I’m writing about one of my all-time favorite games today, because last week I remembered that it recently switched over to a “free-to-play” model with a brand new market for in-game cosmetic and practical items. I downloaded it on yet another new computer because I supposed that there would be a veritable goldmine of free (inexperienced!) players to kill, a fresh selection of map updates, and brand-new play styles made possible by all the cool new weapons. Boy, was that supposition correct! I don’t remember the old game being this fun at all, and the old game was a whole lot of fun!
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Team Fortress 2 is a video game where one team tries to defend strategic points on a map, and the other team tries to infiltrate their defenses and capture whatever needs capturing. Players on either team get to choose from 9 different “classes” of militant, which have different strengths, use different weapons and require very different play styles to see any success. I’m told the Pyro is a girl under the gas mask, but otherwise all the soldiers are male, which angers some people. Anyway, the game is the most fully realized competitive multiplayer experience ever to grace the PC or Mac or console. The strategic possibilities are mind-blowing and hardly anybody gets left out, even people who normally suck at “shootey” games. I loved this game when it came out and I still have to keep myself away from it to this day, like cigarettes for normal people.
Most amazing is that, had the folks at Valve sat around and boozed away their profits from the Orange Box rather than going right back to work on the community, I would have never spent another dime to play the thing! As it stands, the $10 in my Steam wallet has been used up over the course of 3 days and I will have to refill it soon. There is less of a “walled garden” feeling with all the new free players, but Valve never forgot how to treat its loyal customers and as a result they’re simply printing money over there these days. Good for them.
I want to use part of this review to imagine what the wild success of this format means for the future of the entertainment industry. Valve has changed the world, by creating a virtual place that is completely free to access (barring hardware limitations), and selling virtual things that only work in that virtual place! Luddites will scoff and say that we’re all suckers for thinking that these ideas can really be valuable, but here’s a real hard serious question for them: does paying $2 at an arcade to pretend to race a motorcycle 3 times around a track give me more “fun” than owning a virtual rocket launcher would? I don’t think many people are prepared to argue that point.
Some gamers also complain that new weapons will introduce game balance issues, even though this does not make good logical sense. The market will demand any weapon that is found to be disproportionately effective, and Valve will be able to identify it and take any corrective action necessary. In addition, having hundreds of slightly different “enhancements” to choose from means not having enough time to study all their strengths and weaknesses.
What we should take away is that by sacrificing a dwindling source of revenue, Valve has turned intellectual property that might still be able to generate meager sales on a good day into a thriving economy that is driving their current profits. “Common sense” might say that giving away your product is a bad idea, but it doesn’t really have to be. This is hard evidence.