Valve has once again turned to Team Fortress 2 as the studio’s outlet for experimentation, this time with a daring move to make the triple-A game entirely free to play.
The Orange Box game has undergone a radical transformation since its 2007 release; with more than 200 updates made to the PC edition. But today’s patch is billed as the most daring yet, with PC and Mac customers given the 'full experience' without ever needing to pay anything at all.
And in an exclusive interview with Develop – now live – Valve’s Robin Walker assured that Team Fortress 2 would only be monetised by microtransaction payments.
No advertising model will be pursued, Walker said. No premium subscription model will be used. No cynical “pay-to-win” options will be implemented, he assured.
In-game items will now be the only way Valve gets any money from Team Fortress 2. But again, Walker assured that the number of gratis in-game items – which are released on a daily basis – would not dry up.
“We've been toying with the idea of making Team Fortress free-to-play ever since the Mann-conomy update [in September 2010],” Walker said.
“The data we got back from that update leads us to believe that TF2 would be more successful as a completely free product.”
However, Walker said there was no data yet to suggest that the free-to-play model would be appropriate for other Valve games.
"It seems dangerous to assume that [free-to-play would work] for all our products," he said.
The Washington-based studio, freed from the contraints of retail, has the liberty to experiment with its digital products and its avid Steam community – something that would not be possible to implement across brick and mortar game stores.
“Over the years we've done a bunch of price experimentations with Team Fortress 2,” Walker said, “going all the way down to $2.49 in our random one-hour Halloween sales.
“The more we've experimented, the more we've learned there are fundamentally different kinds of customers, each with their own way of valuing the product.”
He said making a triple-A game completely free to play would teach the studio much more about its customers.
"We'll know a heck of a lot more in a couple of months, and that's the kind of thing that gets us excited around the office," he said.
The wider hope is that Team Fortress 2 going free will help allure the customers that aren’t willing to pay a flat fee for the game – a move that ties in well with Valve’s “games as a service” model.
That well-referenced credo stresses the importance of deeply engaging with a gaming community; to learn everything about the customer and adapt to their tastes and budget.
“We’re always improving on the relationship we have with our customers, and we’re willing to run experiments if we think it will help us learn how to do that better,” Walker said.
He added that a key motivation for making Team Fortress 2 free is the desire to get as many people as possible playing online.
“It's a belief of ours that in multiplayer games it's generally true that the more people playing the game, the higher value the game has for each individual customer.
“The more players, the more available servers in your area, the wider variety of other players you'll find, the greater the opportunity for new experiences, and so on.”