In August of 2009, Valve decided in its infinite wisdom to give out exactly 11,111 virtual items for the game Team Fortress 2, which continues to receive significant updates even three years after its initial release. These items were army medals that can be worn by the Soldier, one of TF2’s nine classes. They were shiny. They were new. And people coveted them.
However, there were many that held the opinion that Valve was actually unwise by only granting the item to the first 11,111 people to discover the hidden page of an update announcement. The Steam forums filled up with complaints about fairness, time zones, ratio of happy to unhappy customers, and the lack of opportunity to appreciate someone’s work.
Many valid points were made throughout the months of ranting and raving. Valve took things in stride and continued to roll out updates with new, equal opportunity items and tweaks to the random item drop system. “Surely,” thought the people, “they had learned their lesson.”
And then came along something even shinier.
The Golden Wrench was a promotional feature of the anticipated Engineer class update. Instead of getting lucky by being one of the first people to find a hidden page, in order to have a chance at receiving a Golden Wrench, a player needed to craft. Crafting in Team Fortress 2 consisted of combining two or more items together to create a single new item; Valve hinted that a player would have a chance at receiving a Golden Wrench each time they crafted.
An early YouTube video showed off the wrench in action. When an enemy was killed by a Golden Wrench melee attack, their ragdoll body would turn into solid gold, à la Midas’ touch. It was a unique death animation that only 100 people would have. Since only 100 Golden Wrenches were to be released, it was far rarer than the 11,111 Soldier medals and was extremely coveted.
Expectedly, the backlash from the players was immense. On top of the arguments that were posted before, there were complaints about how the distribution method was not as random as players were originally led to believe. From Valve’s initial announcement, it could be gleaned that each and every act of crafting by a player would grant them a shot at getting the wrench. However, it would soon turn out that the distribution system was designed to release a Golden Wrench at specific times and that the next person to craft something after a wrench was released would receive it. This was to ensure that the wrenches would not be given out all at once, but players who had crafted everything that they could on day one felt tricked and misled by Valve. The wailing and gnashing of teeth was the background music of the Steam forums for months to come. Enter lucky winner #31, Jonathan “WingspanTT” Tran.
“I was crafting the last item I needed for a hat and I got the wrench instead,” explains WingspanTT. “The server flipped out, everyone wanted to die by it [and experience the unique death animation].”
Every time a player received a Golden Wrench, a global announcement went out and every TF2 player online could see it.. Additionally, the player’s name would be added to a list on the official Team Fortress 2 website. Like other Golden Wrench owners, WingspanTT instantly became famous and popular among TF2 players.
“I decided to delete the wrench pretty early,” explains Tran. “It was a few days after [another Golden Wrench owner,] Grantz had his deleted by a hacker. That’s when people realized it makes a global message when you [delete the Wrench] … I was following that story and there was so much drama. I started thinking if I did it, I could make a big ado about it.”
Tran realized that he could use the global announcements to make a statement about the TF2 community’s obsession with virtual goods. By destroying the object that many so desperately wanted, he hoped he might get TF2 fans to realize how absurd the desire to possess something made of pixels really was.
“After I first announced it, I had a lot of hateful responses,” he says. “I thought controversy breeds interest and that interest could be something that could be used in a more constructive manner. It seemed kind of poetic to take the divisive item and bring the community back together and use something that’s not real to make actual, real things happen for people who need it.”
It didn’t stop there. A comment on the Steam forums brought Tran’s attention to Child’s Play, a charity founded by the creators of the gaming webcomic, Penny Arcade. Every year, at Christmas time, the charity uses the money it raises to buy videogame hardware and software for sick kids in children’s hospitals all over the world. The charity would provide an even better medium for Tran’s poetry in motion. In an effort to drive more donations, Tran reached out to other Golden Wrench owners.
“It started very slow. After dozens of hours of begging though, I got three more Golden Wrench owners to sign on. Then things picked up,” he explains.
The plan was that people would donate money to see Tran destroy his Golden Wrench. He hoped to reveal another Golden Wrench owner willing to destroy his Golden Wrench for charity at each monetary milestone. Eventually, fourteen owners joined in to do some good, including Grantz, who had his wrench reinstated by Valve.
The Golden Charity event had many incentives for donors. The first thousand people to donate $10 or more would be featured on the Golden Charity site. A special Steam Community group was made just for donors to join so that they could display their generosity. Additionally, the top twenty donors would be invited into a server with the charitable Golden Wrench owners and would get front row, splatter-zone seats to watch the Wrenches get used one last time before they were destroyed.
The Golden Charity ultimately saw fourteen wrenches destroyed and 2,000 donors helping to raise more than $31,000. However, Tran still has mixed feelings regarding the level of success of his event.
“I am always surprised how few people know about it nowadays. So in that regard, no [the message I was trying to spread didn’t get around that much]. But ultimately, the fundraiser was such a huge success that I can’t really say anything other than I’m ecstatic with the results. I thought it would be like $2,000 max,” he says.
As of this writing, Child’s Play is already nearing the $450,000 milestone and is poised to deliver games to sick children in the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Egypt, showing the world that gamers are able to come together for something besides than LAN parties.
It is only natural for gamers to obsess over collectibles. Going for that 100% completion rate is one of our main motivators, after all. When an individual or a group of individuals is willing to take a stance against virtual items, it is definitely something worth noticing, even more so when they are able to do something positive and potentially life-changing in the real world.
Murray Chu is a freelance writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Jonathan “WingspanTT” Tran is the organizer of the Golden Charity and runs the gaming tactics blog, Top Tier Tactics (http://www.toptiertactics.com).