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The TF2 Unlock Teacup-Storm

I've been out of the TF2 scene for a few months now, as all that focus on achievement-whoring and increasingly technical play turned me off the game somewhat - paranoia I couldn't keep up with The Kids as much as anything else. However, the combination of a masterful marketing effort and the promise of new toys that didn't require incredi-skill or soulless grinding to attain lured me back in today. Clearly, I've had a great time - the current free weekend means there's a palpable excitement on the servers, and some of the community maps that have sprung up during my time in the wilderness are pretty spectacular. (There's one with biplanes in the sky and an underground ice cave which was particularly gorgeous). The new weapon unlock system though - not so keen, and you may have caught some folk venting in our other TF2 threads.

Top bit of info to know before your bonce explodes in rage, however - I bounced a quick mail to Valve's very own Saxton Hale, TF2 lead-guy Robin Walker, who reckons there's some sort of bug in the system that's meaning people aren't getting unlocks even after hours of play. "Not at all how it's tuned," apparently. Which is, I think, the first time I've been relieved to hear a game has a bug - it means the problem will get fixed. Read on for my thoughts on the change and word on how it's supposed to work from the goodly Mister Walker.

Here's what the controversial change is in, a nutshell. Previously, gaining a new weapon/item required earning a certain number of achievements - some of which were pretty easy, some were enjoyably challenging, and some were just a silly grind that was totally divorced from what you'd naturally get up to in the game. Valve nobly tried to tweak the number and manner of achievements required for a new toy into something that wasn't quite so intimidating for the more casual TF2 player, but it never felt quite right - it was always a rich get richer system, the most practised players being rewarded with stuff that would make them only more fearsome on the battlefield.

So, with this update, Valve did the gentlemanly thing and scrapped the reliance on achievements to gain these unlocks altogether. Now, anyone can get any unlock - be it from the new Spy/Sniper pack or the old Heavy, Scout, Pyro and Medic ones - no matter how good/bad/laughably bad they are at the game. It is absolutely, entirely fair, and it ensures people are genuinely playing the game rather than disappearing into a cheerless, artificial pattern of achievement-hunting. And that's what these updates are for - to get people playing TF2, as TF2 is supposed to be played. This way, the playing field should be entirely level - a quiet acknowledgement that maybe everyone should have had everything in the first place after all. It also means the servers aren't as swamped with Spies and Snipers as one might have expected, as winning an upgrade is class-agnostic - so a Scout might win a flare gun, or a Heavy a piquant Jarate. It also means those creepy achievement servers are less in demand.

So all's fair in war and war, right? Technically, yes - but in practice, it feels unfair. I clocked up four hours of play since the update went live, and won nothing. Returning later in the day, I was granted Natascha whilst walking across a bridge, which was nice - but not one of the new incredi-toys. The presentation of it was disappointingly naff too - no sense of having found something, despite it being described as such - just a pop-up screen out of nowhere. Someone else said he'd won three flare guns, and that he'd already unlocked the flare gun during the Pyro update anyway, so he must have been really miffed. Meanwhile, I saw messages about others finding Ambassadors and Razorbacks occasionally pop-up, and I just stared aghast, gripped by childish jealousy of these obscenely lucky strangers and unable to do anything whatsoever about it. Where did they get those wonderful toys? Yes, it is true: I briefly became an Angry Internet Man.

The concept is certainly sound, but some combination of the execution and this bug has made for a frustrating experience today. Especially given the new weapons have been a big lure for lapsed players, but now they're finding they can't get access to them. Without seeing the intended frequency of drops in action, it's impossible to judged whether there's genuinely a problem with turning that concept into practice, or if everyone would be as happy as a Scout with a Taco if it weren't for this unfortunate bug.

We're told there'll be a post on the official TF2 blog, explaining exactly how the system works, soon. That'll be fascinating in and of itself, as hearing people repeatedly come up with crazy theories as to what the behind the scenes maths is, only to have it obviously disproved moments later, has made for some laughs. It'll almost be a shame to ruin the mystery... Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan became a whole lot less interesting when we found out he was a teacher, y'know?

Here's the full skinny from Robin Walker:

"As in everything else we do, we want to iterate, so this is really the first step towards our desired implementation. We also think we have bugs in the system as well, since we’re seeing some players not finding any items after a few hours of play, which is not at all how it’s tuned. We want unlockable drops to be a pretty regular occurrence for players, with the cosmetic hats being the rare finds."

Which sounds reasonable - I suspect a frequent trickle of items would be exciting rather than, as it currently is, frustrating. It almost make some sense of the current oddball collection of multiple duplicates - having more Flare Guns than everyone else could become a point of pride. Hope the problem's fixed soon, anyway - I want my jar of piss, dammit.

Update - the TF2 blog now has more details, including the revelation that item trading is on its way. The problem seems to persist for a lot of folk despite an apparent patch, however. This certainly hasn't been Valve's finest hour - but again, let's hope the planned changes make up for it.

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