These updates, when timed with the aforementioned promotions, helped keep players flooding into Team Fortress 2’s servers. And by 2011, that dynamic had Team Fortress 2 uniquely positioned to capitalize on the power of free.
Enter the gilded age of hats. From its inception, Team Fortress 2 has had an air of player-powered eccentricity. Readily available mod tools and dedicated servers meant the community could indulge its whims, and that equated to a user-generated storm of absurd levels, modes, and, from lack of a better word, in-game stuff. One example? A level recalling Toy Story, in which Team Fortress 2’s merry band of warriors wage anarchic warfare among 30’ teddy bears, plastic cowboys, and My Little Ponies.
Oh, let’s not forget that other extension of user-generated content: tags. Many of the game’s servers allow for players to apply their own graffiti a level’s geometry. That equated to walls painted with socially awkward penguin. And cake, obviously. And yeah, probably also a pixelated-yet-unmistakable photo of an old woman’s hoo-hah.
But in 2011, when the game adopted the microtransaction-supported, free-to-play business model, many artistically minded players shifted to eccentric headgear. Why? Because Valve opened up that marketplace to everyone, meaning a member of the community could earn cash by manufacturing a desirable hat. Right now, there’s a virtual milliner in Kansas bringing in some $150,000 a year. (No simple altruism on Valve’s part, of course: The free-to-play switch spiked Team Fortress 2 revenues twelvefold.)
By flipping the game to free-to-play, Valve has effectively immortalized its aging shooter, meaning those who love the game will have plenty of opponents to match their skills up against for the foreseeable future. And the switch thus far doesn’t appear to be shifting the company away from its spirit of generosity. Last month, Valve released the Mann vs. Machine update, introducing an all-new gametype that riffs off the now-genre staple Horde mode. For those counting, it’s the sixth free gametype to be introduced to Team Fortress 2 postrelease, and it’s arguably the most interesting to yet.
So yes, generosity. If there’s a common chord to be identified throughout the years as to why Team Fortress 2 is one of the greatest games ever, it’s the spirit of generosity. The best things in life are generous, and over the years, Valve has born that old maxim out through Team Fortress 2, multiple times over. Now if they’d only do the same with Half-Life 3…
"Why _____ is one of the best games ever made" is a weekly feature that goes through GamesRadar's list of the 100 best games of all time and highlights different titles, explaining why they're on the list, what makes them so amazing, and why we love them so much.