Team Fortress 2 has gone free to play, in a typically Valvian rug-from-under-our-feet move. While superficially a bit of a shock (albeit one a few people guessed), at the same time it makes perfect sense. Some four years down the line, ongoing sales of the game were surely pretty minimal, making the only real options to restore Team Fortress’s big money-making potential either to move onto a sequel or larger, paid upgrade packs. Neither of these would have been popular with the fanbase (which isn’t the same as saying the fanbase wouldn’t have bought them, of course. You know you would have).
The other reason for the free-to-playisation, I half suspect, is getting there before someone else did.
We've seen various efforts in this field previously, but they've tended towards either the casual or the retro. All of a sudden, there’s a properly high-end, high-budget shooter out there for free, which means whoever tries to saunter along with their own offering sometime soon - for instance Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon project or PlanetSide Next - no longer has the open goal they once might have done. Team Fortress 2 already puts most multiplayer shooters to shame: think how fearsome an opponent it must be for anyone planning a free to play one, where budgets and investments aren’t always the equal of their retail peers. Speaking of which - how many people are going to want to go and stump up £30 for something like Brink when they could have TF2 for free? Valve’s game has always cast a tall shadow, and far from being rendered tawdry or being an admission of defeat by the move to play, it’s just gotten taller.
Team Fortress 2 has been a microtransaction game on the quiet for some time, via its hat-centric Mann Store, which I'm sure kept some cash coming in, but the only way to meaningfully make its audience bigger - and thus the potential microtransactors more numerous - would be to remove any price whatsover from it. Even a nominal 99 pennies charge is a turn off to some - it’s the act (or hassle) of paying that keeps some people away from purchases as much as it is stinginess.
The microtransactions are a fly in TF2's oft-celebrated ointment, of course. I’ve read all too many comments bemoaning TF2’s slow transformation into a item-collection game as well as a team-based shooter, and there’s clearly no way that’s going to change now. The Mann Store seems to have been fairly successful for Valve, so expect a fair few updates to it over the coming months. I’m still faintly amazed that the hats and whatnot have taken off as much as they have, given this remains a game about pretty fixed classes and that you don’t actually get to see your own character as your play. If it’s enough it’s enough, but I wonder if it will need to step up to something larger at some point. So what happens next time a new map is released? Or - and I float this entirely speculatively - a new class?
There’s no precedent for this yet, of course, and I absolutely dread the community fallout if it did happen (even though we’ve been given a hell of a lot of free TF2 content over the years). There’s also no sign of it on the horizon: Valve are saying right now that “The entire game can be played without making a purchase. All game modes, classes, and maps are available.” There's a very good chance, given how good they've been to us with TF2 over the years, that will remain the case forever and ever, but I can't imagine the question of how much they could earn from a map-pack or something hasn't been at least floated.
Another important point to bear in mind: “Nearly every weapon is available through achievements, drops, or crafting.” It’ll take you a long, long time to get everything, but filling that inventory for free definitely isn’t impossible. As it stands right now, this is one of the least cynical approaches to free to play gaming’s ever seen. Much of this is because TF2’s already made a ton of money, I don’t doubt, but hopefully it’s also a sign that Valve don’t want to impose the worst excesses of microtransactions upon us. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if they were testing the waters for a future release - DotA 2 still makes an awful lot of sense for free-to-play, given its potentially large character and skill roster - so hopefully their relatively gentle approach with TF2 sets a positive precedent. Of course, having the considerable might of Steam makes things a lot easier for them - they can promote new items, DLC or whatever direct to millions of eyes every time you start your PC up. Valve are nicer than most, without a shadow of a doubt - but they sure can afford to be.
So what happens now? Well, I’ll be pretty surprised if TF2 doesn’t become enormous again, for a while at least. There’s probably a whole bunch of people currently experiencing what we all got so excited about back in 2007 (albeit with a little more self-interested collectormania), plus I don't imagine Valve intend to power down the viral marketing cannon for a while.
And that’s the thing - a game released in 2007 is still headline news, still taking risks, still being a viral advertising hit, still setting precedents and helping define the landscape for the rest of the industry. Whether you still play Team Fortress 2, whether you moved on from it long ago, whether you’re only just getting around to it or whether you hate it from the pit of your soul, I’d seriously question the wisdom of anyone who doesn’t admire it.