We write about FPSes each week in Triggernometry, a mixture of tips, design criticism, and a celebration of virtual marksmanship.
When you donate your body to science, there’s a general understanding that you don’t expect to use that body again. It’s old, or parts of it are broken, and you hope that some doctor will be able to learn a valuable thing or two about pancreases or elbow cartilage with the help of your husk. Whatever the outcome of that mortal tinkering, it’s a transaction with no return policy.
Despite the many transplants, facelifts, and amputations Valve has subjected Team Fortress 2 to, it refuses to die. No FPS, and perhaps no game in any genre, has endured such aggressive and continuous experimentation and lived to be one of the most-played games on PC. It’s a body that’s sustained 494 surgeries, including:
- Becoming free-to-play
- The addition of a full-fledged item economy (item drops, crafting, market, trading…)
- Steam Workshop integration; transitioning away from primarily developing TF2 internally to sourcing a significant amount of TF2’s new content from the community
- Continuous holiday events that transform TF2 into, among other things, bumper cars
- The use of TF2 as a vehicle for greater Valve projects, like The Saxxy Awards (Source Filmmaker/replay editor), Mac compatibility
- The addition of Mann vs. Machine, a cooperative horde mode
- Numerous crossover promotions via pre-ordering other games
- Having its nine carefully-designed classes (and meta) reinvented many times over by the addition of new items
TF2 is a guinea pig grafted to Frankenstein’s monster created on The Island of Dr. Moreau. Over eight years it’s become an organism that Valve exposes to new stimuli and learns from watching what happens in order to improve other games or aspects of Steam. CS:GO’s post-launch addition of item crates is one example of something prototyped in TF2.
But typically, there’s a cost to all that tinkering, some unexpected side effects. Your hair falls out. You get a rash. TF2’s forced mutations probably would have killed weaker games. An MMO going free-to-play is often tantamount to defibrillation, and often to the detriment of original designs. If Gearbox had welded an item economy to Borderlands 2, added competitive modes, or handed off most of its development to community mapmakers and modders, what sort of unplayable mess would it be?
What makes TF2 durable enough to survive all these changes and emerge each time remaining one of the most-played and beloved PC games over the past decade?
Meet the Writer
TF2’s characters, and Valve’s commitment to telling their story, form a thick, regenerating skin. However many hats, hoods, rainbow flamethrowers, Street Fighter references, mutant bread, or $10 Deus Ex arms Valve throws on its nine mercenaries, they retain their charm, and their personality carries TF2 forward.
Throughout its life, TF2’s characters have softened the blow of its big systemic and mechanical changes. They’re the sugar in the medicine. When Valve strapped an economy to TF2, they didn’t explain it as a series of dry bullet points (although there was a FAQ). A bare-chested Australian arms dealer shouted the news at us. When TF2 became playable on Mac, its characters visited a fictional Apple store to poke fun at the unexpected news that TF2 was coming to a platform that’s considered to be one of the PC’s rivals. “It sounds like some kinda hospital for fruit,” the Scout says.
When TF2 was about to become a free-to-play game, arguably the biggest single change to the game that’s been made, Valve understood that it had to be handled delicately. (Perhaps revisiting this announcement could’ve improved Valve’s recent handling of paid mods.) Jog your memory: in 2011, there was still plenty of discomfort among western gamers about free-to-play. Even with League of Legends in the wild, Korean titles like Maple Story and Facebook games had given F2P a bad stigma.
When TF2 went free, the announcement was one piece of a five-day package of stuff rolled into the Uber Update, which Valve deliberately built and billed as “The biggest, most ambitious update in the history of Team Fortress 2.” Every class but the Engineer got new items, and most got a whole set. True to my point, the Uber Update culminated with one of its characters literally performing surgery on another, the Meet the Medic video—arguably the biggest piece of the update in all considering how wildly anticipated each of the class videos have been.
Valve’s used a similar approach for reinventing individual classes. One of Valve’s attitudes throughout TF2 is that they didn’t want individual classes to stagnate around an optimal strategy. And in order to manage that aspect of the metagame Valve have been completely willing to put the very identities of each class on the chopping block. For the first couple years of TF2, sentry turrets were the hinge upon which most of the rest of the mechanics swung: it gave everyone else something to do, something to kill, something to support. Arguably no other single thing in TF2 was more integral to how the game was played.
And Valve demolished that paradigm. In the 2010 Engineer update the Engineer went from being a gun babysitter to being a class that you could build as an offensive harasser, or an even more defensive (but more active) turret operator. Engineers gained a mini-sentry that deployed almost instantly, and an item that allowed them to manually aim turrets (and deflected two-thirds of incoming damage while doing it). The manual aiming of turrets even allowed Engineers to reach whole new areas of the environment with sentry jumping. If that wasn’t enough, the update made the previously static guns movable.
Short of turning TF2 into a JRPG, I can’t think of a more insane change than all of that. How did Valve sell it to players, some of whom had spent years getting invested in what it meant to “be an Engineer?” It wrapped the Engineer update in four days of mini-reveals, hidden links to images, and added a Golden Wrench competition across the entire event that was straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The teaser video tied the update nicely to the Engineer’s personality, too: he’s an inventor, and the update is a collection of his new creations.
As an FPS critic, I have plenty of things to appreciate about TF2, about the way it mingles Quake’s DNA with a playfulness that softens the blow of defeat, about how it applies Valve’s ideas about readability so well. But its longevity, and its distinct ability to survive its own transformative changes, is owed to how consistently Valve has integrated storytelling and its international cast of mercenaries into practically every patch.
TF2’s updates aren’t content patches, they're happenings in the Team Fortress 2 universe that inspire their own lore. The Administrator, Zepheniah Mann, Saxton Hale, Australium, Australian Christmas, the Bombinomicon, the towers of hats, the Scout's mom—this stuff isn't window dressing, it's the connective tissue that's kept TF2's identity solid as it's mutated continuously over eight years. Valve has been able to spin and contextualize wild changes to TF2—many of which were made so that Valve could learn something about player behavior—not as new versions but as new episodes in an ever-evolving Saturday morning cartoon.