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PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to The Saxxy Awards 2013 winners announced, provide many minutes of animated merriment">Team Fortress 2 - Saxxy 2013







Last night, Valve revealed the winners of their Source Filmmaker competition, The Saxxy Awards. After a public nomination process, five videos have been crowned, with top entries chosen in the categories of Best Comedy, Drama, Action and Short, as well as an Overall Winner. Head below to see the chosen few. Just don't roll out a red carpet. It would only annoy the BLU team.



Best Short: The Mann Co. Symphony







Best Action: Chinatown Getaway







Best Comedy: Disruption







Best Drama: Till Death Do Us Part Two







Overall Winner: Lil' Pyro Guardian







If, like me, you're not ready to stop watching funny animated videos and pretending it's work, head over to the Saxxy mini-site to view the nominees. Then, pop over to Valve's list of Honorable Mentions, where you'll find excellent near-misses, like the bizarre The Advantages of Sandviches. Still not done? Find all Saxxy entrants over at the Steam community page.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Team Fortress 2 “Rottenburg” update completes two-part announcement, gives Medic new powers">TF2-Rottenburg-Update







Yesterday we told you about day one of Team Fortress 2’s latest update, Mannhattan. The second city in the Two Cities update is Rottenburg, the “vaguely European” hometown of everyone’s favorite insane physician. Rottenburg is a fitting backdrop for an update that adds some much-needed defensive capabilities to the medic class, including the ability to resurrect dead teammates and a force shield that deflects bullets.







“The Medic brings some muscle to the merdc side in the Robot War with some nifty new upgrades: He can now bring dead teammates back to life, put up an upgradeable shield that repels projectiles while electrocuting robots, and shoot Mad Milk syringes,” the update announcement reads.



All the really fun stuff goes to the hometown hero Medic, but the Soldier gets a little bit of attention, too. A new “rocket specialist” upgrade increases his rate of fire, and rockets stun any enemies they don’t outright kill. There’s also a bit of a boost to splash damage for any rocket that hits a robot directly.



All-told, it’s a good time to round up some friends and get back into TF2 if you’ve been away for a while. You can check out the full update details and the list of new achievements at the TF2 site.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Team Fortress 2 “Mannhattan” update reveals new map, weapon effects, leaderboards">TF2 Mannhattan







Team Fortress 2 is currently in part one of a promising two-day update reveal, the Two Cities update. The first city: Mannhattan. Day one’s reveal includes a new map for the game’s siege-defense style mode, Mann vs. Machine, and a slew of weapon effects and bonuses you’ll earn from playing there.



“Mannhattan takes our mercs all the way from the sun-blasted gravel pits of the Badlands to the urban sprawl of the East Coast, where they’ll have to defend the manufacturing arm of Saxton Hale’s boutique Mhanko line,” the update page reads. “Mannhattan’s robot hordes can advance their own spawn points and introduce new bombs into the map for the first time, making for a unique new MvM experience.”



The update also brings the popular community-made Snakewater map officially into the fold, though Valve feels very strongly that Snakewater is NOT a city, and thus not viable for counting under the update’s two-city moniker: “But one thing it is NOT is a city, because this is the Two Cities Update and we're announcing a second city tomorrow. So for the record, Snakewater is more of a mill town than a city… Please don’t email us.”



The update also adds new statistics leaderboards showing points healed, tank damage dished out, money earned and more. We’ll be back for more news on the second city, which will be revealed tomorrow.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Valve’s third Saxxy Awards now open for submissions, so here’s a cute film about a Pyro plushie">Saxxy Pyro







Saxxy. It's a good word to say. Try it out for size. Repeat it, over and over, until your mouth goes numb and your friends and co-workers have long since abandoned you. As well as being an enjoyable utterance, it's also the title of Valve's now annual film-making awards. This year, the competition is exclusively based around the Source Filmmaker tool. Luckily, the versatile animation suite has been out long enough that we're in for some exceptional shorts. For instance, this excellent film about a helpful mini-Pyro.







You can find the voting page for 'Lil Guardian Pyro' here. Alternatively, head to the main Saxxy's Steam page to browse and vote through all submissions. All while continuously saying Saxxy. Never stop saying Saxxy.



Thanks, Kotaku.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Microtransactions: the good, the bad and the ugly">Team Fortress 2







"Free-to-play" and "microtransactions" are dirty terms to some. That's understandable. Famous Facebook Skinner boxes like Farmville have clouded attitudes toward today's free-to-play games, and there's an assumption all microtransaction-driven game design is handicapped by the need to create ways to charge players. For some games, this is certainly true, but there are excellent free-to-play games out there that represent good value for money. Below we've assessed some of the most common methods used by free-to-play games to make money from players, and highlighted some of the fairest examples of free-to-play that are worth your time.



Convoluted shops and fake currencies







A lot of the distrust toward microtransaction-driven games comes down to the way they habitually obfuscate both what exactly you'll be paying for, and how much you'll be paying for it. This starts with the standard practice of exchanging of standard currency for fake fun-bucks equivalents. In Rift, it's "Credits", in The Old Republic, it's "Cartel Coins", in War Thunder, it's "Golden Eagles", to name just a few. The deliberately awkward exchange rates are of course designed to hide the actual value of the items you're buying, but hiding the value of every transaction at this fundamental level appears dishonest.



There's a widespread lack of clarity around the payment systems attached to free-to-play games. The price and payment method of engaging with a game should be quickly apparent, and expressed in a way that lets players know exactly what they're getting for their money. It should not, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, require the careful study of three different screens to unravel the various interlocking currencies, subscription deals, expansion packs and "preferred status" upgrades available.



If you're inviting players to make a purchase that you believe is worthwhile, why hide the price? Quake Live has two tiers of membership, which grants players various levels of access to premium arenas, and the ability to host matches, but look here, at the top of the page, a clear list of features and a price tag.



In short: We see this practice everywhere, even in otherwise decent free-to-play implementations like Card Hunter. The cost of playing a game should be clear, and that starts with straightforward price labelling.



Crates/card packs and random chance drops







If you hand someone a closed box full of promised goodies, many will happily pay you for the crowbar to crack it open. The tremendous power of small random packs of goodies has long been known the creators of physical collectible card games and companies that made football stickers a decade ago. For some, including our former reviews editor Rich McCormick, the allure of a closed box full of goodies is too powerful to resist. Whatever the worth of the randomised prizes inside, the offer of a free chest and the option to buy a key will make a small fortune out of these personalities. For those that like to gamble, these crates often offer a small chance of an ultra-rare item.



In Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, a chest will drop into your inventory every so often. Keys can be bought with real money, or traded for, and are very popular - five of the seven TF2 store bestsellers are keys right now. As with card packs, the process of discovery and anticipation that goes into opening a box is as exciting as the item inside. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether that's a valuable reward, and whether £1.50 / $2.50 is a worthwhile price for that rush. The important thing is that players know exactly what they're gambling for when opening a box, and have at least a sense of the odds involved. The Team Fortress 2 wiki exposes estimated percentage odds for each crate, but as any Vegas slot machine designer will tell you, revealing all of the maths maths can ruin the glamour of the gamble, and make no mistake, this is gambling.



Boxes are easily deleted and ignored, but receiving one isn't a good experience. At worst, it's a taunt that pops up in the same space ordinarily to message gifts. Receiving a crate for the first time, and then learning that it requires a purchase to unlock, is a betrayal of the expectations that the rest of the drop system instils. The positive side, in the case of TF2 and Dota 2, is that revenue from crate sales goes back to community item creators, and the items you can earn don't unbalance the core game. Team Fortress 2's random drops also shower you constantly with gifts, which balances everything out somewhat.



In CCGs like Hearthstone, Fifa's Ultimate Team and Mass Effect 3's multiplayer mode, you can unlock random cards/players/guns from packs earned through in-game money as well as real currency. This accepts payment in the form of a chunk of your spare time, which is a good deal if the game is good. It operates more like a randomised unlock system that you can speed up with money if you wish.



In short: card packs and crate drops are a form of gambling. If you're okay with that, then there's no reason not to enjoy games like Hearthstone. It's worth checking to see if packs can be earned with a sensible amount of in-game progress before investing lots of time.



In-game item stores







There are two main questions to keep in mind when a game is asking you to spend real money for specific items.



1. Can they only be earned by paying up?

2. Are they better than what you have already?



The answer to both, if a game is being as fair as possible, is no. Games like Team Fortress 2 have a selection of alternative weapons and gadgets you can unlock for your class. That's alternatives, not straight upgrades. Many combine certain situational benefits at the expense of a well rounded, overall build. The Sniper being given a rifle that shoots piss is not at an obvious advantage, especially when against one that shoots bullets. And, in League of Legends, it's hard to know if the angry polar bear is inherently better than a girl with the shark cannon, but both have their uses when played effectively, and the rotating roster gives you options regardless.



Not that pure upgrades are inherently wrong. In games like World of Tanks, where a natural tier system denotes each country's best metallic beasts, it comes down to matchmaking to keep things fair. Put the paid-up kings against the outgunned newbs and you start edging towards a pay-to-win scenario. Keep everyone grouped around their unlock level, and the only advantage for those that pay is a quicker trip to the top tiers.



Even good in-game item stores can go bad over time. The community's faith in a game's integrity can be destroyed by a single update, and in competitive games weapons sometimes have to be rebalanced. That means the items you're buying might not retain its characteristics.



In short: Item stores that sell objects that affect your in-game performance are risky. If a game sells guns/cars that can't be earned any other way then treat that as a big alarm bell. Even if those items can be earned through progress, it helps to favour games with good matchmaking services and large playerbases, which can smooth out balance issues.







Cosmetic item stores







Offering players ways to stand out is a lucrative business. In the Dota 2 Steam Workshop, item creators compete for audience upvotes and Valve’s approval, and the successful ones have made a small fortune in the process. If you spend a lot of time in a game world with friends, cosmetic items like hats in Team Fortress 2, or new player skins in League of Legends, can set you apart without tipping the game’s systems. At worst, new outfits can corrupt character silhouettes or dilute a game's aesthetic, making battlefields harder to parse at a glance, but this is a minor trade-off for a system that lets developers support themselves and keep games running.



Buying cosmetic items is also a very transparent, obvious transaction. Buy the item for the clearly labelled cost, get the item, it’s yours until the game loses popularity and expires, or the heat death of the universe occurs. There’s no trickery, the integrity of the game is maintained, and everyone gets a nice hat. Cosmetic items make money out of happy players who want to express their fandom, which makes every purchase positive.



In short: A straightforward, easily understood transaction that doesn't unbalance the game. Ideal.



Energy bar restrictions







Energy mechanics take various forms, whether action points that expire with every interaction or a continuously dwindling energy meter that stops you from playing when it expires. The crudest variations attempt to encourage the player to buy more energy at the point of expiration, oodling out a few bucks of the sheer frustration of having a game cut short. Subtler time limiting devices are designed to encourage "sessioning," in which players devote five or ten minutes of their time every day to tending to a garden/city. The intent here is to turn the game into a regular life fixture that increases the player’s contact with other the monetisation mechanisms built into the game’s economy.



Energy bar systems straightjacket players with arbitrary systems. You’re not failing to progress because of a lack of skill, but because of the expiration of an invented abstract resource. Besides all that, the amount of time you choose to engage with a game should be your choice alone, and a pop-up message that says you’re done unless you buy X or wait 12 hours just feels insulting. Sure, game demos will stop you when you’re having fun and ask you to buy the full game, but players know the rules when they start the download. Energy mechanics, can be hard to spot until you've spent a certain amount of time playing. Very unpleasant.



In short: No no no no no no no no no.



Expiration







Expiration systems cause components of the game that you use regularly to wear out and break unless a certain amount of money is spent on repairs. In Fifa’s Ultimate Team mode, players are benched if their contract expires, and you need to apply new contract cards to get them back on the pitch. These are dropped randomly in card packs that can be bought with in-game money or real money. If you pay for contract cards to support a player you bought through a card pack or on the transfer market then you’re essentially paying ongoing rental costs for a virtual product you’ve already bought. Sometimes expiration is designed to drain your reserves of in-game currency. A game might ask you to spend in-game bucks on restoring expired items so that you run short, and might feel the need to top up with a real money purchase. In the worst cases, there are shooters that charge players for ammo to fill their guns, and even offer premium varieties of ammo to give them a battlefield edge.



Being charged money to maintain the status quo earned through play is terrible, and can undermine any sense of achievement you may have enjoyed earning your gear. It creates a persistent, unpleasant pressure to pay and is an unsatisfactory purchase if you do cave. You know that you’ll have to pay again to recharge that item/player/gun soon enough. Expiration creates that poisonous sense of being slowly nickel-and-dimed.



In short: A great way to annoy players fast. Watching items expire isn't fun, paying to stop them expiring isn't fun. Putting money into a game should feel rewarding; paying to stave off the entropic decay of your virtual possessions isn't.



Item rental







You could frame the renting of in-game items as a more transparent take on the expiration mechanic. In most cases you’ll understand exactly how long you’re getting an item, which can be tricky to ascertain in energy systems when you’re buying an abstract resource that’ll deplete as you play. The difficulty with rental items is that, in order for them to be desirable enough to purchase for a limited period, they need to be powerful. Need For Speed World let players rent blindingly fast supercars to take into races with ordinary cars, ruining the experience of the majority for the benefit of the paying few.



Even if a rented item isn’t overpowered, the perception among players that it must be is almost as damaging. The same effect applies to any in-game item purchases. If there’s a price tag attached, it’s natural to assume that it’s more powerful in some way, and if a competitive game doesn’t feel balanced it quickly becomes more frustrating than fun. Also, the notion of paying for a virtual item is enough of a barrier for many, the idea of paying for one that’ll disappear in a few days is even more absurd.



In short: If you're only intending to play for a short burst, a temporary item might be a cheaper option, but the cost of renting cars in games like Need For Speed World is surprisingly high. Rented items normally just aren't a good deal.







One-off account upgrades







The one-off upgrade offers a limited feature-set to new players that expands when you pay a one-off sum. In Team Fortress 2, buying an item, any item, at any cost, will upgrade a free account to a “premium” one. Free players have a backpack limit of 50 slots, doesn’t have access to rare and cosmetic items, and have access to limited selection of crafting blueprints. Buying anything from the Mann-Co store expands the backpack to 300 items and removes trading and crafting limits. Star Wars: The Old Republic’s free-to-play transition added more severe limits, constraining free players to handful of space missions and dungeons per week, forbidding new players from sprinting until level 10. Those limits could be lifted with any purchase of more than $5 on the in-game store.



The cost of transitioning to a less limited set-up is often minor, the intention being to familiarise players with the game’s shop and, in some cases, get players to enter card details. Team Fortress 2 is entirely playable with its free-to-play limits in place, but The Old Republic’s draconian restrictions leverage player frustration to incite a purchase. Not good. If you're looking to familiarise players with a store, then Guild Wars 2's tactic of gifting XP boosts and items provides a much better experience.



There is something to be said for one-off payments that unlock everything. Players put off by the complications juggling ongoing micropayments can instead just buy the game in an ordinary way. In Card Hunter, you can play a flat $20 fee and unlock all of the missions. This lets players treat the free-to-play element as a demo, and still gives players that don't want to spend a big lump sum a way to play for less money.



In short: Contrived limits like the The Old Republic's give new players a handicapped experience, which makes it unlikely they'll stick around, especially when the competition includes MMOs like Rift and Lord of the Rings Online. These offer a huge amount of playable content without charging for basic features.



Account Buffs







Buffs give a temporary percentage increase in the amount of gold, XP, or other desirables that the player can earn through regular play. It's another example of microtransactions allowing players to pay to reduce the time spent between rewards. Unlike energy, though, buffs are a bonus applied to someone who pays, not a penalty against someone who doesn't. That's a key difference in their philosophy that, for the most part, stops them being exploitative.



For them to work, it requires a careful balancing of item prices and levelling progress. There's a strange psychology here. If a game is enjoyable, then a lengthy spell between rewards shouldn't be a problem. But if progression and upgrades are built into the DNA of a game, having to wait too long for them can feel frustrating. In games like World of Tanks, progression is swift to begin with, but slows greatly as you advance. This deliberately plays on impatience to incite a purchase, and is a classic example of game design serving a monetisation system rather than the player. If a game is perceived as a grind, then a buff becomes a requirement rather than a bonus.



It's not just currency that can be boosted. In the case of Card Hunter, your account subscription provides you with an extra piece of loot for every quest you complete. It's an upgrade that neatly sidesteps the balance problem. It doesn't feel like a significant loss compared to the 2-4 rewards you get in regular play, but a guaranteed rarity makes for a nice bonus for those who do subscribe.



In short: In free-to-play games, XP boost items can be symptomatic of an overly sluggish levelling curve, but for patient players there may never need to go near account buffs. If a game is entertaining enough, putting a lot of time into it shouldn't feel like a chore.



Mini-DLC







Blurring the line between microtransaction and full-fat DLC are these purchasable packs of extras and bonuses. Rather than a free-to-play focus, you'll generally find these attached to AAA releases. We're talking the added profile portraits of Crusader Kings II, the silenced sniper of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the Air Propulsion Gun of Just Cause 2, and the squirting blood of Shogun 2 (to name just a fraction of a percent).



As a practice, these mini-DLC packs are the most variable in quality of all the microtransaction methods. There's nothing inherently wrong with providing fans with a fun extra to flesh out a world they're enjoying, but too often they're created with little attention to balance or value. The worst, inevitably, were once pre-order bonuses leveraged as an incentive to tempt early buyers. As well as the aforementioned sniper rifle, DX:HR's Tactical Enhancement Pack added 10,000 credits at the start of the game, effectively destroying many of the game's early purchasing choices.



For non-narrative led, systems-driven games, mini-DLC seems to fare better. Crusader Kings 2's profiles and music packs focus on aesthetic improvements in a game about strategic depth, while Civ 5's extra civilisations expand user specialisation, without changing the core of the game. But that doesn't mean that other types of games can't utilise mini-DLC in a way that adds something enjoyable for the user, that doesn't make the original game feel lacking without.



In short: Mini DLC like the Total War blood pack and the inventive Just Cause items are a bit like professionally built mods. There's a perception that mini-DLC is stuff that's been held back from the final game to screw a few extra bucks out of players, but more often they're ideas on the developer's big brainstorming board that they can't justify putting resources into during the development of the main game. Mini-DLC is easily ignored, at least, but beware of pre-order DLC that gives you guns and gadgets at the very beginning of a game like Deus Ex - they could ruin the balance of those opening hours.







Games that get microtransactions right







At their worst, free-to-play monetisation systems create a negative experience that the player has to pay to resolve, but you'll miss out on a few great games if you steer clear of anything with a microtransaction in it. Here are a few quality examples that offer great value for money. In no particular order...



Dota 2 - You can buy cosmetic items like character armour and alternative announcer packs, none of which alter the balance of the game. Dota 2 can be played to a highly competitive level without any need to pay. Valve's in-game stores are clearly labelled with real-money pricing and profits are shared among item-creators, rewarding an involved and productive community.



Team Fortress 2 - Team Fortress 2 isn't terribly coherent these days, but it's still huge fun. Given the number of items that Valve have added over the years, it's a miracle that TF2 remains competitive, but the hard counters that defined its nine classes at launch remain intact, and it's still frequently the funniest game on the internet.



Card Hunter - Card Hunter's premium items feel like a sugary bonus on top of a heap of good loot you'd earn through play anyway, and you always have the welcome choice of being able to pay a flat $20 fee to unlock all of the quests and content, making it a traditional pay-to-play game. It's a friendly and satisfying CCG/turn-based strategy hybrid that's certainly worth your time.



Guild Wars 2 - You'll have to buy the game to play Guild Wars 2, but there's no subscription fee, and many of the XP boosts, dyes and other store goodies are regularly awarded as levelling gifts as you play. Your character's level is less important in Guild Wars 2 than it is in other MMOs, which makes its XP bonuses less essential, and most of the shop is full of inventive cosmetic items.



League of Legends - LoL's rotating selection of playable characters gives players a broad slice of the game, and works well on a try-before-you-buy basis. Aside from buying heroes, you can put money into new skins for your favourite heroes.



Planetside 2 - If you catch a good battle, there's nothing quite like Planetside 2. The huge sci-fi wargame gives new players a lot of war for no money. Players endured a catatonic levelling curve early in its life and its currency system was hugely confusing, but that doesn't dent the spectacle or the experience when you're actually on the battlefield.



Those are just a few. MMO fans might enjoy Rift and Lord of the Rings Online. Tribes: Ascend developers Hi-Rez have moved onto Smite. Action RPG fans should look in on Path of Exile. World of Tanks commits a number of the sins in our list, but has a huge playerbase and a tiered matchmaking system that'll support competitive matches at any level.



Do you steer clear of microtransactions on principle? If so, why? Have you had any particularly bad or unsatisfying experiences buying items in games? Have you been playing a free to play game that you'd like to recommend? Share away in the comments.
Nov 1, 2013
PC Gamer


"Free-to-play" and "microtransactions" are dirty terms to some. That's understandable. Famous Facebook Skinner boxes like Farmville have clouded attitudes toward today's free to play games, and there's an assumption all microtransaction-driven game design is handicapped by the need to create opportunities to charge players. For some games, this is certainly true, but there are excellent free to play games out there that represent good value for money. Below we've assessed some of the most common methods used by free-to-play games to make money from players, and highlighted some of the fairest examples of free-to-play that are worth your time.



A lot of the distrust toward microtransaction-driven games comes down to the way they habitually obfuscate both what exactly you'll be paying for, and how much you'll be paying for it. This starts with the standard practice of exchanging of standard currency for fake fun-bucks equivalents. In Rift, it's "Credits", in The Old Republic, it's "Cartel Coins", in War Thunder, it's "Golden Eagles", to name just a few. The deliberately awkward exchange rates are of course designed to hide the actual value of the items you're buying, but hiding the value of every transaction at this fundamental level appears highly untrustworthy. Nobody wants to feel like they're being duped, and being as straightforward as possible with customers is the way to solve that.



There's a widespread lack of clarity around the payment systems attached to free to play games. The price and payment method of engaging with a game should be quickly apparent, and expressed in a way that lets players know exactly what they're getting for their money. It should not, like Star Wars: The Old Republic, require the careful study of three different screens to unravel the various interlocking currencies, subscription deals, expansion packs and "preferred status" upgrades available.







Crates/card packs and random chance drops

Team Fortress 2

Mass Effect 3 multiplayer

Hearthstone







If you hand someone a closed box full of promised goodies, many will happily pay you for the crowbar to crack it open. The tremendous power of small random packs of goodies has long been known the creators of physical collectible card games and companies that made football stickers a decade ago. For some, including our former reviews editor Rich McCormick, the allure of a closed box full of goodies is too powerful to resist. Whatever the worth of the randomised prizes inside, the offer of a free chest and the option to buy a key will make a small fortune out of these personalities. For those that like to gamble, these crates often offer a small chance of an ultra-rare item.



In Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2, a chest will drop into your inventory every so often. Keys can be bought with real money, or traded for, and are very popular - five of the seven TF2 store bestsellers are keys right now. As with card packs, the process of discovery and anticipation that goes into opening a box is as exciting as the item inside. Everyone has to decide for themselves whether that's a valuable reward, and whether £1.50 / $2.50 is a worthwhile price for that rush. The important thing is that players know exactly what they're gambling for when opening a box, and have at least a sense of the odds involved. The Team Fortress 2 wiki exposes estimated percentage odds for each crate, but as any Vegas slot machine designer will tell you, revealing all of the maths maths can ruin the glamour of the gamble, and make no mistake, this is gambling.



Boxes are easily deleted and ignored, but receiving one isn't a good experience. At worst, it's a taunting delivery that pops up in the same space used to message gifts. Receiving a crate for the first time, and then learning that it requires a purchase to unlock, is a betrayal of the expectations that the rest of the drop system encourages. The positive side, in the case of TF2 and Dota 2, is that revenue from crate sales goes back to community item creators.



In CCGs like Hearthstone, Fifa's Ultimate Team and Mass Effect 3's multiplayer mode, you can unlock random cards/players/guns from packs earned through in-game money as well as real currency. This accepts payment in the form of a chunk of your spare time, which is a good deal if the game is good. It operated more like a randomised unlock system that you can speed up with money if you wish.



Verdict:



In-game item stores

Buying items

World of Tanks

Tribes: Ascend

League of Legends







There are two main questions to keep in mind when a game is asking you to spend real money for specific items.



1. Can they only be earned by paying up?

2. Are they better than what you have already?



The answer to both, if a game is being as fair as possible, is no. Games like Team Fortress 2 have a selection of alternatives you can unlock for your class. That's alternatives, not straight upgrades. Many combine certain situational benefits at the expense of a well rounded, overall build. The Sniper being given a rifle that shoots piss is not at an obvious advantage, especially when against one that shoots bullets. And, in League of Legends, it's hard to know if the angry polar bear is inherently better than a girl with the shark cannon, but both have their uses when played effectively, and the rotating roster gives you options regardless.



Not that pure upgrades are inherently wrong. In games like World of Tanks, where a natural tier system denotes each country's best metallic beasts, it comes down to matchmaking to keep things fair. Put the paid-up kings against the outgunned newbs and you start edging towards a pay-to-win scenario. Keep everyone grouped around their unlock level, and the only advantage for those that pay is a quicker trip to the top tiers.



Verdict:





Energy bar restrictions

Spiral Knights

Teacher's Story

Farmville







Energy mechanics take various forms, whether action points that expire with every interaction or a continuously dwindling energy meter that stops you from playing when it expires. The crudest variations attempt to encourage the player to buy more energy at the point of expiration, oodling out a few bucks of the sheer frustration of having a game cut short. Subtler time limiting devices are designed to encourage "sessioning," in which players devote five or ten minutes of their time every day to tending to a garden/city. The intent here is to turn the game into a regular life fixture that increases the player’s contact with other the monetisation mechanisms built into the game’s economy.



Energy bar systems straightjacket players in ways that feel entirely arbitrary. You’re not failing to progress because of a lack of skill, but because of the expiration of a made-up, abstract resource. Besides all that, the amount of time you choose to engage with a game should be your choice alone, and a pop-up message that says you’re done unless you buy X or wait 12 hours just feels insulting. Sure, game demos will stop you when you’re having fun and ask you to buy the full game, but players know the rules when they start the download. Energy mechanics, like many microtransactions, are carefully hidden from view until you’ve spent a certain amount of time playing. Very unpleasant.



Verdict: KILL IT WITH FIRE



Cosmetic items

Dota 2

Battlefield Heroes

Guild Wars 2

League of Legends







Offering players ways to stand out is a lucrative business. In the Dota 2 Steam Workshop, item creators compete for audience upvotes and Valve’s approval, and the successful ones have made a small fortune in the process. If you spend a lot of time in a game world with friends, cosmetic items like hats in Team Fortress 2, or new player skins in League of Legends, can set you apart without tipping the game’s systems. At worst, new outfits can corrupt character silhouettes, making battlefields harder to parse at a glance, but this is a minor trade-off for a system that lets developers support themselves and keep games running.



Buying cosmetic items is also a very transparent, obvious transaction. Buy the item for the clearly labelled cost, get the item, it’s yours until the game loses popularity and expires, or the heat death of the universe occurs. There’s no trickery, the integrity of the game is maintained, and everyone gets a nice hat.



Verdict:



Expiration

things you’ve earned that need replenishing with consumables

Fifa Ultimate Card thing (player renewal contracts)

Bullet Run (Weapon degradation)







Expiration systems cause components of the game that you use regularly to wear out and break unless a certain amount of money is spent on repairs. In Fifa’s Ultimate Team mode, players are benched if their contract expires, and you need to apply new contract cards to get them back on the pitch. These are dropped randomly in card packs that can be bought with in-game money or real money. If you pay for contract cards to support a player you bought through a card pack or on the transfer market then you’re essentially paying ongoing rental costs for a virtual product you’ve already bought. Sometimes expiration targets in-game currency, asking you to spend in-game currency on restoring expired items so that you run short, and might feel the need to top up that currency with a purchase.



Being charged money to maintain the status quo earned through play is terrible, and can undermine any sense of achievement you may have enjoyed earning your gear. It’s also -creates a persistent, unpleasant pressure to pay and is an unsatisfactory purchase if you do cave in. You know that you’ll have to pay again to recharge that item/player/gun soon enough. Expiration creates that poisonous sense of being slowly nickel-and-dimed.



Item rental

Battlefield play4free, I think?

Need for Speed World (was/is awful for this)

Quake Live - wasn't the only thing you really had to pay for rented server access?







You could frame the renting of in-game items as a more transparent take on the expiration mechanic. In most cases you’ll understand exactly how long you’re getting an item, which can be tricky to ascertain in energy systems when you’re buying an abstract resource that’ll deplete as you play. The difficulty with rental items is that, in order for them to be desirable enough to purchase for a limited period, they need to be powerful. Need For Speed World let players rent blindingly fast supercars to take into races with ordinary cars, ruining the experience of the majority for the benefit of the paying few.



Even if a rented item isn’t overpowered, the perception among players that it must be is almost as damaging. The same effect applies to any in-game item purchases. If there’s a price tag attached, it’s natural to assume that it’s more powerful in some way, and if a competitive game doesn’t feel balanced it quickly becomes more frustrating than fun. Also, the notion of paying for a virtual item is enough of a barrier for many, the idea of paying for one that’ll disappear in a few days is even more absurd.



Verdict:



One-off account upgrades

Star Wars: The Old Republic - inventory slots, the ability to resurrect, basically everything

TF2 - free players have account/drop restrictions until they spend money - for any item - in game.







The one-off upgrade offers a limited feature-set to new players that expands when you pay a one-off sum. In Team Fortress 2, buying an item, any item, at any cost, will upgrade a free account to a “premium” one. Free players have a backpack limit of 50 slots, doesn’t have access to rare and cosmetic items, and have access to limited selection of crafting blueprints. Buying anything from the Mann-Co store expands the backpack to 300 items and removes trading and crafting limits. Star Wars: The Old Republic’s free to play transition added more severe limits, constraining free players to handful of space missions and dungeons per week, forbidding new players from sprinting until level 10. Those limits could be lifted with any purchase of more than $5 on the in-game store.



The cost of transitioning to a less limited set-up is often minor, the intention being to familiarise players with the game’s shop and, in some cases, get players to enter card details. Team Fortress 2 is entirely playable with its free-to-play limits in place, but The Old Republic’s draconian restrictions leverage player frustration to incite a purchase. Not good. The expanding number of payment options that surround free-to-play games make them a daunting prospect for some. Just try deciphering this table for The Old Republic - http://www.swtor.com/free/features - The most important questionXXX



Account Buffs

Tribes: Ascend

Guild Wars 2

World of Tanks







Buffs give a temporary percentage increase in the amount of gold, XP, or other desirables that the player can earn through regular play. It's another example of microtransactions allowing players to pay to reduce the time spent between rewards. Unlike energy, though, buffs are a bonus applied to someone who pays, not a penalty against someone who doesn't. That's a key difference in their philosophy that, for the most part, stops them being exploitative.



For them to work, it requires a careful balancing of item prices and levelling progress. There's a strange psychology here. If a game is enjoyable, then a lengthy spell between rewards shouldn't be a problem. But if progression and upgrades are built into the DNA of a game, having to wait too long for them can feel frustrating. It's a question of fairness. A community has an innate sense of whether they're being artificially held back. If a game is perceived as a grind, then it's sacrificing a player's potential enjoyment by making the buff a requirement, rather than a bonus.



It's not just currency that can be boosted. In the case of Card Hunter, your account subscription provides you with an extra piece of loot for every quest you complete. It's an upgrade that neatly sidesteps the balance problem. It doesn't feel like a significant loss compared to the 2-4 rewards you get in regular play, but a guaranteed rarity makes for a nice bonus for those who do subscribe.



Verdict:



Mini-DLC

Shogun 2 blood pack

Saints Row 4 GATV pack

Paradox portraits etc.

There are loads of these







Blurring the line between microtransaction and full-fat DLC are these purchasable packs of extras and bonuses. Rather than a free-to-play focus, you'll generally find these attached to AAA releases. We're talking the added profile portraits of Crusader Kings II, the silenced sniper of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the Air Propulsion Gun of Just Cause 2, and the squirting blood of Shogun 2 (to name just a fraction of a percent).



As a practice, these mini-DLC packs are the most variable in quality of all the microtransaction methods. There's nothing inherently wrong with providing fans with a fun extra to flesh out a world they're enjoying, but too often they're created with little attention to balance or value. The worst, inevitably, were once pre-order bonuses leveraged as an incentive to tempt early buyers. As well as the aforementioned sniper rifle, DX:HR's Tactical Enhancement Pack added 10,000 credits at the start of the game - effectively destroying many of the game's early purchasing choices.



For non-narrative led, systems-driven games, mini-DLC seems to fare better. Crusader Kings 2's profiles and music packs focus on aesthetic improvements in a game about strategic depth, while Civ 5's extra civilisations expand user specialisation, without changing the core of the game. But that doesn't mean that other types of games can't utilise mini-DLC in a way that adds something enjoyable for the user, that doesn't make the original game feel lacking without.



Verdict:



Free-to-play games that get it right



Dota 2 - You can buy cosmetic items like character armour and alternative announcer packs, none of which alter the balance of the game. Dota 2 can be played to a highly competitive level without any need to pay. The items Dota players buy are expressions of fandom



Team Fortress 2



Card Hunter - Card Hunter's premium items feel like a sugary bonus on top of a heap of good loot you'd earn through play anyway, and you always have the welcome choice of being able to pay a flat $20 fee to unlock all of the quests and content, making it a traditional pay-to-play game.



Guild Wars 2 - You'll have to buy the game to play Guild Wars 2, but there's no subscription fee, and many of the XP boosts, dyes and other store goodies are given as levelling gifts as you play.



Tribes Ascend in its early days



League of Legends - LoL's rotating selection of playable characters gives free players a wide slice of the game





Rift: we linked to Star Wars: The Old Republic's payment option screens above. Here's Rift's.
PC Gamer
rel="bookmark"
title="Permanent Link to Team Fortress 2 update kicks off their fifth Halloween event, adds spells, ghosts, and Helltower">Scream Fortress







Quicker than you can say "boo" - assuming you elongate it out by a few hours - Valve followed up yesterday's TF2 comic with Scream Fortress, their fifth annual Halloween event. This time around it's the Payload Race map Hightower that's been spookified, turning it into the corpse-pushing Helltower. Also: there are skeletons, and the mercs have magic spellbooks now.



"Everybody gets a spellbook gifted to them automatically, which you can equip in your Action Slot in order to pick up and cast spells," explains the TF2 blog. "The team that wins the race will be granted a buff for the final climactic battle, where you will fight for the ultimate Halloween reward: Your own lives. And a reward."



Naturally, there are a bunch of items and achievements that can also be awarded, found and bought. Scream Fortress is live now, and will run the 11th November.
PC Gamer
rel="bookmark"
title="Permanent Link to Team Fortress 2′s next Halloween update on the way, in the meantime, here’s a comic">Scream Fortress







I like Team Fortress 2 but, at this point, I think I like Team Fortress 2 comics more. Luckily, one usually coincides with the other, meaning that everyone wins. At least, everyone except those traumatised veterans, huddled in their corner, muttering about how everything was better when this was just a patch of dust, and before fancy headwear meant that everybody looked fabulous. The next update will, inevitably, be the annual Halloween event. In preparation for that, here's a comic about some ghosts.



The TF2 blog isn't giving any hints as to what the update might contain, but - if I were to guess - I'd say a spooky 'Event' version of an existing map, and possibly some form of boss NPC. You know, like Valve have done every year. Personally, I'd quite like to see a return to the more subtle, ghostly presence of the very first Harvest event map, who's haunting I always preferred to the killable boss battles. It probably won't be that, though, what with the comic mentioning a portal to hell.



There's no timetable for the update's release. It's likely to be soon, though, because Halloween is only two days away.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to Steam Controller announced by Valve">steam-controller







Rounding out its set of living room-centric announcements this week, Steam Controller has been revealed by Valve, a 16-button, haptic-driven gamepad that Valve says is hackable, includes a touch screen, will feature sharable configurations, and has the ambitious goal of “supporting all games in the Steam catalog.” No price was announced for the controller, and it doesn't appear to feature motion control.

In place of analog sticks, Steam Controller features two circular, clickable trackpads. Valve claims that PC gamers “will appreciate that the Steam Controller’s resolution approaches that of a desktop mouse,” and goes as far to promise that the controller makes games that aren't traditionally suited to playing from the couch--RTSes, 4X games, simulations, and others--controller-friendly.



To compensate for the trackpads’ nature as less-tangible input devices than conventional analog sticks, Steam Controller includes “dual linear resonant actuators” that produce vibration. Valve adds that the controller can serve as a speaker. What seems to distinguish the Steam Controller’s square touch screen from other touch screens is click functionality. “Actions are not invoked by a simple touch, they instead require a click. This allows a player to touch the screen, browse available actions, and only then commit to the one they want,” Valve states in the announcement.



Although Valve was vague on how it plans to implement this policy, it emphasized the openness of the device. "We plan to make tools available that will enable users to participate in all aspects of the experience, from industrial design to electrical engineering. We can’t wait to see what you come up with," Valve says.







We'll await details on price, materials, and an opportunity to try Steam Controller ourselves soon. Snuck into the very end of the announcement is a mention of Steam Machines and SteamOS, the prototype of which Valve says it will share "detailed specs" of next week.



In the meantime, you can become eligible to beta test Steam Controller by following the same steps outlined for the Steam Machines beta.
PC Gamer
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title="Permanent Link to The pros and cons of SteamOS">steamOS







By announcing SteamOS yesterday, Valve declared that PC gaming is more than desktop gaming, that Windows is not our master, and that—finally—cats can own Steam accounts. The free, Linux-based, cat-friendly operating system is designed for gaming on living room PCs, because PC gaming according to Valve isn't about WASD and DirectX—it's about openness and collaboration.



We're free to choose our hardware, our software, our mods, and soon more than ever, how we play, where we play, and whether or not Microsoft gets a cut. If SteamOS takes off, PC gaming will undergo one of its most dramatic changes ever—possibly one more significant than the introduction of the free-to-play model and crowdfunding. That's thrilling, but also scary as hell, so we've worked through our fears with a list of SteamOS pros and cons, followed by deep breaths in anticipation of tomorrow's announcement.



The Pros

 

It's free. If you have a living room PC, or plan to build one, you can ditch Windows for free. That feels really good to say, but the adoption rate hinges on SteamOS launching with native support for everything we want in a media and gaming center. Streaming games from a secondary PC is neat, but we'd rather run them natively on the machine we paid to put in our living room. It also needs native Netflix and Hulu apps, and all the other media services offered by the consoles.



Valve says it's got this covered, announcing that it's "working with many of the media services you know and love," and that "hundreds of great games are already running natively on SteamOS," with native "AAA titles" to be announced in the coming weeks.



It encourages competition in the console market. May the best Steam Box win! Windows isn't designed for TVs, so neither are many PCs. Now Valve is giving away a platform for games, movies, and music, challenging hardware manufacturers to make systems that are powerful, quiet, and inexpensive. It used to be Microsoft vs. Sony vs. Nintendo fighting for the top of the living room ecosystem's food chain—soon it may be Microsoft vs. Sony vs. Nintendo vs. Everyone.



It should run some games better. One of the few advantages consoles have over PCs (whether or not they always make the best of it) is an OS specifically designed for gaming. Meanwhile, we have Windows, which is clearly not designed to be an ideal gaming platform. With SteamOS, however, Valve claims it has "achieved significant performance increases in graphics processing," and is now working on "audio performance and reductions in input latency at the operating system level."



Last year, Valve posted a performance test of Left 4 Dead 2 running on Windows 7 and on Ubuntu, and the Linux build came out ahead, saying that the test "speak to the underlying efficiency of the kernel and OpenGL." This isn't close to being an objective experiment—and we'll look forward to making our own evaluations—but it is encouraging.



It means more Linux games, and more couch-friendly PC games. SteamOS is as much about ditching Windows as it is putting PC gaming in the living room, so it affects even those firmly planted in their desk chairs. If SteamOS achieves the install base it needs for developers big and small embrace Linux, the Microsoft shackles may be broken forever.



The Cons

 

Steam Boxes may struggle to compete in price. A PC designed to run SteamOS skips over the Windows fee, but unlike a console, the manufacturer can't rely on game licensing fees to recoup costs—that money goes to Valve. Sony and Microsoft, however, can price their consoles competitively with that revenue in mind, which gives them the advantage. Valve itself could price hardware this way, but that would undercut third-party hardware manufacturers and could turn out to be anti-competitive. Unless, of course, Valve makes the unlikely move to subsidize the cost of these systems.



It could increase development costs. Major game developers aren't going to ditch Windows, the platform with the world's largest install base. If SteamOS becomes a competitive gaming platform, competitive developers will have yet another version to make, soaking up more resources.



The pessimistic angle is that this can only result in either lower quality games or more expensive games. The optimistic angle is that SteamOS will be embraced and prioritized by developers with the same enthusiasm as the consoles.



It could further fragment games and smother certain genres. If SteamOS eclipses the popularity of desktop gaming, developers will have less incentive to develop desktop games. Just as developers rushed into mobile and Facebook development, we could see a flood of controller-based Steam games that push niche and classic-style PC games into the slums.



It's a scary thought, but when we un-jerk our knees and really consider this scenario, it's a very minor concern. Crowdfunding has proven without a doubt that there's still a huge appetite for old fashioned mouse and keyboard PC games. The positive—and more likely—angle is that we'll see just greater diversity in the Steam library.



It gives Valve even more power over PC gaming. Valve isn't PC gaming. We know that, and millions of League of Legends players, World of Tanks enthusiasts, GOG.com users, modders, and more know that. But Steam is the most popular digital distribution service, and soon, it will be a platform. SteamOS may be free, but it's only as open as Valve allows. We don't know yet if we can use SteamOS to play non-Steam games, or if Valve will make exclusivity deals. We've asked, and Valve's answer will be a huge indicator of its intentions.



If you've got a passionate thought about SteamOS, we'd love to include it in our next issue of PC Gamer. We're always listening at letters@pcgamer.com.
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