9. the feel of Team Fortress 2 (2007-2011)

03 April 2018

Two very long weeks pass… I could talk about it in another blog post. But until then:

I played Team Fortress 2 (TF2) for a few years starting from when it launched (2007!) in the orange box. I also clocked at least 2000 hours, not spent idling for item drops.

This post mostly is studying the good and bad parts of certain updates.

the design: linking visuals, voices and gameplay 

Lets start with what made TF2 so great. These qualities were quite special in 2007!

TF2 was a class-based shooter with a very unique visual style. By class we mean, you don’t buy or find weapons. You choose a class and get the weapons that class uses. The demoman uses explosives. The scout runs fast and has a shotgun, but has less health.

There are 9 classes. Each class has a distinct visual design so you can easily identify what class teammates or allies are playing.

Each class is tailored to “roles”. You can do whatever you want with any class (like running around with only your melee weapon and never firing a gun). However, certain classes perform better at certain positions on the map (e.g. Soldiers or Heavies at the front line due to their health and straightforward weaponry).

But the main point was the visuals and the gameplay were linked. You knew what people were doing, if you knew about the 9 classes. From this, teamwork becomes natural.

the types of players

There are some useful ways of thinking about players. We’ll only need two for today.

  • How good are their skills (Aiming their weapon, knowing the map/objective)?
  • Do they want to play only ONE class, or do they want to learn MULTIPLE classes?

Since you can switch class at any time, players are subtly encouraged to switch when necessary. But as a player you might also typically to enter a server, intending to only go soldier so you can learn how to use the rocket launcher.

We’ll often talk about players in terms of skill levels and class diversity.

Importantly: To maximise fun on a regular server… you probably want very similar skill levels, and great class diversity.

I could talk about how a developer balances the skill level in a server, but that’s for another time, and another game.

Anyway, Valve found a great way of improving class diversity.

the class updates

If you hop into most multiplayer games you’ll find the support role is unpopular.

It happened with TF2. The Medic, arguably the strongest or 2nd strongest class in the game, cannot win the game alone.

Most people fear the outcome where playing the medic perfectly still loses the game because the well-healed teammates perhaps were lacking in combat skill compared to the enemy team.

Its hard to run a trust exercise anonymously on the internet.

People didn’t play medic as much as valve wanted. So Valve made a huge patch for the game called “The Goldrush Update”, which introduced a new set of medic weapons, as well as the payload game mode.

Since players love unlocking things, you had to complete achievements to get the new weapons. More patches came and each one brought lots of excitement, since the game felt new each time.

Since the players changed their actions or tried out new classes, battles played out very differently.

Nobody is interested in a plain old success story, so let me give you a little side story: In one of the patches, Valve made a strange mistake.

the strange mistake

Now keep in mind, TF2 was the main game for experimentation.

There was an experiment that went wrong. The new weapons in the Sniper Vs Spy update weren’t unlocked via achievements. They were unlocked via random drop chance.

The mistake was restriction.

Due to chance, part of your audience is excluded from new content.

Being excluded is a terrible feeling. It also hurts to see a handful of other players being able to try out the new weapons.

New weapons could be strong either due to players being unfamiliar with countering it (The Dead Ringer) or purely due to the programming (The Ambassador (un-patched)). These two items happened to be in the same update.

So to compound that feeling, the weapons happened to be reasonably strong at the time.

This gave birth to silly idle servers, where teams of players stand still, waiting for item drops. People are logged in, yes, but they are not playing the game.

Hats were also introduced. And initially with an absurdly low drop rate, increasing their value (which encouraged more idling).

People still exited the idle server when they wanted to play, but this whole thing feels absurd. If this absurd feeling affects your view of the game, you might not enjoy it as much.

Eventually, the game fleshed out its inventory system and you can also shop for items. It’s quite acceptable given the amount of free extra content that’s been added to the game.

Speaking of free…

the free-to-play

The game went free to play in 2011.

A large increase of players occurred. Each new player might already have had some experience with first person shooters, but regardless they’ll need to learn all about the 9 different classes.

This generally means there are more skill differences in a server. An experienced player could enter one of these servers and easily defeat many opponents if they aren’t also experienced.

Obviously this can impact the game. If you are experienced, you either enjoy or dislike the lowered difficulty on most public servers.

If you’re new when the game is free to play, it’s quite similar to being new at any other point in the game’s lifetime. You are entering the game with a blank perspective.

A blank perspective is a luxury for the designer, but it can also be a luxury for the player too. Especially since there was something that got lost over the updates…

the loss of character identity

Originally if you see an engineer, you know they’re playing a more support role.

But now if you see an engineer with a robot arm instead of a wrench, they’re actually playing a more active combat role, and will use their shotgun much more often.

Scouts might have a special baseball bat that lets them jump a third time before landing on the ground.

The Demoman, who’s original loadout was 2 explosive launchers and a bottle, can now potentially be running around with 0 explosive launchers, a sword, and a shield that lets them move at incredibly high speed and damage people they run into.

If you join a server and your team has 3 Demomen, do you know if they’re actually demolition? or if they’re knights?

Additional weapons with ENTIRELY different functionality are new concepts that a new player will have to learn, as well as anyone returning to the game.

These days most popular class-based multiplayer games just introduce new characters instead of new abilities/weapons, but you still need to learn the new character anyway.

Which is better? Having the Demoman turn into a DemoKnight or more or doubling the amount of characters you have? I wouldn’t compare TF2 to League or Dota, but it’s still the route Overwatch is taking.

I mean its almost the same thing, but it gives different impressions to players.

The choice is different when talking about competition and e-sports, but TF2 was born before that era, and so was it’s competitive scene.

It wasn’t a question being asked at the time.

the conclusion

First: Even a paywall is better than random restriction of actual gameplay.

Second: A game’s skill-level ecosystem can take time to even out after an influx of players. Training modes and a coaching mode however was added in a certain update.

Third: Experimenting with a game can produce great results! Many of the lessons learned were able to be applied into CS:GO and Dota 2 without any trouble.

There’s many other lessons too, just waiting for us to find.


have fun out there, won't you?