Team Fortress 2’s transition to free-to-play is a stunning display of the potential of the F2P system. At the Game Developers Conference this week they announced that overall revenues for TF2 after the F2P transition were 12 times higher than monthly sales of the actual game pre-transition.
They also revealed that when they instituted the TF2 item store (the Mann Co. Store), about 9 months before the F2P transition, revenues from the store alone were four times higher than sales of the game.
Valve’s Joe Ludwig, who ran the GDC session, spoke extensively about how Valve worked to get the F2P system to run effectively, Gamasutra reports.
It appeared that even from the beginning, TF2 wasn’t fitting into the typical AAA boxed game business model. Ludwig noted:
The trouble is, when you’re a AAA box game, the only people who can earn you new revenue are the people who haven’t bought your game. This drives you to build new content to attract new people. There’s a fundamental tension between building the game to satisfy existing players and attract new players.
This led to all the large updates that TF2 is known for, like the Pyro Update and the Sniper vs Spy Update, which include new maps, weapons, and, of course, hats. However, in addition to attracting new players, the major updates were meant to ensure that existing players continued to check in on the game. So, Valve decided to roll out trailers for the updates to pique interest and gain media attention.
The trailers served to engage the community in a discourse about what players wanted to see in the game. Yeah, they introduced new items and mechanics, but they didn’t confirm which items and mechanics would be included in the update. By browsing forums, Valve could see what parts of the trailer players were most interested in. Ludwig explains:
We found people in the forums talking about how cool it would be if the Pyro could light the sniper’s arrows on fire. To be honest, we hadn’t considered it, but we were able to implement it by the time the update shipped… [The players] didn’t realize it, but they were indirectly voting on the content of the update.
If a F2P system is going to work, a company has to ensure that they can maintain player interest in the game. This is something TF2 has done exceptionally well, with the comics, updates, and Meet The… shorts, and most importantly with community contribution systems. Players can create maps and submit proposals for items, and Valve sometimes picks them up and incorporates them into updates. Ludwig noted that, as of right now, more than half of the items in TF2 and 19 of the maps are community-created.
While all of this community engagement stuff is great, it isn’t really going to earn you any money when you transition to a F2P model. So Valve opened the Mann Co. Store in September 2010, and it was an immediate success. Like I mentioned, it brought in four times more revenue than the game itself. But why was the store embraced by the community instead of spurring them into a rabid anti-DLC frenzy? Because any item or weapon that the store carried could be obtained for free by random drops or crafting, so nobody felt forced to use the store. Valve executed it in such a way that it didn’t imbalance the game. Ludwig explained:
We dealt with the pay to win concern in a few ways. The first was to make items involve tradeoffs, so there’s no clear winner between two items. But by far the biggest thing we did to change this perception was to make all the items that change the game free. You can get them from item drops, or from the crafting system. It might be a little easier to buy them in the store, but you can get them without paying. The only items we sell exclusive to the store are cosmetic or items optional to gameplay.
We all saw how well this worked with the Valentine’s Day DLC, where you could drop $100 on a digital ring to send to your sweetheart, which, if accepted, would alert everyone playing TF2 that he/she accepted it. If you happened to be playing TF2 that week, you know exactly how many people bought into that, even if you initially thought, “How many people are actually going to pay for something so useless?” The answer is an obscene number.
So anyway, this brings us to the final problem of the F2P system: how to keep players who paid for the game from getting pissed off about it. The answer in the case of TF2 is easy: give them a hat. So players who paid get the Proof of Purchase hat, larger backpack sizes, and more crates (which really only serves to compel you to buy keys, thereby giving Valve even more of your money).
It’s been less than a year since TF2 went F2P, it happened on June 23, 2011, but already we’ve been witness to how incredibly successful it’s been. Ludwig notes, “This is just the beginning of taking the lessons we’ve learned from TF2 and applying them to Steam itself. It was risky, everything could have gone horribly wrong, but we felt it was worth the risk to try the new business model.”