In both "20 Essential Games to Study" and my upcoming book "Game Design Deep Dive:F2P, I find myself focusing on Team Fortress 2 as a topic. I consider it one of the most important games released in the industry, and for today, I want to talk about how what Valve did with TF2 radically changed game development and created much of the F2P and live service model still used today.
The Origins of Live Service
Depending on your definition of live service, we could be talking about the MMOG genre, loot boxes in the early 2000s with EA sport games, and even the creation and support of MUDs (Multi-user dungeons) in the 80's. Looking at where the industry went in terms of F2P and live service, many of those elements can be traced back to TF2.
When the game first launched in 2007, the only games that were given the live service treatment and multi-year support were MMOGs. Live service design is about creating and extending a game's lifespan with continued support for months and years after the initial release. The major example of this success would of course be World of Warcraft released in 2004. I won't go into the details here, as I'm writing about them more in my next book, but live service design is a high-risk/high reward way of designing a game. When it works, as in TF2 and WoW's case, it can greatly extend the shelflife of a game to the point that it becomes a part of pop culture.
Meet the Updates
Team Fortress 2's updates began with the "Gold Rush" update that added in a new game mode and would begin to introduce itemization to the TF2 gameplay. Starting with the medic, and then expanding to all the classes, items were created that provided sidegrades to the classes -- allowing the player to enhance one aspect of playing while weakening another.
These items would then go the cosmetic route with the introduction of hats and setting up the addiction of many people to dress up their characters in all manner of weird clothing options. With the "mann-conomy" update, this was the addition of the in-game store -- a system that has been integrated into almost every F2P game since. Earlier examples of the store system in games was only about buying quality of life features and add-ons, with TF2, players could buy any item they wanted as opposed to waiting for it to drop randomly.
In 2011, TF2 officially became F2P and removed the purchasing option from the store. There are, of course, many more updates to the game, but these are the ones most important to the F2P design of the game. As the first game to transform itself this much, TF2 became one of the best examples of not only F2P design, but of ethical F2P design.
Valuing Time and Money
Valve's "experiment" into F2P design paid off huge for the game and company, and something discussed at length at one of their GDC talks. When you are designing a F2P game, hence no initial buy-in or barrier of entry, there are only two areas from there that you can "tax" the player on: time and money. Someone may want to buy every single thing in your store and never have to wait on anything in your game, while someone else would happily unlock things over time as opposed to spending one extra dollar in your game.
The issue with a lot of F2P games is that they will often put their finger on the scale when it comes to focusing on making "time" the more restrictive value. For a competitive game, anyone who doesn't have the "latest and greatest" characters, items, gear, etc., is at a huge disadvantage. Let's not forget the entire era of "fun pain" and making your game worse to play in order to squeeze more dollars out of your consumer base.
What TF2 focused on was making the game as fair as it could be while still offering those enticements for paying. Every item or cosmetic in the game can eventually be found through random drops. The system worked that every player would receive a certain number of random drops per week, once they hit their limit, they would not get anything else until things reset. The store allowed someone to literally buy any item they wanted, or spend money on keys to open up the various crates/lootboxes.
Here's the point -- there is not one item you can purchase in TF2 that will make you a better player. One of the issues I had with Dead By Daylight was that the add-ons in many ways are game-changing and can radically alter the utility of both the survivors and the killers; the same for the perks that come with each character. With TF2, every item is built off the set elements of their respective class. I will never be able to turn my medic into a front-line heavy using items or give the sniper the destructibility of the soldier. Due to the designers focusing on sidegrades, you could tailor each class to your personal preference, but you weren't making the class uniformly better. If I'm not good at landing headshots as the sniper or finding good places to snipe from, no item is going to compensate for that. That also means that anyone can play TF2 competitively because all the classes are always available, whereas you have to acquire them in a game like League of Legends or Dead by Daylight.
From a cosmetic point of view, TF2 is one of only a handful of F2P games that allow non-paying players to get access to cosmetics. Most of the games released will never have their cosmetics available for free, and this created that incorrect opinion that if it's not game-changing, it's perfectly fine to lock it to paying consumers. Besides having cosmetics be part of the random drop system, there were routinely free events with exclusive cosmetics during its heyday. And of course, if you really wanted that hat for your scout, you could just spend a few dollars to get it.
Growing Beyond The Game
Another aspect of the success of TF2, that I don't think Valve gets enough credit for, is cultivating the IP beyond the game itself. The game originally started as just multiplayer matches between two groups of players. Over the years this became greatly expanded with its own lore and mythos thanks to the brilliantly designed "Meet the Team" videos. These characters had their own personalities and stories, and fans ate it all up. This would lead to comic books, animated shorts, and even having movie-making contests for the fans.
To me, TF2's brand is the complete opposite of what we would see other developers do, especially Fortnite. The IP of TF2 is entirely built around the game and the characters, whereas Fortnite, as well as a lot of other F2P franchises, tends to focus on collabs and bringing in as many properties into its brand. So in Fortnite's case, the IP itself doesn't really have the same impact as in TF2. Compare the Meet the Team videos to promotional material that is put out from other games as an example. Another good example of TF2's style would undoubtedly be League of Legends, which not only has a hit Netflix show about several of its champions but two different virtual bands with actual records among other spinoffs.
The only other game I can think of that has managed to grow and fundamentally change how it's played with new game systems would be Warframe developed by Digital Extremes.
The Limits of TF2
With all that said, TF2 is not the dominant game in the market anymore. While it still has a loyal fanbase and all of the lore is archived on the site, it does not come anywhere near the sales and consumer base that the biggest F2P games have today. The main reason is obvious: the level of support and updates from Valve have slowed down considerably since its heyday in the early 2010s. While I may criticize games like Fortnite, the continued integration of new IPs and events keeps the game and its fanbase energized.
Remember this point about live service games -- there must always be new content on the horizon in order to keep consumers interested. Once you announced that updates are done, that's going to be it in terms of attracting new fans. The sheer volume of content in TF2, combined with its unique class-based multiplayer, has created a market unto itself, but it does make me wonder if we'll see Valve return to the franchise at some point. If you want to see just what a live service success can be, look no further than Team Fortress 2 and how much building the world outside of the game can mean towards adding value to the IP. But I think we all know what will excite fans the most: another "Meet the Sandvich" video.
Check out my latest book on horror design out now, and look forward to Game Design Deep Dive: F2P coming in 2022
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