Interview: Valve on the future of Team Fortress 2

PC Gamer: TF2 is a lot less lethal than most of the really popular shooters, and the time it really shows is when you're fighting a Heavy, or you are a Heavy. It does a have a really distinctive feel. When you're close up it's fast enough that it's convincing, but it doesn't feel like any other weapon because it's just this roar of noise and you have an instinctive sense of how long it's going to take to kill someone.

Robin Walker: That's another good example. Combat in TF2 is deliberately a lot more lethal up close. We scaled down damage over distance, and that was a deliberate attempt to make combat at distance to take longer and allow you the choice, and give you more time to make the choice of closure or retreat and so on. Up close it resolves very quickly. Was that a really good decision? It's debatable, it certainly helped to resolve some problems we saw with playtesters. Whether the game overall could be better without it is an interesting thing that we could test.

PC Gamer: It seems with TF2, every time you create a differential like that you create an opportunity for a class to exploit it, so the sniper bypasses the damage dropoff. And the fact that you can't always kill someone in one hit means you can have classes that are all about killing someone in one hit, like the Spy.

Robin Walker: Yeah, exactly.

PC Gamer: The item system seems to be struggling to make sense to me without trading or some kind of intentionality to it. The difference between my backpack and someone else's is random stuff like hats, and dupes. Is the plan to go beyond that and have a situation where my Spy is completely different to your Spy in some way that I've chosen?

Robin Walker: The short answer is we have pieces of that coming, and trading is in the next update, so that's going to resolve that. Crafting at a high level was our way of doing, a selection of drops. One of the things people asked for is “I want to be able to work towards something”. The problem is poisoning the game in some way. If we say, ' if you want more soldier items you have to play soldier' than we start to affect the gameplay in a negative way.

PC Gamer: Isn't that what you currently do? With achievements, I mean.

Robin Walker: Sort of, but the achievements are completed rapidly, right? People assume that, and it is a factor, one of the reasons that we can't do performance related ties to item drops of any kind is that they'll get cheated. People will farm them, they'll farm them incredibly efficiently, and that's a big negative. The other problem is that it would affect the game itself, right? No matter what metric we chose there would be some part of the gameplay that was more efficient at generating that performance than others.

Let's say we pick kills. Payload maps contribute less kills than Capture the Flag maps. Now everyone feels dumb for not playing CTF. By always sticking to play time we say “you continue to play the game however the heck you want to play it”. Then we said 'how do we get you to feel like you have some influence over your drops?'

Well, crafting was the solution to that, you can work your way towards something you care about over time, and it also gave you a reason to care about dupes and so on, so that's the history of it, I guess. We've done a bunch of exploring on this system, going back almost a year and a half. The community's found pieces of this, data files we've accidentally shipped here and there and so on.

We've done Diablo style random attribute generation and all kinds of items and we never managed to figure out was how to do it in a way that we felt didn't make the game incredibly complex. We like large scale differences. The Demoman running around with the sword and the shield next to a Demoman without it is, they're like archetypes, subclasses that are easily understood, that are visibly understood. It gets a lot trickier when we get to subtle things. We'll try that, we're still trying lots of things. It'll be interesting to see, my suspicion is there's some kind of balance between it all that's interesting.

PC Gamer: If you're tying time played to random item drops, and you're tying random item drops to intentional items in that you craft them to get what you want. Why can't you just have the time played be points you spend to unlock something.

Robin Walker: I mean, we can, right? But the short answer to that is, why doesn't an MMO let you get the item you want? That's the reality of it. The truth of the matter is that players play longer when we give them incentives. We have to find a balance between giving them what they want and the degree to which we give them what they want. This has been well studied in terms of psychology. There's plenty of studies that'll show you how efficiently.

People will eat all the sugar they can until they're sick. They won't balance it, they can destroy the entertainment value of something if you give them the lever that lets them destroy their entertainment value, so we have to find a balance between that.

PC Gamer: But it seems like, for items, your philosophy has always been that everyone should be able to get the items quickly.

Robin Walker: Not necessarily.

PC Gamer:You said you didn't want to poison the game by tying unlocks to a particular type of performance, and I said you are doing that with achievements in a sense, and your answer to that was that achievements are over very quickly.

Robin Walker: Yeah. But not all of our items are tied to achievements, and we've been slowly growing that number. There are a couple of things to think about.

One: the set of items that are most valued in the world, hats, are not tied to achievements, right? And the other thing is that we're slowly introducing the community submitted items that are not tied to achievements. When we do PR around a set of specific new items, the cruel thing would seem to be, okay, update's out and now you don't get it. Given our old system, you may never get it, a year from now or five years from now. That wasn't very nice, so we fixed that.

Now, when we do PR around a set of items, the achievements are a way of saying, the items we've talked up a bunch, you're going to get them. The items that the community is obviously valuing more, items like hats and so on, cosmetic stuff, those are harder. There's a direct tie between the rarity and the value of those things. It's not subtle, it's very direct. If we let people get them easily, they would be valued very little, that's just the fact of the matter.

PC Gamer: I was just saying it seems like you could tie play time to earning weapons that you've advertised and leave hats as random, and leave community items as random.

Robin Walker: How's it different from what we have, sorry?

PC Gamer: Right now you have to use achievements to work towards an item when it first comes out.

Robin Walker: Or you can get it through drops.

PC Gamer: Yeah, but that doesn't happen in general.

Robin Walker: Yeah, the achievements are the primary way people do it, yeah.

PC Gamer: It means everyone plays that class immediately to get those items, which seems like, even if it's for a short time, you're poisoning the experience.

Robin Walker: Yeah. We've gone back and forth on that a bunch and interestingly we've received feedback from customers over all the months we've done this arguing both cases. During the Spy/Sniper we tried to measure how long takes to settle down. It looked like within a week it was back to normal. What we felt was, it's like a party that lasts for a couple of days, you know, TF is different for a week, and we felt like it's a benefit to us that the spike in the update, around the PR and excitement and the new stuff always is followed up by this spike in the gameplay. Everyone goes a little crazy and has fun. We did leave that in but it has been debated about much.

PC Gamer: That makes sense.

Continue to part two, where Robin talks hats, movies, meeting the team, and facestabs. And let us know what you think of the Valve's plans for Team Fortress 2, now that the class updates are complete.