Valve Goes Free to Play: Bad Choice?

Valve Goes Free to Play: Bad Choice?

Valve’s famous team-based shooter, Team Fortress 2, recently went free-to-play. Everyone should celebrate by repeating this good news to themselves in the voices Valve has bestowed upon the game’s colorful cast. Start with Scout (“Yo!”) and end with Pyro. (“Mrfrrfrff!”).

This isn’t the first instance of a subscription-based online game going free-to-play. Dungeons & Dragons Online has done it, as has Lord of the Rings Online. But Team Fortress 2 is a phenomenon unto itself: Valve has built up the game’s characters through community and video as well as in-game antics, which lends Team Fortress 2 one of the best-developed casts in game history, and that’s not a compliment that goes out to shooter games very often.

In other words, Team Fortress 2 still has a huge fanbase even though the game was released four years ago. Even so, Valve’s switch to free-to-play is a good business decision: A whole lot of new blood will be attracted to the Team Fortress 2, and no doubt a few of them will “catch up” to veterans the easy way by purchasing in-game items via microtransactions at the “Mann Co” Store.

Not only is Valve giving everyone a free crack at a great game, but it’s also setting a precedent for the free-to-play model. Valve’s game, which is already a long-running hit, is going to turn into a monster. How will other developers of pay-to-play games respond? Will they follow suit? Will we see the widespread adoption of a “hybrid” market, wherein big-budget massively multiplayer games will begin life as subscriber-based games and transition to free-to-play when the model is viable? Or will publishers of subscriber-based games try that much harder to keep their monthly fees rolling in?

Make no mistake, gamers who subscribe to games like World of Warcraft are dedicated to the world they pay rent for: There is definitely lingering appreciation for virtual worlds where “hard work” gets the player ahead instead of microtransactions. After all, not all of Team Fortress 2’s old-timers are happy about the switch to free-to-play and the easy availability of purchasable items that were once rare. On the comments thread following Gamasutra’s write-up of the switch, one commenter called Aaron Truehitt complained about the abundance of items that were once rare fare.

“I loved hats [items] when they were an extremely rare find,” he wrote. “Now you see people with hats and it’s just, who cares. Now I see new weapons people have and I do feel behind the curve unless I spend money to get the quickly. There is a such thing as over doing it. [Team Fortress 2] is losing value sadly.

“That’s why I hate cash shops and Free 2 Play. Value is lost.”

The once-coveted hats are still a point of controversy in Team Fortress 2: Players who paid for the game before the switch received in-game hats, and not all of them are appreciative.

Many of the complaints and worries that come up about free-to-play games are, for the most part, valid. Yes, we want cheap games that are fun to play, especially when a game is as epic as Team Fortress 2. But do we want to see a burnt-out gaming landscape wherein the biggest winners are the guys and gals who can afford to fling the most money at a title?

It’s good that free-to-play is around, and it’s good that Team Fortress 2′s switch-over will encourage other online games to follow suit. However, developers also need to think beyond profiting from microtransactions: We still need balance and fair play. If a subscriber-based model is what it takes to guarantee these features–the very basics of any game–then the free-to-play model won’t thrive in the long term, even if a company as talented as Valve is steering the ship.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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