When you consider that Team Fortress 2 originally launched with no extra weapons or items beyond the basic class loadouts, its progression to the game of a million variations today is quite impressive. That it launched with no plot or lore to speak of now seems strange after the latest ‘Meet the Team’ video and the many comics that have been launched to explain the bizarre humour behind it. Even more impressively, TF2 was released with just six maps, but twenty-nine more have since been added, with the map-making community playing a large role. Then there’s trading, crafting, replay editing…the list goes on. The current version, after over 200 updates, is more of a sequel than it is an extension of the original.
Is this game the most complete multiplayer offering currently available? I suppose, strictly speaking, it doesn’t have a co-operative mode, as there will always be a group of very real opponents facing you, but that’s the best I can come up with by way of criticism. It has everything – action, diversity, strategy, teamwork, rewards, looks, humour – and costs nothing. Where free-to-play MMOs sometimes restrict certain quests to those willing to pay and make the spendthrift more powerful than their more parsimonious counterparts, everything important in TF2 is now entirely free, and the smaller conveniences and cosmetic items can be earned through play or purchased. That something this rich in content can be used for nothing at all seems to go against the laws of economics, making it more of a gift than a product intended for the consumer market.
Putting aside the merits of the gameplay, perhaps the biggest achievement of Valve’s over the last four years has been in its dealing with the community. I can’t help but think how tricky it can sometimes be to download new content for certain games, particularly on the PC, with the need for separate currency (MS Points, Bioware Points and so on) and tedious download platforms just to get two or three hours of new gameplay. Every update for TF2 has brought in new players and made the old ones come back with tremendous ease.
That said, it’s quite difficult to say what the rest of the industry can learn from the success of TF2. Its success cannot be replicated, because no company in the industry stands on the same high ground as Valve does. Valve is a very good development studio with a track record to envy – Portal, Half-Life, Left 4 Dead, Counter Strike and Team Fortress itself. On top of that, it publishes its own titles, giving it total control of distribution and marketing. It also owns the monolith that is Steam, the biggest and most ubiquitous digital distribution platform in the world, which not only makes mountains of money from its enormous catalogue of games, but provides an easy way to automatically update titles with little hassle (in most cases).
No other developer or publisher could possibly make the decisions that Valve has made with TF2. People might cite Valve’s conduct towards its community as something others can learn from, but no other company has the total control over its product that Valve does, from concept to development to marketing and publishing and beyond. In an ideal world, every game would get new content as regularly and as cheaply as TF2 does, but in reality only one studio is capable of doing just that. Valve should be credited, then, not for its ability to perform such feats, but for the fact that it chose to perform them, rather than trying to squeeze as much money as possible from what is undoubtedly a brilliant game.