Interview: Valve on the future of Team Fortress 2
Team Fortress 2 has updated all nine of its classes now, so everyone’s curious about the future of the game. I posted myself to Mann. Co headquarters in the hope of wrestling Saxton Hale for answers, but when I arrived I found only project lead Robin Walker, in his throne room at Valve. Disappointed, I clambered out of my box and interviewed him nevertheless.
He talked about where Team Fortress 2 can go from here, how many people are still working on it, what they plan to include in the next update, why unlocks work the way they do, why they might start a new TF2 beta, and what the point of hats is. Accordingly, the interview is long. This is part one - part two is here.
PC Gamer: So you’ve updated all of Team Fortress 2’s nine classes now, I guess a lot of people are going to assume you’re done with the major updates. Is that the case?
Robin Walker: The short answer is that to us there's not really any hard line between the last update and the next update or anything, you know, we're just going to keep going. We've ran into this with the classless update where we were like “well we have this big chunk of content and we want to ship it, it just happens not to be centred around a class”.
The centering of updates around a class initially was just, if you go through the history of the updates we shipped prior to the medic update, which you can do by looking at the release notes in the 119th update, we were trying various strategies, we were exploring various sizes. How do people respond when we ship something this size, how to people respond when we do something small? You're trying to find what's the balance between rate of release and size.
What we found is that if you go too fast then there's this continual level of noise and that seems successful at satisfying your existing customers but doesn't become visible enough to find new customers, so we kept trying a bunch of things.
Robin Walker: The medic update was the first time we really succeeded. It was like, 'okay, this is a way for us to do an update of a sufficient size that we can get press to talk about it and people outside the existing customers see it, and are interested by it and so on'. So, we stuck to the classes for a while because it made sense. As soon as it stopped making sense the classless update came along where it had a bunch of stuff that didn't have – it needed some other hook, some other press story that you could write about it, and so that's why we invented the classless update.
The 119th update was the same sort of thing where, here's another bunch of update content that, you know, it was supposed to be the hundredth but that's the way it goes. Anyway, so, the next update isn't a class update but it has another big chunk of stuff to it, we've got the large- people already know that the Polycount items, the results of the Polycount contest are going to be in that, so that's a huge bunch of content that touches six different classes, so there's going to be lots of different goodies in that stuff, too.
PC Gamer: It seems like you're going to run out of names. You can't call them all the Classless Update.
Robin Walker: We were pretty happy with the classless update. Hey we have no class around here, well that was well proven with the Jarate. Whatever the next update is, we'll have fun with it.
PC Gamer: So do you already know what the next update looks like?
Robin Walker: Yes. In terms of what we'll say at this point, it will have five winners of the Polycount pack, so that's somewhere around twenty items, I can't remember the exact amount, and then we're picking another one of the pack as a surprise bonus, now making it not a surprise! Fail. We're going to ship a new game mode and then we have a couple of other exciting features that we've been working on for a while that should be really really fun. So yeah, we'll probably start talking about that stuff soon once we've figured out how to talk about it.
PC Gamer: It seems like the significant thing about the class updates was that for the whole period of time from the Medic update to the Engineer one, people knew what the schedule was. They knew there were going to be a certain number of updates. Do you think that was important?
Robin Walker: I think it's important. Lots of customers seem worried that at any moment we're just going to say “bye!” I guess I can understand that philosophy given that that's how many other companies have worked. At some point we're going to have to stop on TF2 and do something else. We'll have to take a bunch of what we've learned here and apply it to other products. Probably the best answer I have to this is one I gave in an interview with a fansite recently where they asked “what guarantee can you give us that you won't stop after the next update?” I can't give them a guarantee, but the reality is that I couldn't give them that guarantee at any point in the past.
If it had made sense for us to stop after the first two class updates then we probably would have stopped then. It didn't make sense then and it doesn't make sense now. We're still learning and we're still growing, building useful things both for our customers and for us and our future products, so at some point we'll stop but for now we've got lots of ideas and lots of stuff we probably want to do.