Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer

2011 in Review, Part 2: Team Fortress 2

A special holiday feature, continued from part 1.

I’m a longstanding fan of Team Fortress 2. Out of all the current first person shooters, it’s the one most accommodating to casual players. The obvious class roles make it easy to jump into the fray and feel useful, and brutal first person shooter mainstays such as sniping and instant kills are toned down substantially. It’s also on my list of top five best looking games of all time – no small praise, considering most of its shooter brethren are wed to dull brown colour palettes and the uncanny valley

Team Fortress 2 was originally released in 2007, making it a seemingly untimely choice for a “best of 2011” list. In June of this year, however, Valve made the bold move of converting the game to a free-to-play model. Now anyone can play Team Fortress 2 absolutely free of charge – the entire game too, not some skeleton version intended to be a gateway drug to the real deal (looking at you World of Warcraft). This was a game changer not only for Valve but for the gaming industry as a whole.

Gamers have traditionally been unkind in their appraisal of free online games. The “free-to-play” moniker has commonly been interpreted as “not-good-enough-to-pay-for.” It was a purgatory where unapologetically niche indie titles, throwaway Korean grindfests, and flat-out bargain bin monstrosities resided. At a cursory glance, this appraisal was reinforced in 2011. The year saw a chain of online games, including mainstream titles such as DC Universe Online, All Points Bulletin, and Age of Conan, flounder and flop. After failing to attract a robust enough number of subscribers to remain profitable, these massive games resigned themselves to a free-to-play model in defeat.

A strange thing happened though. These titles, which had all but been written off, started generating more money than they ever had before. Microtransactions, it seems, were a license to print money. While the average player scoffed at the notion of paying fifteen dollars a month for a subscription, they didn’t think twice about dropping five dollars for a weapon or thirty dollars for a mount on a semi-regular basis. Nickels and dimes snowballed into hundreds, thousands, and then tens of thousands of dollars. This caused a light bulb to illuminate over the collective heads of the gaming industry: could free-to-play be the future?

Valve’s turnaround seems to confirm this supposition. Unlike DC Universe Online, Valve wasn’t forced into making Team Fortress 2 free. Considering its age and the notoriously short lifespan of first person shooters, Team Fortress 2 was doing swimmingly. It was the Jack LaLanne of the genre. The shift was made solely because, for the first time, a free-to-play game could be more profitable than a conventionally released title.

For better or for worse, Team Fortress 2 is the herald of a new age in online gaming. There are already analysts predicting that World of Warcraft and The Old Republic will be the last MMORPGs to require a monthly subscription, and others who claim franchises like Modern Warfare will soon eschew box sales entirely in favour of selling weapon and map packs. Regardless of what the future may hold, there is no arguing that 2011 marked the ascent of free-to-play.

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By Mathew
Michael Iantorno PhD Candidate, Game Designer, and Writer