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Team Fortress 2: Valve's secret guinea pig Exclusive
 Team Fortress 2 : Valve's secret guinea pig
September 14, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

September 14, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
More: Console/PC, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

For Valve Software, Team Fortress 2 isn't just a game Ė it's a resource. Since its launch in 2007, Valve has continued to update the game with new items, modes, and even a new business model. While these changes have certainly helped satisfy players, they've also helped the studio prepare for the future.

In a recent interview with Gamasutra, Team Fortress 2 lead designer Robin Walker explained that while the game's primary goal has been to grow and maintain its sizeable audience, Valve has also used the title as a testbed for new ideas that could protect the livelihood of the entire company.

"Our secondary goal [with Team Fortress 2] was to see if we could explore specific game and business design spaces that we felt were potentially a requirement for the long-term survival of our company," Walker said.

One of those spaces, as it turns out, was the traditional MMO market -- and Team Fortress 2's persistent item economy came about because Valve was hoping to learn more about what made those games tick.

"[When the game shipped], MMOs were the dominant story in the industry, and one concern we had was that we might not be able to survive if we didnít build one," Walker said. "We didnít think we were ready to undertake that, but we did think that we might be able to build some pieces of one, learning enough so that if or when we did need to build one, we had less risk on the table. We decided that persistent item design and storage seemed like a reasonable amount of risk for us to bite off, and could be made to fit into TF2ís gameplay."

Just a few short years later, when traditional MMOs had started to wane in popularity, Valve was beginning to sense another major trend looming on the horizon: the rise of free-to-play and microtransaction-based games.

"A couple of years later... we were starting to feel the same way about microtransactions as we did initially about MMOs: that our company was at risk if we didnít have internal experience and hard data on them," Walker said.


Once again, Team Fortress 2 was chosen as the guinea pig, and in June 2011, Valve made the game completely free-to-play. This update proved to be one of the game's most significant yet, as it both increased revenues by a factor of twelve, and gave the studio the expertise it needed to adopt the free-to-play model in games like Dota 2.

"At the time, one of the questions the fledgling Dota 2 team was asking was whether they should be free to play, and we wanted to be able to give them a bunch of data so they could make that decision with some confidence," Walker said.

Given everything Valve has learned from Team Fortress 2 over the years, Walker says the game's financial success is really just icing on the cake. The game's ongoing updates have allowed the studio to quickly adapt to market changes, making it -- if nothing else -- an invaluable research tool for the studio's future projects.

"In the end, TF2 has been ended up being one of the most useful tools weíve ever built to reduce risk in our companyís future. Itís been really nice that itís also brought in significant revenue throughout that time, but ultimately, the importance we place on understanding our business and our customers has made it totally worthwhile," Walker said.

"The thought that if we hadnít done it, weíd be here today without any data or experience with service based monetization strategies is quite terrifying."

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Michael Murphy
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I actually like that they use this game as a way to see if they can adapt to new changes in the industry. Some companies can't handle change well and either try to copy some other game and fail or the company just falls and crumbles. Good Job Valve keep doing what your doing.

Rob Wright
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Great story. I think I've spent more hours on TF2 than any other game ever, and about the only complaint I have is that the "Meet the __" video for my favorite class -- The Pyro -- was a big disappointment.

Valve has done it right. The steady influx of new maps, weapons, features, mechanics, game modes, etc. has kept the game fresh even after 5 years. I have a lot of friends who are TF2 "purists" who shunned some of the recent changes like free-to-play, co-op, and hats, but I think Valve has written the book on how to support and continue developing a popular game well after its launch.

Ron Dippold
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They also used it as guinea pig the Valve Source Filmmaker - those great 'Meet the [X]' videos were done as part of the development process for that.

Lyon Medina
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I love the (Team Fortress Two) TF2 new spin on (Horde) Endless Enemies/Classic Tower Defense mode. I think that game creators need to take more chances similar to how TF2 takes risks. Of course it's not that people will not like the small changes.

It is the other flip side of the coin on how businesses will make profit from the endeavors that really puts pressures on the publishers. TF2 is lucky in that most of the game is now run by its great community, and that the responsibility for most of the games day to day entertainment is run by that same community.

Thankfully change is on the horizon for the entire game industry, I can feel it in my bones.

Jason Lee
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Perhaps ironically, the other company that I know that does this is Zynga with the original Farmville. Apparently that game serves as a testing ground for new features and ideas that have helped the continual iteration that refined the resource management formula down to what we see in Farmville 2 now. This kind of experimentation is not something that every company has access to, nor is it something that you can force, but you do have to recognize the opportunity to turn your old game into a test-bed for new ideas. Furthermore, I think that there's a lot of risk involved in doing this with an old game that's essentially supported by a dedicated community; experiments that go awry can alienate and push away that lifeline support. However, the flip side is that if you do successfully turn your game into a sort of test bed like TF2 did, then it'll reduce the amount of risk in the future for developing new products.

Jeremie Sinic
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Also, it can breathe new life in an ageing game. In some cases, it might be less risky than watching a game die.

Mike Lopez
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If you are worried about the risk the team can always release it as an AB Test to only a segment of users.

Neeraj Kumar
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I knew it when they announced Tf2 as F2P, great way to experiment.

Chris McLeod
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"Clever girl."

Dimitri Del Castillo
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Destroying game balance for market intel. It's a fair cop.