Team Fortress 2 is now over a decade old, but it consistently ranks among Steam’s top 10 games in terms of active player count. This surely wouldn’t be possible without all the free updates Valve has released for the game. Since today marks the 10 year anniversary of the release, here are the seven best Team Fortress 2 updates over the game’s first decade, with insight from our interview with the lead designer about the transition to microtransactions and a free-to-play model.
Gold Rush Update – April 29, 2008
The first major content update for Team Fortress 2 brought a new map, a new mode called payload, three new medic weapons, and the “Meet the Scout” animated short. The update, named after the map that came with it, became known as the Medic Update among fans due to the weapon releases, which changed the way the medic class could be played. Gold Rush gave the medic the Blutsauger, a primary weapon that decreases the rate of health regeneration but increases health when shooting enemies; the Kritzkrieg, a Medi Gun replacement that gives critical hits to teammates when ÜberCharged instead of making them invincible; and the Ubersaw, which has a slower swing rate than the default melee weapon, but increases the ÜberCharge meter with each hit. The map Gold Rush was released as the first Payload map in Team Fortress 2, requiring the offense to push an explosives-laden cart into the enemy’s base before time runs out. Payload has since received 12 additional official maps and has become very popular among players.
Sniper vs. Spy Update – May 21, 2009
While the first four major updates to Team Fortress 2 focused on specific classes, the Sniper vs. Spy Update, as the name implies, heavily impacted two classes. Both the Sniper and Spy received three new weapons. The update also changed the way new weapons are unlocked to include an item drop system. Four new maps were brought to the game, including Pipeline, the first map for the Payload Race game type, which has both teams pushing their own cart of explosives while stopping the enemy from doing the same. Sniper vs. Spy also debuted the first of many popular comic strips Valve made for Team Fortress 2.
Then there’s the introduction of hats, which have gone on to become the backbone of the game’s economy. Why hats, as opposed to any other cosmetic item? “[Hats were] actually a very technically driven choice,” says Team Fortress 2’s lead designer Robin Walker. “We had nine characters who'd been designed without the expectation that we'd ever attach anything to them. Each character had several hundred animations, in which they moved their arms and legs around in all kinds of ways. We wanted to attach some new geometry onto them, without the geometry intersecting any of the rest of their body during any of those animations. The only zone around their body that was never intersected by any of their animations was above their head. So – hats!”
Mann-Conomy Update – September 30, 2010
After years of adding items to the game through achievements and random drops, Valve finally made the leap to microtransactions. The introduction of the Mann Co. Store, where players can buy and sell weapons, crates full of random loot, and keys to open those crates, alongside the item trading system, was the beginning of Team Fortress 2’s massive in-game economy.
“Until the Mann-Conomy update, our only method of making money with TF2 was through selling more copies of the game,” says Walker. “It was a bit of an obvious discrepancy between our development and business models. Our development model was to run the game as a service, which meant continually adding new content to TF2. But the business model of only selling the game itself has a very indirect relationship to that….The Mann-Conomy aimed to fix that by aligning the development and business models – if we could do that, we could relax and just focus on keeping our existing players happy.”
Walker also said the most challenging aspect of this was figuring out what people would spend money on that wouldn’t break the game’s balance or ruin the experience for players who didn’t spend money. “So we decided we'd aim for a system where microtransactions were focused on purely cosmetic things, in the hopes that it would still be interesting enough to players.”
Uber Update – June 23, 2011
New items, new weapons for every class except the engineer, and the “Meet The Medic” animated short were just the tip of the iceberg, because this update changed the game in a more significant way than just adding new content. The Uber Update turned Team Fortress 2 into a free-to-play game.
When asked about the thought process behind this massive change, Walker says it was easy. “It was actually a really simple decision to us – at the point where the bulk of our revenue was coming from existing users, it seemed obvious that we should stop charging people who wanted to join in.”
Valve’s original goal for TF2 was not free-to-play. According to Walker, it wasn’t until well after the Mann-Conomy Update that the studio put any real thought into the idea of free-to-play. Doing so quadrupled the game’s active player count and tripled the game’s revenue, according to a 2012 GDC talk by Valve programmer Joe Ludwig. Without having done so, I find it hard to believe the game would be as popular as it is today, not even taking into consideration that updates for the game would have likely slowed down a lot earlier.
Pyromania Update – June 27, 2012
The Pyromania Update brought a slew of new weapons and items, a new map called Doomsday, and a new mode for that map, Special Delivery. This mode sees two teams fighting over a single briefcase that must be brought to a platform that will slowly rise until the briefcase can be loaded into the nose of a missile, which then fires at the enemy base. The announcement also brought with it the final Meet the Team animated short, “Meet the Pyro.” The largest piece of content was the Source Filmmaker, which allows anyone to animate characters and objects within Valve’s Source engine and create videos of their own. Filmmakers can use objects from Team Fortress 2 and many other Source Engine games in their videos. A closed beta was released the same day as the Pyromania update, opening to the public weeks later. Since this update, fans have created a host of amazing videos with this tool, and Valve hosts an annual contest called the Saxxy Awards, named after the character Saxton Hale. Check out last year’s overall winner to see the impressive things people can do with the Source Filmmaker.
Mann vs. Machine Update – August 15, 2012
This update introduced a cooperative PvE mode to Team Fortress 2, Mann vs. Machine. The mode pits a team of up to six players against waves of robots who are trying to deliver a bomb to an objective point. Three new maps – Mannworks, Coal Town, and Decoy – were released for the mode. During Mann vs. Machine, players can purchase upgrades, new abilities, and power-ups for their characters using credits received in each match. Power-ups range from making a player invincible, to giving them five seconds of critical hits, to immediately returning them to the spawn room. Valve also introduced the Mann Up mode, which is like Mann vs. Machine, but players must purchase a Tour of Duty Ticket ($.99) to play for the chance to earn cosmetic items.
Meet Your Match Update – July 7, 2016
Meet Your Match brought the typical new cosmetics, taunts, achievements, and maps, but it also overhauled the way players find matches in Team Fortress 2. Casual mode replaced the quickplay option that was once in the game, and players could earn experience to level up to 150. These levels are shown cosmetically on a coin, but in no way affect gameplay. Competitive ranks is where the game gets serious. Competitive mode only has 18 tiers, but players can go up or down these tiers depending on how well they play. In competitive mode, only certain maps and modes are available and random luck factors are turned down by removing random bullet spread and random critical hits.
Ten years ago, Team Fortress 2 started with just three game modes and six maps. Now it features 14 game modes, over 100 official maps, more than 500 achievements, and an excess of 1,250 cosmetic items. It’s been a great first decade for Team Fortress 2. Given Valve’s apparent averseness to the number three, we might not get a full-fledged sequel anytime soon, but hopefully we’ll see another 10 years of TF2 updates. That’s fine by me.