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Opinion: The Real Significance Behind  Team Fortress 2 's Virtual 'Mann Store'

Opinion: The Real Significance Behind Team Fortress 2's Virtual 'Mann Store' Exclusive

October 1, 2010 | By Kris Graft

October 1, 2010 | By Kris Graft
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[Gamasutra senior news editor Kris Graft examines the broader business implications of Team Fortress 2's newly-announced virtual item store, and the real significance behind Valve's move.]

I was at the store this week, and I saw a hat for $17.50. It's not something that I'd typically wear -- more teeth and eyes than my usual headwear -- but the fact that it would protect me from headshots really had me reaching for my wallet.

Valve yesterday announced the "Mann Co. Store," a virtual item store in Team Fortress 2 open to both menn and womenn alike. For the most part, the gist is you can instantly buy -- with real money -- in-game weaponry and other items instead of pouring hours into the game to obtain them.

Forums predictably lit up with debate and continue to smolder. Some are arguing that items like these new, expensive stat-boosting hats -- difficult to come across in normal gameplay -- will throw off Team Fortress 2's balance.

Others defend Valve's move, saying that all of the gameplay-affecting items are attainable through typical gameplay or crafting, and loadout parameters will naturally balance matches.

But the fairness and balance aspect will sort itself out. The real news is Valve is doing in-game real-money transactions, people.

Valve boss Gabe Newell, for some time, has been espousing the idea of "games as a service." Even before the Mann Store, this idea has been exemplified in 2007's Team Fortress 2, as Valve has applied update after update for free (after the initial cost of buying the game, of course).

The theory is that these free updates and the attraction of an ever-evolving, eternally-supported game would draw in new customers on a regular basis. And it has worked -- constant value-injection and frequent promotions have kept the game a strong seller on PC, considering its age.

With the Mann Store, Valve's "games as a service" mantra now takes cues from microtransaction-based models, made popular by Asian-derived online games and Facebook titles. Many core gamers really hate anything that resembles microtransactions, for reasons ranging from gameplay balance concerns to a sense of pride of earning content through skill or time investment. (Or just a misguided "anti-casual" mindset.)

With a high-profile developer like Valve making a move like this, I'm sure that a lot of game companies, including the major publishers, are carefully watching how the studio plans on pulling off real-money transactions with such a large, established core FPS gamer base. Metric-loving Valve, which surely knew that the move would cause a strong response, is likely at this very moment watching statistics to see just how much gamers really love or hate this scheme.

Gameplay or design issues aside, it's arguably a brilliant business move, but not because it'll make Valve tons of money. In typical Valve fashion, the company is using its connected online business to experiment with different business models and pricing schemes.

Experimentation with pricing is not new for Valve -- this is a company that over one weekend, cut in half the price of a hit game just three months after its release, essentially just to learn if $50 or $60 price points are right for the games industry.

If the Mann Store is successful, who knows where it could lead Valve -- this could be a pivotal moment for the studio. Or maybe it'll just turn out to be a nice supplemental revenue stream. Or, with user-generated virtual item sales support, it could just end up being another way to build up goodwill with players. In any case, Valve will learn first-hand how this model fits into its business, if at all.

This all is related to how shooter developers plan on monetizing the massive amount of hours players spend in multiplayer online modes.

Imagine if Valve announced that instead of offering goofy hats in a store, it came out and announced a subscription fee for Team Fortress 2. It would make this Mann Store controversy look like nothing. Newell would have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars flying in leaders of multiple anti-Mann Store internet petitions.

Of course, Valve could have also announced that it would start charging everyone for the maps and updates, a la Call of Duty or Halo. But then that would cause another kind of uproar.

Even with the talk about the need to "monetize" online shooters, I don't think that Valve HQ saw plummeting sales figures for Team Fortress 2 and then felt like it had to formulate an emergency business plan in order to keep the game afloat -- I don't see this as a money grab. Valve can make plenty of money with the multi-platform launch of Portal 2, Left 4 Dead expansions and royalties from its industry-leading digital distribution platform.

I sincerely doubt that Valve is hoping to make money hand-over-fist by introducing, in one game, optional virtual items that cost as little as two quarters.

Nevertheless, it could lead to bigger virtual item initiatives from Valve. New business models for genres outside of MMOs are coming, and they're coming to core games for all kinds of different platforms, eventually. Valve in a way is even enabling its partners to do the same, as the Steamworks suite supports the virtual Steam Wallet, which is currently used to buy virtual items in Team Fortress 2.

The new Mann Store is jarring because it's a major change to one of Valve's internally-developed flagship titles -- the studio is retro-fitting a business model to a game with a very loyal, generally happy fanbase. Will this probably turn a lot of people off? Yeah, maybe at first, at least.

But If any company is going to explore the possibilities in the area of real-money transactions in a core shooter, it might as well be Valve Software.

Now let's see how this Ol' Snaggletooth fits on my big head.


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