How and Why Team Fortress 2 Made Valve Super Rich
Think about this for a minute. From 2007 to 2011, Team Fortress 2 maintained a fairly consistent 20,000 or so concurrent players. In that time, Valve updated the game more than 100 times, added hundreds of Achievements, items, and weapons, and created an economy for the Steam community where a hat is a valuable form of currency.
Valve programmer Joe Ludwig explained in a talk at the Game Developers Conference that each free update, tweak, and piece of promotional material attracted new players and, in turn, sweet, sweet dollars.
This was before it went free-to-play and quadrupled its player base.
Team Fortress 2 also quadrupled in revenue from September 2007 to June 2011. When it went free-to-play last June, Ludwig explained, that revenue then tripled. “This couldn’t happen on a platform with a lengthy certification process,” said Ludwig (likely referring the restrictive nature of the Xbox).
In addition to praising the PC platform, he also attributed this enormous success to the way Valve involved its community in the creation of Team Fortress 2 content. The studio engaged players by implementing their gameplay feedback, using cosmetic items created by them, and hyping updates for numerous days. Ideally, players would always anticipate a better experience.
This stuff was all free, so the only money coming in through Team Fortress 2 was from people who hadn’t yet played it.
The September 2010 MannConomy update allowed the purchase of individual items, which Valve was careful to balance in a way that both benefited and balanced Team Fortress 2. This is where it started monetizing the game again. The system was successful and useful enough that Valve could start returning some of the profit to the community. Users have earned $3M by selling items on the Steam Workshop.
Because the community exploded when Team Fortress 2 went free to play, this eventually became a huge cash flow. “I’d suggest anyone doing an online only game release free-to-play,” Ludwig said. This isn’t just because it worked for Valve, but because it’s the most sensible means of attracting an audience. He says if Valve knew in 2007 what it knew now, Team Fortress 2 always would have been free.
Mitch Dyer is an Associate Editor for IGN’s Xbox 360 team. He plays the Spy pretty well. Read his ramblings on Twitter and My IGN.