We’re fresh from Valve’s “Team Fortress 2: From the Orange Box to Free to Play in Just Four Years” GDC 2012 panel hosted by programmer Joe Ludwig with some fascinating numbers. I know, you’re probably thinking you know the whole story already (HATZ!), but we there were more than a few cold hard numbers from TF2’s four year journey that surprised the hell out of us. Want to know where and why Valve is spying on you, or how much they pay community contributors? The answers are below.
That’s how much Team Fortress 2 increased its concurrent player base by once they threw the free-to-play switch in June 2011. That was by no means a “last resort” decision, the kind made by many a languishing MMO, but one hard learned by Valve’s unbelievably awesome tendency to drastically lower the price of its games on Steam. We’ve all seen games drop by 75% without warning, and it goes without saying that such measures will undoubtedly increase sales. However, Valve’s Joe Ludwig revealed something even more interesting in TF2’s case: the volume of new games sold at sale price actually offset the loss in the discount.
But live games of Team Fortress 2’s magnitude rely on continued developer support, which requires money, which back then solely hinged solely on the sale of the game. And therein lay the problem. “Each person can only buy the game once,” said Ludwig, also adding, “We can only earn revenue from people who have never played our game.” How do you encourage new players, while maintain existing fans? The solution to that equation was somewhere between that magic “hey, under $10!” price point, and how to fund consistent updates that’ll keep people coming playing. So not only did the decision to take the three-year old game free-to-play increase player counts by four hundred percent, it did the same for revenue... You know the rest of this, don’t you?
That’s how many item trades have gone down in Team Fortress 2, courtesy of 8 million transactions between 1.7 million players totaling for one incredibly successful HATSTRAVAGANZA! But have you ever wondered “Why hats?” Ludwig made the answer seem so simple. Before embarking on Valve’s first free-to-play venture, their research revealed three basic player reservations under the umbrella attitude of “Paying for items is icky.” First of all, they found players hate to be nickel and damned in fake, virtual currency. Okay, not a problem. Obviously, not every game will have the benefit of reconfiguring a platform like Steam to float the idea of real money worth, but it’s because of this that TF2 was immediately able to skirt horrible, horrible problems of basic math. “This will cost you this, and you won’t have $1.67 of Space Bucks left to do nothing with.”
The second micro-transaction hurdle was that players hate the idea of “paying to win.” Early experiments with boosted apparel fell flat, as people disliked the idea of giving big spenders even the smallest advantage, and much more interestingly according to Ludwig, because “players don’t like being told what to wear.” So it was decided that only cosmetic alterations were to be sold in the item shop, with unlocking skill left to Achievements, crafting, and other more traditional means.
Lastly, players, especially ones who are part of a long-established game, don’t want to be forced to purchase anything. And honestly, what’s more useless than a hat? “It grafts simply to the headbone,” claimed Ludwig, making them easy to compatibly model, and thanks to the highly distinct look of each class, they barely so much as alter character silhouettes. Players who originally bought the game were given an “Proof of Purchase” lid to kickstart their reluctant obsession, trading hats has since become an in-game currency of its own and have continued to randomly drop ever since.
That’s how much money has been handed out to community contributors, who receive a cut of what their hats make in the item shop. No, hats can’t give you advantage. But they’re still awesome nonetheless! They can be simultaneously worn as badges of honor, show support for a passion, and be waved like a flag of individualistic flare. So technically… they’re invaluable in a way. The TF2 team couldn’t crank out enough to meet rabid demand, even after the allowed players to submit their own designs for approval.
Enter the Steam Workshop, where the dev team could finally let the community decide what items made it into the game and when. Obviously, the cream rises, but using fans as a filter also eliminated duplicates, infringements, design theft, and thanks to the second-to-none expedience of Steam’s certification process, even had the ability to be topical and reflective of the zeitgeist.
Seemingly overnight, TF2 was able to raise $300,000 for Japanese earthquake relief last year, and the desire for hats has virtually redefined how we trade, gift, and purchase all digital items (at least on Steam) without fear of being scammed. Currently, there’s only one other game integrated with Steam Workshop, but if you know what it is, you know TF2 is in good company. (*coughSKYRIMcough*)
That’s approximate amount of views Valve’s “Meet the Medic” short has enjoyed on Youtube. It’s fairly safe to say you’ve probably seen it, but within those quirky, enjoyable promotional materials, which include all manner of teasers, posters, and comics, lies the shadiest thing you didn’t know Valve was doing. Wait, that should’ve sounded more fun… okay, remember the Meet the Engineer teaser?
You may remember going apeshit over a robotic glove and-BOOM- it was in the update. However, in less than thirty seconds, Valve crammed in a dozen or so references, winks, hints, and yes, even misleads. They’re Valve, that’s what they do, and almost immediately TF2 fans everywhere went about creating volumes of speculation threads… where Valve is watching you. Why would Valve spy on fans pouring over teases that aren’t even real? Because they’re not real yet. The TF2 team keeps a keen eye on what hidden glimpses are getting attention on message boards and social media avenues because that’s where “players are secretly voting on what goes in the update.” Ludwig slyly exclaimed. Valve loves to stir up speculation, but it takes the sting out of the head-scratching a bit once you realize they’re basically focus testing what you want, and what makes it into the final game. Such is the case with the Engineer’s glove: it hadn’t even been developed until eagle-eyed viewers caught a glimpse of it in the teaser and went nuts.