reward those social connections that ultimately lead to sales. This is the sort of thing often seen in free-to-play games, but there are many ways these reward mechanisms could be used by the consoles themselves.

Players will follow their friends to games, and Valve rewards that behavior using a series of smart decisions such as the ability to sell a game in packs of four, the gifting system, and the strong social features of the service. It's not that Sony and Microsoft are lagging behind as much as the consoles simply don't account for this sort of social gaming, or loyalty that groups of friends exhibit as they game together.

The answer to most of these questions is expected, but still depressing. The brick and mortar retailers would likely lose their minds if prices were dropped in this way; they need to maintain parity with digital, even if they must do so through the threat of force. Microsoft and Sony will never put GameStop or Walmart in a position where groups of people are better off buying directly, which once again highlights the consumer hostile aspect of their relationship.

These aren't new ideas, and almost all of them are solved problems on Steam. The existing loyalty gamers have to each other is strong, and could become a powerful weapon for one console to use against the other. Let's hope someone steps up to the challenge soon.