Now more than a year after its release, Team Fortress 2, Valve’s stylish class-based first-person shooter, still draws dozens of servers full of skilled players at any given moment. From day one, it’s provided players with an extremely satisfying multiplayer experience. But while the core gameplay is as strong as ever, it’s not what has kept the TF2 community thriving well past day 400. For that, you can thank Valve’s ongoing improvements, additions and adjustments to the game.
New downloadable maps and gameplay modes in the months following a game’s initial launch have become commonplace, but the slew of class-specific unlockable achievements and special weapon upgrades that Valve is slowly rolling out for each of the nine playable classes in TF2 have tremendously boosted the title’s replayability. Unlocking these class upgrades requires you to rack up a number of challenging achievements. Fortunately, the task is highly addictive and the rewards extremely satisfying.
TF2 has existed in some form or another for around eight years, according to Valve’s Robin Walker. One of the creators of the original Team Fortress mod, Walker says the version of the sequel that hit store shelves along with The Orange Box took about a year and a half to build, but it benefited from numerous gameplay experiments Valve tinkered with during the lengthy development cycle. While the game transformed substantially from one iteration to the next, the team’s drive to improve the gameplay based on player feedback continues to usher in many additional and exciting changes.
“We always planned to continue evolving TF2 after shipping, but it wasn’t planned that we’d focus on class updates,” says Walker. Shortly after launch, his team immediately set about the task of releasing frequent, smaller updates to the game via Valve’s Steam service. These updates made subtle improvements to gameplay and performance but didn’t garner much attention or draw many new players to the game. Eventually, the team switched tactics, focusing instead on releasing larger chunks of high-profile content featuring tangible changes to each of the game’s character classes, in addition to minor bug-fixes and balance tweaks.
The first of three major updates rolled out in 2008 focused on the Medic class, giving players 36 new achievements to unlock three new items. It also introduced a new map and Payload, a new game mode. The next substantial update focused on the Pyro class, adding more achievements and unlockable weapons to the pile. It also added a compressed air blaster to the default flamethrower and two new player-created maps. A massive third update provided the Heavy class with extra achievements, boxing gloves, a new minigun, a health-restoring snack, a new arena mode and more extra maps.
The team quickly discovered hinging updates on each of the nine character classes got the response from players they were looking for. “The updates we’ve released have had a considerable impact on both the ongoing player numbers and the sales of the product,” says Walker. Not only has each update drawn in many new players, but a substantial number of them stay after the initial spike in interest.
“The response [to TF2] has been great, both in terms of customers’ direct feedback to us and in terms of sales of the game,” says Walker. “Early on, I think there was some concern by customers as to what the scope of our ongoing work was to be, but at this point I think they understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
Feedback is the key, as it’s the players themselves that have been one of the major driving forces behind the continuous improvements implemented in the game.
The Push from Players
Walker and his team have found many players enjoy participating in the ongoing development of the game. They spend a lot of time putting together ideas, discussing them in forums and sending them to the developers directly. This feedback has had a massive impact on Valve’s ongoing work. “Pretty much every day someone on the TF2 team brings up something from a player that we spend some time discussing,” he notes.
“There are many large-scale course corrections that have been heavily influenced by player feedback,” says Walker. “Players have driven our entire approach to designing achievements, the way we tie unlockables to those achievements and the design of those new weapons themselves. The choices we made within the Medic and Heavy updates were very much the result of the ways that players have used that combination of classes within the game. The addition of the payload game mode came from players requesting an old Team Fortress Classic map called Hunted, and describing what they did and didn’t like in that map. None of this is really that unexpected, though, because our internal expectation is that we are to be driven by the players themselves.”
The team interacts with players in the TF2 community as frequently as possible by playing regularly on public servers, participating in tournaments, reading forums and blog posts and responding to emails. More recently, it called upon the community to brainstorm development ideas for the Heavy class update. The response was very positive, and it’s something the team is likely to explore again in the future.
Coming Down the Pike
At first, each of the three class updates launched in two-month intervals, but things slowed down after the summer when some of the TF2 development team members were tapped to wrap up the competitive multiplayer component of Valve’s zombie-centric shooter Left 4 Dead. They applied lessons learned from the ongoing development of TF2 to Left 4 Dead and have even brought back some ideas from the latter to potentially implement in TF2.
With Left 4 Dead now launched, the team is once again turning its attention to future TF2 updates. The Scout is the next class slated for the special treatment, and Walker expects the update will be available early this year. Additionally, the team is juggling a number of side projects at the moment, including finally bringing a year’s worth of the downloadable content and upgrades to the Xbox 360 version of the game. A new Payload map is in the works, more community maps are on the way and the team will soon unveil a very different new game mode.
As work continues, Valve is also slowly chipping away at a laundry list of problems that crop up over time between the character classes. Among other large-scale issues on the agenda, Walker says the Spy’s disguise has nearly reached the end of its lifetime. Over time, average players have become much better at detecting and dispatching disguised Spies, making the ability pretty useless for all but the sneakiest of players. Additionally, Walker feels the Engineer’s sentry guns have become “too binary.” They’re highly lethal to some players and wholly ineffective against others. Sentry guns are also easily dispatched by skilled players, leaving Engineers with little recourse. Keeping a delicate balance is important, as is adjusting problems that arise from the way players utilize the different abilities of each class in the game.
Though there are still six more classes to upgrade, the release of an eventual new class isn’t out of the question. Rumors of a possible 10th class teased in an Easter Egg found in the first mission of Left 4 Dead set players abuzz. Walker says they haven’t made any decisions about adding new classes yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re not considering them. “We’ve got several new class designs floating around, some of which we like a lot, but right now we’re focusing on the broadening of our existing classes through the addition of the unlockables,” he says. In the meantime, the weapon selections offered through the upgrades have created subclasses that let players specialize in certain tactics, such as using the Pyro’s Backburner flamethrower to ambush opponents.
“We’ve got some ideas as to where we’d like to go, but like always, we’ll be trying to stay fluid and responsive to customer feedback. We’re aiming to keep shipping class updates, trying out new game modes and evolving the way we can bring players into the ongoing design of the game,” Walker says. “We’re still very excited about TF2, and in particular, the safer test bed for innovation that it represents. We aim to try out some riskier, and hopefully more fun, design choices in the near future, with a view to learning from our players as to what works and what doesn’t.”
This model has been very effective, says Walker, and Valve plans to continue it for the foreseeable future. The ease of releasing updates through Steam factors heavily into its appeal. It creates a crucial means for quickly measuring the effectiveness of design choices. “We can make a change, receive feedback on it immediately from actual customers and then improve it,” he says. “We can innovate in this model without fear of getting too far off the tracks, because the measurement process (i.e. real player feedback) will steer us away from the edge.”
Despite his most concerted efforts, Nathan Meunier has yet to be shot, burned, bludgeoned and blown up in a single life.