At the time of writing this article, my play time for Team Fortress 2 is over 140 hours. A relatively small time, given the game is now 5 years old and I’ve had it since it launched, but it remains the most played game I own on Steam by a long margin (the second most played game is Counter-Strike: Source at 118 hours, owning to the days when I did level design, followed by Just Cause 2 at 44). If I take a step back, however, and really look at that number, it’s colossal: for a $50 investment back in the day (as a part of the Orange Box set, which contained 4 other games), I’ve experienced nearly 150 hours worth of content, and it’s a number that isn’t going to stop anytime soon.
This is quite an anomaly, but there’s a good reason for it: the game is superb. It’s a game that’s adapted not only to a larger crowd, but to the wavering interests of long-time players. While the core game remains remarkably similar to its initial release, the expansion of scope in the way its played and the addition of what is essentially a ‘collect-a-thon’ has brought it to the same league as Counter-Strike in lasting appeal and prominence.
My playtime with TF2 is centred around a few of the classes: Pyro, Heavy, Soldier and Scout, with doses of Medic thrown in for good measure. What makes me come back to this game, time and time again, is the fact that the way I play those classes is different to the way other people play them. Giving me the power to forge a unique way to play through a customised load-out without breaking the overall game is an incredible feat of gameplay balance. There is no ‘ultimate weapon’ in TF2, unlike something like the notorious AWP in Counter-Strike. Any weapon or item can be bested by at least one other item in some way, shape, or form. Rounds that end in one team’s unending superiority over another are never the fault of an unfair load out: it’s almost always a case of an uneven amount of players, or simply a complete lack of ability on the losing side.
Giving the player the opportunity to create a comfortable and entertaining play style also allows them to increase their skills in a way that doesn’t feel like a complete grind. I’ve played many games where a round completely turns around as a result of the game bringing a player over from one team to the other as a result of auto balance (heck, I’ve even noticed it when I’ve been switched over to a losing team). Becoming skilled in a particular play style is not born out of necessity: it’s simply developed as a result of continued enjoyment of the style itself. It also gives any player the opportunity to become highly skilled at whatever play style they prefer, meaning that there’s far more skilled players on a server at any given time, creating a more balanced game for everyone.
Team Fortress 2 is not without its faults: I share the sentiments of many who feel the cosmetic additions to the game (in the form of millions of different hats) has dulled the once clean visuals and aesthetics. Yet, for a game that’s not only completely free-to-play but constantly being updated with new maps, gameplay modes and items, it’s a small price to pay. It remains to me one of the finest multiplayer experiences I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing.
Quite often in the gaming news we hear of a new free to play game, or an existing game moving over to a free to play model. It appears to be a successful business model in some cases, and Team Fortress 2 has definitely made Valve enough money to buy a bottomless pit full of virtual hats.
While most other games jumping from the traditional "pay once, play forever" model into the microtransaction-based free to play model are doing so due to desperation after not getting enough sales of their retail game (see almost every MMO game that tries to compete with World of Warcraft), Valve did it rather casually and quite unexpectedly. Since Valve moved TF2 into the free to play pricing model, plenty of other new and old shooters have followed suit due to Valve’s success.
I think it’s fairly safe to assume that free to play is working out quite well financially for Valve (see DOTA2, the next F2P game from them), but what about from the player’s point of view? There will always be people who will focus only on the negative elements that they don’t like, but I think the general consensus from the community is that the move to free to play worked in their favour as well as Valve’s. This is due to several key reasons that are often missed by other developers.
The first and most important reason is that Valve’s free to play model is not a so called "pay to win" model. It’s important that free to play games offer incentives to users to use the microtransaction system, but offering unfair advantages is not the way to do it. Instead of going down the "pay to win" route that many of the larger publishers followed, TF2 encourages players to create their own style of play for each character class. This makes the users want to buy new stuff in the store – not because they’ll get an unfair advantage, but because it will complement their play style and the game will be more fun as a result.
The second reason that Valve’s free to play model is so successful is the random drops system. This means that players who are perfectly happy to not spend a cent on the in-game store will still be able to play with some different weapons when they drop. This means that more people are playing the game and this keeps the community alive and running. And, of course, the larger the community is, the more people there are to spend money on the store.
It’s not all good news, though – there are plenty of negative arguments about TF2, as well. The crate and key system is a rather devious way to tempt players to spend money on unknown objects (it’s basically gambling at that point). The reduced backpack size and limited range of dropped items for players who haven’t spent any money on the store is another example of tempting players into spending money they might otherwise not have wanted to part with.
However, this is truly a case of Valve being the lesser of many evils. The unlocks and items are available to all players who don’t pay if they’re patient enough to wait for the random drops. All items are balanced well with the default weapons, so nobody gets an unfair advantage. Many of the other purchasable items are purely cosmetic, like the hats and name tags. When you compare this to many other free to play games out there, it’s clear to me that Team Fortress is definitely heading in the right direction when it comes to the free to play pricing model.