We write about FPSes each week in Triggernometry, a mixture of tips, design criticism, and a celebration of virtual marksmanship.
When you donate your body to science, there s a general understanding that you don t expect to use that body again. It s old, or parts of it are broken, and you hope that some doctor will be able to learn a valuable thing or two about pancreases or elbow cartilage with the help of your husk. Whatever the outcome of that mortal tinkering, it s a transaction with no return policy.
Despite the many transplants, facelifts, and amputations Valve has subjected Team Fortress 2 to, it refuses to die. No FPS, and perhaps no game in any genre, has endured such aggressive and continuous experimentation and lived to be one of the most-played games on PC. It s a body that s sustained 494 surgeries, including:
- Becoming free-to-play
- The addition of a full-fledged item economy (item drops, crafting, market, trading…)
- Steam Workshop integration; transitioning away from primarily developing TF2 internally to sourcing a significant amount of TF2 s new content from the community
- Continuous holiday events that transform TF2 into, among other things, bumper cars
- The use of TF2 as a vehicle for greater Valve projects, like The Saxxy Awards (Source Filmmaker/replay editor), Mac compatibility
- The addition of Mann vs. Machine, a cooperative horde mode
- Numerous crossover promotions via pre-ordering other games
- Having its nine carefully-designed classes (and meta) reinvented many times over by the addition of new items
TF2 is a guinea pig grafted to Frankenstein s monster created on The Island of Dr. Moreau. Over eight years it s become an organism that Valve exposes to new stimuli and learns from watching what happens in order to improve other games or aspects of Steam. CS:GO s post-launch addition of item crates is one example of something prototyped in TF2.
But typically, there s a cost to all that tinkering, some unexpected side effects. Your hair falls out. You get a rash. TF2 s forced mutations probably would have killed weaker games. An MMO going free-to-play is often tantamount to defibrillation, and often to the detriment of original designs. If Gearbox had welded an item economy to Borderlands 2, added competitive modes, or handed off most of its development to community mapmakers and modders, what sort of unplayable mess would it be?
What makes TF2 durable enough to survive all these changes and emerge each time remaining one of the most-played and beloved PC games over the past decade?
Meet the Writer
TF2 s characters, and Valve s commitment to telling their story, form a thick, regenerating skin. However many hats, hoods, rainbow flamethrowers, Street Fighter references, mutant bread, or $10 Deus Ex arms Valve throws on its nine mercenaries, they retain their charm, and their personality carries TF2 forward.
Throughout its life, TF2 s characters have softened the blow of its big systemic and mechanical changes. They re the sugar in the medicine. When Valve strapped an economy to TF2, they didn t explain it as a series of dry bullet points (although there was a FAQ). A bare-chested Australian arms dealer shouted the news at us. When TF2 became playable on Mac, its characters visited a fictional Apple store to poke fun at the unexpected news that TF2 was coming to a platform that s considered to be one of the PC s rivals. It sounds like some kinda hospital for fruit, the Scout says.
When Valve strapped an economy to TF2, a bare-chested Australian arms dealer shouted the news at us.
When TF2 was about to become a free-to-play game, arguably the biggest single change to the game that s been made, Valve understood that it had to be handled delicately. (Perhaps revisiting this announcement could ve improved Valve s recent handling of paid mods.) Jog your memory: in 2011, there was still plenty of discomfort among western gamers about free-to-play. Even with League of Legends in the wild, Korean titles like Maple Story and Facebook games had given F2P a bad stigma.
When TF2 went free, the announcement was one piece of a five-day package of stuff rolled into the Uber Update, which Valve deliberately built and billed as The biggest, most ambitious update in the history of Team Fortress 2. Every class but the Engineer got new items, and most got a whole set. True to my point, the Uber Update culminated with one of its characters literally performing surgery on another, the Meet the Medic video—arguably the biggest piece of the update in all considering how wildly anticipated each of the class videos have been.
Valve s used a similar approach for reinventing individual classes. One of Valve s attitudes throughout TF2 is that they didn t want individual classes to stagnate around an optimal strategy. And in order to manage that aspect of the metagame Valve have been completely willing to put the very identities of each class on the chopping block. For the first couple years of TF2, sentry turrets were the hinge upon which most of the rest of the mechanics swung: it gave everyone else something to do, something to kill, something to support. Arguably no other single thing in TF2 was more integral to how the game was played.
And Valve demolished that paradigm. In the 2010 Engineer update the Engineer went from being a gun babysitter to being a class that you could build as an offensive harasser, or an even more defensive (but more active) turret operator. Engineers gained a mini-sentry that deployed almost instantly, and an item that allowed them to manually aim turrets (and deflected two-thirds of incoming damage while doing it). The manual aiming of turrets even allowed Engineers to reach whole new areas of the environment with sentry jumping. If that wasn t enough, the update made the previously static guns movable.
Short of turning TF2 into a JRPG, I can t think of a more insane change than all of that. How did Valve sell it to players, some of whom had spent years getting invested in what it meant to be an Engineer? It wrapped the Engineer update in four days of mini-reveals, hidden links to images, and added a Golden Wrench competition across the entire event that was straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The teaser video tied the update nicely to the Engineer s personality, too: he s an inventor, and the update is a collection of his new creations.
As an FPS critic, I have plenty of things to appreciate about TF2, about the way it mingles Quake s DNA with a playfulness that softens the blow of defeat, about how it applies Valve s ideas about readability so well. But its longevity, and its distinct ability to survive its own transformative changes, is owed to how consistently Valve has integrated storytelling and its international cast of mercenaries into practically every patch.
TF2 s updates aren t content patches, they're happenings in the Team Fortress 2 universe that inspire their own lore. The Administrator, Zepheniah Mann, Saxton Hale, Australium, Australian Christmas, the Bombinomicon, the towers of hats, the Scout's mom—this stuff isn't window dressing, it's the connective tissue that's kept TF2's identity solid as it's mutated continuously over eight years. Valve has been able to spin and contextualize wild changes to TF2—many of which were made so that Valve could learn something about player behavior—not as new versions but as new episodes in an ever-evolving Saturday morning cartoon.
For the past few Junes, right before one of the busiest gaming weeks of the year, we ve taken a moment to imagine the E3 press conference that PC Gamers deserve. It s become one of our tiny traditions (along with Chris questionable behavior in survival games). Mostly it s an excuse for us to publish something entirely detached from reality before we fly to Los Angeles and publish every scrap of gaming news and opinion that our bodies will allow. It s therapeutic to daydream about Gabe Newell materializing atop a unicorn through a fog of theater-grade dry ice to announce Half-Life 3.
We get valuable stories, videos, and interviews out of E3—you can imagine how handy it is to have almost every game-maker gathered under one roof for a few days. But it s no secret that the PC doesn t have a formal, organized presence during E3. Generally speaking it s the time of year when Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo jostle for position about who can create the most buzz. Despite being a mostly exciting few days of announcements, E3 has never given the biggest gaming platform in the world an equal place at the table.
That s our collective fault, not E3 s. One of our hobby s greatest strengths is the fact that there isn t a single owner. The PC has no marketing arm, no legal department, no CEO to dictate what should be announced or advertised. And thank Zeus for that. The fundamentally open nature of our hobby is what allows for GOG, Origin, Steam, and others to compete for our benefit, for the variety of technologies and experiences we have access to—everything from netbook gaming to 8K flight simulation to VR.
Everyone involved in PC gaming has shared ownership over its identity. One of the few downsides of that, though, is that there isn t really a single time and place for PC gaming to get together and hang out. We love BlizzCon, QuakeCon, DreamHack, Extra Life, The International, and the ever-increasing number of PAXes. But there s something special about the pageantry of E3 week, its over-the-top showmanship, its surprises, its proximity to Hollywood. And each June, even as we ve jokingly painted a picture of PC game developers locking arms in a musical number, we ve wanted something wholly by, for, and about PC gaming.
Well, hell, let s do it.
For the past few months we ve been organizing the first ever live event for PC gaming during E3, The PC Gaming Show. Tune into our Twitch channel on Tuesday, June 16 on 5 PM and you ll see a spectrum of PC gaming represented on stage: a showcase of conversations, announcements, hardware, trailers, and other stuff that makes PC gaming great. We ve been talking to everyone we know, big and small—if there s a game or developer you want to see—tell us! So far, Blizzard, AMD, Bohemia Interactive, Boss Key Productions, Paradox, Dean Hall, Tripwire, and more have signed up to be a part of this inaugural PC gaming potluck (Paradox has promised to bring nachos), and we ll be announcing more participants as we lead up to June 16. And hey, the endlessly friendly Day is hosting. We love that guy.
We re sincerely, stupidly excited about this. The PC gaming renaissance we re all living in deserves a moment of recognition during the biggest gaming expo of the year—it s about time! Listen in on Twitter and on our Facebook page as we share more details leading up to June.
Valve is bringing matchmaking to Team Fortress 2 as a 'high priority', a feature that has been rumoured for a while and craved by the competitive community for even longer.
Details are thin on the ground right now, mainly because Valve apparently hasn't got very far into implementing its system, but the team does have plenty of other, successful competitive online titles to draw from.
You can watch the video where the matchmaking elements - and a few other things - are talked about right... here:
The folks at TeamFortress.tv will be offering up more details of what they learned on their trip to Valve on Friday, so you'll have to wait until then to get a clearer picture of what's going on. But for now, the competitive community can probably afford to smile a bit, right?
Team Fortress 2 would probably work as a musical, but, unless Valve has something spectacular planned for the game's ninth year, we'll have to make do with this mod. Created by 'Vincentor', it replaces every piece of dialogue in the game with exactly the same piece of dialogue, only auto-tuned.
The mod covers all vocals—including every class, NPC and the announcer. To install, just download the mod and extract it into "tf/custom" folder inside your Team Fortress 2 root directory. You'll have to supply the house backing track yourself.
I know, right? I'm asking you to watch a twenty-minute internet video. Think how many shorter videos you could watch in that time! Think how many gifs you could see! You could watch this video of two geese honking almost 60 times.
Don't though, because Live and Let Spy is a quality Source Filmmaker production. It starts as a heist movie, goes a little bit James Bond, and then ends in all-out cartoon war.
Yes, the animation is a little off in places—the Spy/Heavy holding a broom is a bit weird, and the main Medic's arms are kinda odd. Still, for the majority of the film it's impressively smooth and expressive.
This is the third part of The Winglet's "Fedora Chronicles" series. It's a sequel to The Bolted Behemoth, which you can watch here.
Thanks to a new user-made TF2 taunt, you can play as a saxophonic Sniper.
What, you don't think that's enough for a news story? Fine, as part of that—maybe even because they saw an epic sax Sniper—Valve has opened up the Steam Workshop to accept TF2 taunts.
You can use the Source Filmmaker to create one, and submit it for community approval in the usual way. As always for curation-based Workshop items, Steam users will vote for their favourites and the best have a chance of being added into the game and sold for actual money.
Three user-made taunts have been added, and you can see them all in the below video.
The Steam Workshop is a giant thing, containing over 24,000 Skyrim mods, over 413,000 Portal 2 levels and, for some reason, over 100 Goat Simulator characters and mutators. It's also a profitable thing. Team Fortress 2, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive all have curated Workshops—letting players pick the community-made items that will go on sale in the game.
Valve has now announced that, since the launch of the Workshop in 2011, the total payments to individuals for the creation of in-game items has surpassed $57 million.
Previously, only Valve games had curated item Workshops—something Valve attributes to the "sheer number of challenges required in order to scale to a global audience of creators and players". Seemingly, these hurdles have been overcome, as the Workshop is now hosting curated item Workshops for Chivalry: Medieval Warfare and Dungeon Defenders: Eternity.
"Purchases of this great new content directly enables those community members to continue practicing their craft and making more awesome content," writes Valve, before going on to say that they expect more curated Workshops in "the coming weeks and months".
Valve is pretty much an unknowable obelisk: giant, powerful and unfeelingly silent. Due to this absence of communication, the few voices that do emerge from the studio are amplified ten-fold. Hence why you may recognise the name Yanis Varoufakis. During his time as Valve's economist-in-residence, he ran a blog dedicated to analysing and explaining the studio's virtual economies.
Now, Varoufakis has a new job. He's today been named Greece's finance minister.
Varoufakis was at Valve from 2012-2013. Despite not playing games, he said in his introductory post that he was fascinated by the virtual economy Valve had built—specifically that it was an economy with hard data for every transaction. "Think of it: An economy where every action leaves a digital trail, every transaction is recorded;" he wrote at the time. "Indeed, an economy where we do not need statistics since we have all the data!"
Through Varoufakis's analysing, we learned how gifting played a part in TF2's economy, how a sophisticated bartering and arbitration formed around trades, and how Valve doesn't even fire people like a normal company.
Varoufakis's role as finance minister is quite a departure from the academic study of non-existent headwear. Greece was hard-hit by the economic crisis, leading to a debt crisis that has resulted in high unemployment and bankruptcy. Varoufakis himself is seen as a radical—one who has referred to austerity measures as "fiscal waterboarding".
That, though, is the purview of serious political reporters. As a videogame reporter, I feel it's my responsibility to do something dumb. Here, then, is a series of suggestions Varoufakis could take from his days at Valve that would instantly, definitely, fix Greece's economy.
- Randomly give a fish on a stick to citizens as they go about their day. Also, sometimes a trilby.
- If you set a hat on fire it is worth more money. Because reasons.
- All trade will now be based on the conversion rate: Two Refined = Stout Shako.
- The most valuable thing you can own is now a decapitated rabbit's head.
- Abolish physical crop exports. Switch to digital :weed: exports. They're worth more.
- The Trojan Horse, but with Crates.
- Make Half-Life 3
The PC doesn't have a platform holder, and that's a blessing. But there's no denying that Valve's role is an important one in the industry, and that its decisions often have a tremendous impact on our hobby. With great popularity comes great responsibility: here's how we'd like to see Valve apply itself this year.
Make TF2 exciting again
My favourite Valve thing of 2014 was the anticipation around the release of Love and War update. There was excitement, there was speculation, there was a funny Source Filmmaker video. It was everything a TF2 update used to be, with one exception: the update. There was a time when TF2 updates warranted the amount of excitement they received. The class events were significant. They dramatically changed the way you could play a class—giving new, divergent tactics to familiar operators. Also maps. TF2 launched with six maps. It now has over 70.
The Love and War update didn't have that game changing feeling... Sorry, I'll try that again. With the exception of the Conga taunt, the Love and War update didn't have that game changing feeling. The weapons were good, but I don't think weapons—even something as well-defined and desirable as the BASE Jumper—carry the same weight they once did. When there's only one way to play a class, a new item set has massive ramifications. Now there are multiple ways to play, and one more doesn't make as much difference.
In all, 2014 was a quiet year for TF2. Even the long-anticipated End of the Line community update was muted by Valve's decision not to include the Snowplow map. Their reason, supposedly, was that it was deemed too confusing and challenging for new players . And this is from the people who made Hydro. This is my worry with Valve now. It feels like they're afraid to take risks. The most exciting new inclusion of the year was the grappling hook, and that happened without fanfare as part of the Mann Co. Beta initiative.
Imagine if the same energy and excitement leading up to the Love and War update was rewarded by a new game mode, new maps and a goddamn grappling hook—all definitively released, rather than hiding away in beta. TF2 would, once again, feel like an event. Yes, maybe one of those maps would be terrible, but that would only make it more exciting when more maps appeared—these ones learning from past mistakes.
Aside from the Halloween event, every map added to TF2 in 2014 was released into beta. In 2015, I'd love to see the confidence come back. To see the TF2 team declare something ready—not just with a release, but with a week-long build-up that showed how a seven-year-old game could still feel fresh, exciting and essential.
Make the Steam Controller work
It feels like ages ago that we were all talking about Steam Machines and the Steam Controller. It wasn t really that long ago, but Valve went pretty quiet on both fronts after a generating a lot of interest. I m still interested—not so much in Steam Machines, because if I stick a PC under my TV it ll probably be a laptop or something I build myself, but in the Steam Controller.
I m fascinated by what Valve s trying to do with the thing. Back when Evan tried it last year, he found the trackpads unwieldy, but if Valve can really design a new kind of controller that both emulates a mouse (and it ll never be as effective, of course) and works for games I d rather play with a d-pad or analog stick, then we may have a new best PC gaming controller in our hands. It s promising that, after we were a bit unimpressed by the first demos, new mockups keep appearing, which suggests that Valve is still tinkering with the whole design. I hope we see the latest prototype soon, and I m betting we will at this year s GDC.
CS:GO became, with plenty of breathing room, the second-most played game on Steam in 2014, hitting 400,000 concurrent players for the first time this month. A lot of that growth is owed to CS:GO s reawoken popularity as an e-sport: more people than ever are watching competitive Counter-Strike, and the recent DreamHack Winter tournament (even with a bit of controversy) was an exciting watch.
But Valve s content updates, patches, and e-sports aid hasn t come close to the support given to its flagship game, Dota 2. CS:GO s support isn t proportional to its popularity, and Valve faces a playerbase that s hungry for anti-cheat fixes, new maps, weapon skins, and ways to engage with the game they re invested in if they want CS:GO to retain its position as the most popular FPS on PC against games like Evolve and Rainbow Six Siege.
Valve needs to continue to keep pace with hackers, and it needs to look to the old days of TF2 for ideas on launching in-game events that don t simply feel like money-grabs veiled in playfulness. But what would really propel CS:GO is a proper, The International-level major tournament—something that Valve owned and operated itself rather than relying on CS:GO s great-but-fragmented leagues to build interest around it as an e-sport.
Beyond that, I d love to see a CS:GO API opened up. Part of Counter-Strike is eliminating bad habits, and right now there s no easy way to track your match history (beyond watching your last few replays) or dig into meaningful stats.
A full year of Dota 2 updates
In 2015, I'd like to see the Dota 2 team continue to open up about their plans and processes. At the same time, I really hope that they're able to make this a bigger year for the game than last year. A lot of time has been invested in an engine update that will introduce custom game modes and make it easier for Valve to develop new additions in the future. That's great news - and user-generated content represents a potentially exponential increase in the game's scope. At the same time, I don't think I'm alone in wanting a stronger run of official updates. That means more new heroes in 2015 - potentially the first Dota 2-specific heroes - and proper seasonal events.
Valve may not see it the same way: they could argue, convincingly, that the future of Dota 2 was and should be in the hands of its community. Be that as it may, I think the last couple of years have shown that leaving everything up to the wisdom of crowds creates confused expectations and entrenches divisions. From the pro scene to the potato bracket, the Dota 2 community could use a bit of stability - and a solid year of official updates from Valve could help establish that.
Steam would benefit from a visual overhaul
Steam s feature set took a big step up with the addition of curators and, er, the colour blue in the client s basic skin in 2014. I would like to see a bit of housecleaning on the design of it—maybe contemporise the fonts a little bit. Reskinning is obviously an option, but I d like Valve s basic layout to be little more up to date. It s still very similar to when I first signed up years ago. On the one hand, that familiarity is nice, but on the other, Big Picture Mode and the Steam app on iOS show how much cleaner the basic layout of Steam could be with a refresh.
The thing we all really want
Let's address the strider in the room. For years now, every single bit of Valve news and every update Steam pushes through has resulted in a fresh round of sarcastic yet subliminally hopeful chatter: Half-Life 3 confirmed!
To which I say: slow your roll, Internet. We've got some unfinished business to attend to. A broken promise. A missing chapter. A little something called Half-Life 2: Episode 3.
I'm confident this is, deep down, what we all really want: another two-to-three hours of content using the same assets and enemies from Half-Life 2. We want to fight more slow, stupid Combine soldiers while they issue their familiar barks. We want to solve yet another giant see-saw puzzle with the gravity gun. We want to stare at a brick wall waiting for a new level to load, then run through the new level for three minutes, then stare at another wall while the next level loads. We want to climb back into that rusty, ugly-ass car and hit the gas only to immediately hit the brakes because the radar is showing a supply cache. We want to spend more time watching Alyx Vance do a bunch of cool things like bashing zombies with the butt of a shotgun or using a sniper rifle or climbing over walls, which we, as Gordon Freeman, cannot do ourselves for some reason. Most of all, we need to hold Valve accountable for their promise, made in June of 2006, that the three episode series will conclude by Christmas 2007. That's the "three" that's important, here. Not Half-Life 3. Episode 3. Make it happen.
j/k, of course. This year, Valve, just announce something, anything genuine about Half-Life 3, even if the announcement is that it's never going to come.