A letter to Valve: Regarding your broken TF2 weapon unlock system
As a valued customer, I hope that my opinion has some value to you. I have been playing your games since the Half-Life Uplink demo was released to the internet almost ten years ago. Although I have not always been loyal to Valve games, having recently recovered from a World of Warcraft binge, I have always supported your efforts and applauded your successes in the PC gaming industry. I own all of your games and use the Steam content distribution system almost exclusively for my PC games purchases and management.
In the past, when many criticized you and your visions of the future (Half-Life on modified Quake engine, Half-Life 2 source code leak and subsequent community backlash, initial versions of Steam and its numerous issues, the apparent disappearance for several years of anything related to Team Fortress 2), I have stoically watched and waited, knowing you had the resources, intelligence and resolve to pull off your big picture plans. However, due to recent events, I fear you may have irrevocably changed my opinion of you.
With the release of the Spy and Sniper update for Team Fortress 2, you have introduced some gameplay mechanics which many people are unfamiliar with. As we are all aware, weapon unlocks designed to enhance the gameplay experience were previously able to be earned by players who had the skill, tenacity and patience to earn class-specific achievements, which when aggregated earned an upgraded or “sidegraded” weapon or utility which covered a weakness or filled a function previously missing from that class. This achievements-for-unlocks system was not ideal; many newer, casual or unskilled players were missing out on weapons because they did not have the time or the inclination to spend hours gaining achievements. Moreover, the dedicated players were then able to more easily dominate the newer, casual or unskilled players with their hard-earned weapon upgrades.
Obviously, this was simply not good enough. So, a new system was devised whereby weapon unlocks are granted randomly, but the rate at which weapon drops occured are influenced by the time the player spent playing. This way, everyone that plays the game, whether skilled or unskilled, has a chance to receive the upgraded weapons. Casual players still need not apply, however. This idea has its merits; no longer do players have to spend hours farming achievements just to unlock weapons, nor do they have to use third-party applications to cheat their way into getting achievements. However, there are some downsides. Instead of rewriting a very well-written post that already exists, I’ll replicate it here:
First things first: Random is BAD.
If you get nothing else from my post, PLEASE, for the sake of all that is good, get that much. The moment you introduce a “random” variable all strategy and skill goes out the window, directly into a pit full of spikes and broken glass.
By sheer definition, the concept of “random” takes control away from the player. As the creation of the Huntsman proves, you already know this is something players dislike. Nobody likes feeling like they have no control over what happened. Whatever you do now is completely unrelated to you being rewarded. You aren’t rewarded for being good you’re rewarded for… Nothing. This inevitably leads to a feeling of unfairness and pointlessness.
Now, imagine you walk into your Valve offices one day and Gabe/Robin/whomever is in charge of this announces a promotion is to be given out till the end of the day. Imagine you ask to whom. Now imagine the reply is “can’t say, haven’t decided yet.”
“Ok. Are there any criteria for it?”
“Not really. I’m gonna write your names in little papers, all of you, put them in a hat and draw one.”
“Wait. So… Performance has no relation whatsoever?”
“Nop. You can be the best, or you can be the intern that screws everything up and gives everyone else twice the work.”
How would that make you feel? Not nice I assume.
Now imagine you’re a player, new or veteran alike, and you want a weapon, any. If there is an objective, a mission of sorts (like the milestones in the old method) you have a focus, you know what you have to do to get what you want, so you work at it. You know you can get it, and more importantly, how, you just gotta be good enough.
Under the current random system, EVEN IF it’s very easy to get any weapon, there’s no correlation between effort and reward.
Most importantly, for the love of all that is holy, do NOT consider “random stat drops”… If there’s anything more frustrating than having no way to control how to get special items, is knowing you were just beaten by someone simply because he got a “random drop” with better stats than your own.
This is a game that should be entirely up to strategy and skill… Everyone starts on the same level, it’s just user skill that changes. Not “grind”. Not “sheer luck in a random drop”. That’s MMOs. But I’ll cover that later on.
For now, the first point I wanna leave very clear is that “RANDOM” is bad because it takes away control from the player.
The tl;dr version: random weapon drops are unrewarding and counter-productive. It is not an ideal way to grant weapon unlocks to players.
So, I put it to you, Valve, that another new system is required. One not based on gaining achievements, and one not based on chance. I propose a simple idea: have weapon unlocks based on people playing the game as it was intended to be played. For example, you may unlock weapons by killing players or achieving map objectives; doing so relates the rewards to the whole point of the game. Not only is this much more relevant to rewards than, say, performing 1000 double-jumps, it’s also repeatable, which means that newbies can more easily obtain the unlocks in a decent time frame, while still providing adequate amusement for the more dedicated players.
A little game called Battlefield 2 did this just right three years ago by doing exactly that: awarding ranks and medals for achieving map objectives, and then awarding weapon upgrades for collections of medals or heightened ranks. Moreover, the weapon unlocks were sidegrades rather than upgrades, which kept the playing field level while still providing variety and new content for players. Fortunately, the majority of weapon unlocks which are currently available are sidegrades, but some do need tweaking (does it make sense that a Scout can 1-shot a full-health soldier? In my opinion, no). Speaking as someone who plays soldier 80% of the time, forgive me if this part of my letter is a little biased – I’ve not yet felt the unlock love from Valve, which skews my view of ‘level playing field’ just a little.
This however does not detract from the fact that the current unlock system (for those classes who have unlocks) is woefully broken. It is terrible. It may have irrevocably damaged my faith in Valve has a level-headed, thoughtful development company who cares about its faithful fans, such as myself.
I’ll outline three steps to success for Valve from this point forward:
- Apologise to the TF2 community; admit you were wrong, Valve.
- Roll back the weapon unlock system to the previous version.
- Put some thought into your new unlock system. Even if you make it similar to other games, it will still need fine tuning and tweaking. Make sure it works with the gameplay style (rewards for objectives) and not against it (rewards for being idle, spectating or camping in spawn).
With all of the public outrage and subsequent backlash surrounding this update, I am surprised you have not already been forthcoming with an apology. I check daily the Team Fortress 2 blog, and daily I am disapppointed to see no further updates… maybe the team is off on a well-deserved break after the recent hard work bringing us the Sniper and Spy update, but surely someone there must be monitoring the community response…
In any case, I still hold hope that you can fix this for the community. You have come through for the better in the past, and I believe you can come through for the better now. Please don’t disappoint me, or your thousands (hundreds of thousands?) of devoted fans.
Dedicated TF2 Soldier
“Give ‘em hell, boys!”