Riches to “Rags”: The story of Team Fortress 2

“Welcome to Team Fortress 2. After nine years in development, hopefully it would’ve been worth the wait.”
When gamers around the world heard Gabe Newell speak those now iconic words in a simple in-game tutorial message on October 10th, 2007, few could predict what would become of the team-based shooter known as ‘Team Fortress 2’. Over ten years later, with countless objectives captured, payloads pushed, sentries sapped and memes galore, Team Fortress 2 stands tall as an ever-enduring juggernaut of gaming, the one that no matter what happens, never seems to stay dead.

But that adventure has not come without hardship.

TF2 has endured many identity changes, issues from inside the game to the development behind it, and various bumps and bruises this behemoth of a game has endured. In celebration of ten years of Team Fortress 2, we look over Team Fortress 2, all these years later.

An often-forgotten fact about Team Fortress 2 is that the way it’s presented was almost entirely different. Not regarding the marketing, or the graphical design, which still remarkably holds up to this day, but rather the game down to its core was almost entirely different. A quick dig around will yield a trailer for a game called ‘Team Fortress 2: Brotherhood of Arms’. And the differences could not be starker. This isn’t the Team Fortress 2 that we got, it looks more akin to mid-2000’s Call of Duty.
And indeed, that was the plan Valve had, to keep the game in line with its predecessor, Team Fortress Classic, which was a gritty, team-based shooter, a far cry from the goofy, bright and colourful Team Fortress 2 we know and love.

So, why the change?

Well, Valve made the decision to switch the development of Team Fortress 2 to their in-house engine, Source, which no doubt had a hand in delaying the game that was first shown at E3 1999. Then, in mid-2000, that same delay was officially announced by Valve.
And then…nothing. TF2 wasn’t heard from for six years, the only exception being Valve’s marketing director Doug Lombardi stating that TF2 was still being worked on. And then…the prodigal son made its grand return at E3’s 2006 Summer Showcase, displaying the now iconic visual design, revamped gameplay and all the new bells and whistles Valve had strapped on. TF2, as we know it today, was born.

To many, the gameplay of TF2 appears incredibly simplistic, almost to compliment the goofy and simplistic visual design, but any player with any significant amount of play time will know that this game has so many hidden layers, mechanics, tips and tricks to make even the most seasoned players confused from time to time. The way TF2’s unique classes blend together to create the perfect blend of unholy chaos is nothing short of magical. Although in some cases, the aforementioned unholy chaos can result in some somewhat questionable results.
For example, imagine co-ordinating a push with your entire team to capture the first objective, with all the bells and whistles of a team effort. Feeling the pure rush of accomplishment and success…only to have a rogue Spy backstab each and every one of you, essentially crippling your team’s firepower for a whole minute. All because each player was so hyper-focused on the point that you all collectively forgot to watch your flank. Then the game devolves into one of two paths. Either the team regroup and act like nothing happened, or somebody decides to go into the team voice chat and point fingers, only for somebody to do it back ,and then you all collectively get nothing done aside from incessant screeching, and then you’ve lost the match.

That is just one of the many ways a simple casual match can escalate into absolute chaos with a single action, and there are so many ways it can start, along with many more ways for it to end. This variety is what many cite as TF2’s key hooks, being able to offer something entirely different with every match you play. Every single map, every single weapon, every single player, can offer something different to the situation at hand, for better or worse, and this variety and utter unpredictability has no doubt contributed to TF2’s long standing position as one of the most enduring games of all time.

Of course, this endurance would’ve faltered long ago if not for the sheer amount of personality stuffed into this game. With nine unique classes to play, all of them brimming with character, there will always be one character that a new player can instantly look at and say “hey, this guy is cool, I wanna play as him”. Whether it’s the cocky, loud, and mobile Scout, the reserved and calculated Spy, or the mute and brooding Pyro, there’s somebody for everybody. And even when the base character doesn’t suit you, the multitude of hats, cosmetics and taunts can easily patch those holes. Is the Sniper class too comedic for your tastes? Well, the Anger hat is for you! Is the big, lumbering Heavy too in your face? Well, slap on the Chicken Kiev hat and revel in the silliness of it all! The sheer amount of customisation present in this game allows for each player to properly distinguish themselves on the battlefield, no matter what role they try to fill, serious or silly. This allows for each player to make each individual class their own, almost like they reflect their own mannerisms as a person onto the character in the game.

However, a game can only be a success if the player base allows it. So how has TF2 found continued success in a gaming environment that has become increasingly difficult to thrive in? Well…at times, it hasn’t. A glance at the player counts over the years shows an ugly truth, that TF2 has had its brutal share of low player counts. Some would place the blame on many things, such as the game naturally outstaying it’s welcome, akin to many games just like it, such as the numerous entries in the Call of Duty, FIFA and Madden franchises, with many others not far behind. But TF2’s community has proven that, if nothing else, they’re extremely stubborn, and they weren’t going to let the game they’ve treasured go quietly. After all, the sheer amount of impact TF2 has left on modern gaming culture cannot be understated in any capacity. A quick Google search will reveal it all. The sheer number of animated shorts, memes, and overall love that has been dedicated to one of modern gaming’s masterpieces simply cannot be replicated, and most likely will never be replicated again.

Since its release in 2007, Team Fortress 2 has been updated 703 times at the time of writing.

Seven-hundred and three updates.

Simply being able to string that sentence together with any semblance of realism should invoke nothing short of awe and adulation for all involved. In addition to that mind-blowing stat, as of the October 1st update titled “Scream Fortress XII”, 49 of those 703 are considered ‘major updates’, by which a significant portion of content has been added, patched, or otherwise changed. Some modern games are lucky to scrape 49 normal updates during their lifespan, never mind 49 major updates over a 13 year period. Anyone with any experience in game development should see these stats and either applaud, salute, weep with tears of joy knowing that gaming has a true ‘gold standard’ akin to animation’s Toy Story, conventional film’s Citizen Kane, music’s Bohemian Rhapsody, or take the simple option. Enjoy it for yourself. Because experiences as rich, fleshed out, and above all fun, do not come often or easily.

Unfortunately, in recent years, there has been an extremely prevalent issue plaguing the game. Something that affects every single casual and competitive match from the 10-year-strong veterans of the game, to new players booting it up for the first time hoping for some causal, chaotic fun. Bots.

To some games, bots are nothing to be feared. Security patches come and go, stamping out the issue before it becomes too widespread to truly eradicate. But through a serious of unfortunate events, bots have risen from minor inconvenience to one of the most severe issues faced by any online game ever made. A few years ago, if you saw a simple aim-bot, nine times out of ten, you could file a report with the anti-cheat software known as VAC (or Valve Anti-Cheat), leave the server, find a new game, and continue playing. However, the problem has festered for many years, left unchecked by an admittedly lacklustre anti-cheat system, that only appears to kick in once in a blue moon.
Because of this negligence, bots have evolved and malformed into many different forms, such as a Heavy flanked with a full team of Medic bots healing him into immortality, effectively ending any of chance of competition in that match.
But surely the problem just exists in that one match? Just leave the match and find a new bot-free game. Job done, surely? Well, it was until you enter your new match to find the problem much worse. Aimbotters. Bots spamming slurs and all sorts in the game chat. Bots spamming their microphones so loud they could make any person stupid enough to stick around go deaf. Oh, and don’t even think about trying to call a vote to kick them out of the game. Those bots shoot those things down quicker than the fastest draw in the West. VAC kicking them? Forget about it. VAC is extremely lazy, especially nowadays. Most of the time, you just have to keep joining game after game after game, hoping something changes. Eventually it does, but at what cost?

Now, the answer to any significant problem, such as the bot crisis, is to look at the ‘why’ of it all.
Why did the bot problem get so much worse as time went on?
Well, the rise of the bots could be attributed to a more depressing stat about TF2. Remember that list of updates discussed earlier? How there have been 49 major updates (a number which has no doubt increased) at the time of writing? Well, if you take a look at that same list of updates, then you would notice the number of major updates has significantly tapered off in recent years, with the most recent being Scream Fortress XII, released on October 1st, 2020. The most recent one before that? Scream Fortress XI, released October 10th, 2019. Before that? Scream Fortress X, released October 19th, 2018. In addition to this, the number of smaller updates and patches tapered off, for many reasons, but one of the major ones was the perceived diminishing player-base, so Valve decided that TF2 was not warranting a significant amount of developer resources, particularly in March of this year, when Valve wanted all hands on deck for its virtual reality masterpiece Half Life Alyx. Now, its understandable why Valve would want increased resources to make the new title the masterpiece that it was, but did one of its most enduring games have to go on the chopping block to make sure that Alyx was a success? It was the first Half-Life game in years from Valve, so fans were already intrigued, so the sacrifice of TF2 was perceived by many as unwarranted and damaging to TF2.

But now that Half Life Alyx has come out, bringing vast critical acclaim, a lot of resources were suddenly without purpose. Which is where TF2 makes its grand resurgence. Patches and updates have been released regularly for the first time in what feels like decades for the many lifelong players, even releasing weapon adjustments and bug fixes. Finally, after a painful decline, TF2 appears to have been blessed with a new breath of life from Valve, due in no small part to the tens of thousands of die-hard fans that would not stand quietly and let their beloved game go quietly into the night.

And with new updates, come new players.

TF2’s player count has come roaring back in force, recently surpassing it’s all-time peak of online players, reaching 146,887 on December 5th, a far cry from its slump of players from December 2018 to May 2019. Even with this slump, the lowest number of players was 54,127, still higher than many games can pull in their primes during peak playing hours.

Not too bad for a 13 year old game, is it?

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