Digital distribution and the "games as a service" model opens up freedom in pricing
, but it also gives developers opportunities to connect with their audiences and take risks in ways that were never previously possible, says Valve's business development director Jason Holtman -- the traditional methods of post-release support are merely one option.
"Everybody knows that the entertainment industry is fundamentally changing these days, and it's changing because everyone is connecting, and they're becoming connected because of the internet and the open PC platform," Holtman said during a Montreal International Game Summit keynote this week.
Valve has been learning new lessons about that model for years, and those lessons have driven the company to attempt increasingly experimental and off-the-cuff promotions, updates, and adjustments to their games. "We learned this from Counter-Strike
. We learned this from Team Fortress 2
," he said.
Now, Valve's games see nearly-constant updates and price adjustments over unusually long periods of time, in an industry where retail shelf life is notoriously low. This is particularly true of 2007's Team Fortress 2
, whose stylized look and inherently bombastic tone and gameplay make it a prime candidate for wackier experiments.
And since the company doesn't need to worry about shipping individual updates at retail, or dealing with onerous certification requirements, it can iterate and experiment at an extremely high pace. "If you talk to the game's [development leads]," commented Holtman, "they are constantly talking with the community."
Earlier this year, Valve began doing what seemed to be promotion for an update to Team Fortress 2
's Sniper class. The company had teased upcoming Sniper equipment in a similar way to how it had introduced new equipment for other classes like the Heavy and the Medic.
But as the release date approached, the company started "leaking" brief, quickly-removed clues on the TF2
blog and even through direct Steam messages to the community, pointing instead to the Spy class. The fleeting changes quickly fostered an atmosphere of intrigue and mistrust among those tracking the updates.
"The [blog update] would flash out with a spy shadow, and then [gaming site and community] Shacknews would light up, with everyone going, 'It's going to be the Spy! Oh my God!' And then it would go away five seconds later, and other people on Shacknews would say, 'It's not the Spy, you're lying!' Then people would take screenshots [of another flash], and other people would miss it, and say, 'No, that's Photoshopped. This is the real one.'"
The event created a huge amount of buzz for the nearly two-year-old game, and after the free Spy update was finally released, sales of the full game skyrocketed and raised the game's total online userbase considerably. As Holtman explained, Valve's ability to connect directly to its players, and the open nature of the PC -- without a platform holder that has the final say on release dates and price points -- has allowed it to conceive and execute unusual promotions and updates with a frequency and variety of scope that would be impossible using any other model.
On Halloween, the company decided to add five new achievements to Team Fortress 2
, which could only be completed that day. Such low-level additions require little effort, but continue to increase word of mouth and investment into the community.
The openness and real-time nature of the service-driven model reduces both overhead and risk, allowing developers to try things out on any scale or schedule -- or, since games can auto-update, even roll them back. "If any of these don't work, you can get rid of them. As we iterate with the service connection, we're going to learn what's fun," Holtman said.
After all, the Team Fortress 2
team had no idea it would be creating Halloween achievements or, as it has also been doing for the last several months, introducing an increasing array of amusing cosmetic-only hats with which players can customize their characters.
"When we made Team Fortress 2
, we didn't know what we were going to build six months from then or a year from then or two years from then, but we did know fundamentally that we were going to ship a game that was going to live, and we were going to do something with it," Holtman said.
"If you go out and buy a disc today of The Orange Box
or standalone TF2
, on that disc none of those 97 updates are there. But you're going to be brought up to speed when you install it, immediately. You couldn't pull any of this off unless Team Fortress 2
, from the very first person who purchased it, was on the same page."