Team Fortress 2: How to Abandon a Test Subject

“TF2 Bot Watchlits (June 2021)” by u/AGoodenough on Reddit.

This won’t be any in-depth overview of how Team Fortress 2 got to this point and what exactly there is to do next. Rather, this is my mournful reflection over watching the game I spent so much of my time on become changed for the worst. There’ll be no poetic prose or ending on a hopeful note, as I’m someone wholly concerned entirely with what the petty tragedy of this situation means to me.

As anyone who’s been on the game recently (as in the past year and half) knows, Team Fortress 2’s casual servers are overrun with an assortment of script kiddies, cheaters, and botnets. In the good old days of half a decade ago, this wouldn’t be an issue because the developers would be active enough to update the anti-cheat system whenever a cheating wave would arise. But the developers in question are the employees of Valve corporation who have to suffer through probably one of the worst managed game companies of all time, and there steadily began a process of a game direction that’s lost sight of what it ever wanted to be and became the leftover guts of a lab rat.

Valve has always been a company famous for their very lenient approach towards accessibility of their tools and assets: Their stern refusal to accept the meritocratic idea that games had to present a successful illusion and never let their guard down to reveal their internal structure has led to a revolution in approach to game design that can still be seen today. That’s what makes it difficult for me to draw the conclusion that their leniency in that area also translated to their leniency towards the integrity of developer intention.

What am I saying? Well, it’s simple: Team Fortress 2 is the sad and quiet conclusion of the short-term, profit-driven decision making of the rapidly changing PC gaming market during the early 2010s that turned it into a virtual vessel for promotion and artificial markets at the expense of every other integral part of the game’s design, all facilitated by Valve’s selectively liberal attitudes. Instead of ensuring a long-term road for sustainability for the game’s direction, it actively worked against it despite the will of the players wanting to persevere that original sentiment through it.

The models for content sustainability were unsustainable from the moment one could sense the buildup of leftover ideas and unfulfilled changes. At some point, content was fueled by short-term promotional deals that were going to age like milk and didn’t have the proper considerations of design cohesion before their implementation. Entire weapon and item sets were added to promote a particular upcoming release on the Steam storefront that acted as barnacles upon a whale’s skin. Several new weapons, new archetypes for play, would be added in a single promotional event and would exist only then on as incorporated elements within the game.

Cropped screenshot of ‘The Triad Pack’ a series of promotional items based off the 2012 game Sleeping Dogs.

It was a very effective model for promotion, as it’d ensure that there’d be new, content that’d be far more profitable than if it were just additional, vanilla updates. Entire weapons, entire concepts, only exist in this game because the developers were made to pursue a promotional deal that gave them new models to incorporate new mechanics on. These mechanics would either be a successful and be tweaked later on or flop and never be fixed until years later when a Band-Aid is applied to them. While it may’ve been successful in the short-term, it also meant that these decisions would show their age one the temporal relevance for their choosing has faded. Does anyone even remember what the Flying Guillotine is even a reference to? ‘Hat Simulator’ once being a passing joke is now a damning critique of company priorities: It’s far more profitable to keep producing cosmetic items than it was to introduce new game-changing content, and with the model it had, eventually one side had to take over, and it was the side of prioritizing automated revenue generation.

But let’s be fair, a large part of Valve’s approach to seasonal content also came from harvesting from the community like it was an agricultural business. It was one instrument in the larger plan to create possibly the exemplary model for how to support a game long-term without a subscription model, and with it came many new fascinating and monstrous innovations in digital economy. It was practically a perpetual profit generation machine that could reasonably be put on autopilot if polish and conservation wasn’t an issue, but it stopped close of that idealistic goal. I fear that it’s mostly become a museum exhibit of an important step in the evolution of games from limited experiences to entire lifestyles. As for the lifestyles this game spawned, many are just not sustainable anymore.

Want to create maps for a living? Rarely do community maps ever get added to the official pool, and for servers that do try to host them, many complain about them for their unfamiliarity and go back to formulaic play. Want to become a content creator? You better be creative to keep coming up with new ways to tinker with this game through mods because you’re sure as hell not getting any official updates from the developers. Want to stream? Casual is a completely unplayable experience and you have to rely on diminishing community servers offering a standard experience to get consistent footage. Want to be a competitive player? Have fun sticking purely to small-time leagues because the last time this game received official support, it was a total disaster and killed most players’ interest in competitive.

Speaking of competitive, Meet Your Match (2016) was a particularly noteworthy period of major change that was remembered as an utter failure to modernize the game. And it’s sister update the year prior, Gun Mettle (2015) was another slightly more successful attempt to fully complete the game’s assimilation to have just about every monetization scheme except pay-to-win mechanics. Meet Your Watch was a period of preemptive paranoia that was likely funneled from a fear higher up and onto the developers to implement something that’d make Team Fortress 2 more appealing with the advent of another class-based shooter, Overwatch, coming onto the scene. With how many comparisons people made between it and its obvious inspiration, this spawned fears among executives that it would bite into the market still mostly occupied by Valve’s titles. Of course, this is only my theory to explain why the update was so rushed and put out, but many deep in the community seem to be unaware of the social climate of advanced capitalism that especially proliferates a billion-dollar company like Valve when they attempt to either forge an understanding for the mishandling or try to damage-control. So again, I must state that this is my personal theory as to why that update was rushed out without concern for player input at all.

Now, competitive sits as a dead game mode nobody plays and casual is invested by scripted bots that exist purely to make playing a very unpleasant experience. The changes implemented to make its ‘pick up and play’ systems more modernized ended up making them one-way paths to either immediate desolation or slow desolation.

As for Gun Mettle, while many welcomed the addition of weapon skins and strange new mechanics as a welcome sign for further monetized customization, some with more hindsight recognized it for what it was: Confirmation that new weapons were not a high priority because they weren’t nearly as profitable as slapping ugly textures on weapons already in the game and attributing artificial rarity to them. Looking back on it now, it was a cash grab and an attempt to see how much of the game could be effectively monetized beyond what low levels they already stooped to (monetizing killstreaks: Are you kidding me?) For a less venomous view, it was probably a sign of mutuality to many players as the monetization schemes of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive were brought over to its older sister game that inspired its models.

The second most infamous disaster in the game’s history however was End of the Line, which given the ironic name, was a huge emotional upset for the community, partially for the high excitement many had for the update given its consistent teasing and the abysmal delivery. What players were expecting in new weapons and maps, they instead received cosmetics, with the only saving grace being a spectacle of an animation. What it most importantly revealed though, through the lack of the main feature of the update — the map Snowplow based off the short — was that Valve’s management was actively ruining community promises through interjecting overreach. The company many in the community were expecting to help them deliver something incredible only throttled them and made many fools think it was their incompetence to self-organize that lead to the End of the Line being the end of the line for Valve’s unwavering optimism for community updates.

Screenshot of cp_snowplow, an example of Valve’s overreach.

Now, some say the backlash from the community to this update contributed to the developers’ future disregard to be conversational with the community, but this is ignoring the larger motivations being that a lack of communication was a decision made by a higher-up because it was seen as less profitable. Naturally, people blame the community instead of Valve for delivering false promises, but the billion-dollar company always gets the sympathy from the suburbanite idiot who’d also be willing to spend thousands of dollars on virtual hats. Even if it was the community’s fault, that’d also be an indictment towards Valve for essentially creating a negative feedback loop where their overreach makes updates disappointing and the foreseeable negative feedback blaming the community confirms their initial judgement that their overreach to control the community was justified.

Some say the Invasion Community Update (2015) was the big sign that Valve should avoid organizing community updates due to the notorious mishandling of it, but again, I redirect you to what I’ve said two paragraphs ago. In truth, Valve’s abrupt ending of their enthusiastic support of community content was a macrocosm of confirmation bias. They absolute botched End of the Line with promises that they could in no way keep up with, and their overreaching hand in curtailing content based on their incredible misjudgment of what would be popular is remarkable to be sarcastic. It rid off the hype that ambitious animation projects like Expiration Date pursued in expanding the game’s lore to be ever more engrossing. And it made me think, what exactly where they planning for the game? Because now it really does seem like wasted potential.

Here’s the thing: The way that Valve internally works means that the set of developers who likely had ambitious plans for the game’s future were ripped away from it and, by process of institutionalization, became slowly disinterested over time as they were pressured by the company environment to work on more ‘profitable’ projects that were said to better project the company’s image. And we can see with every unpolished addition that there was something great brewing in the minds of each developer that passed by this game and saw great potential in what they could make of it but were ripped away from it by the hands of management. The spirit of the people who wanted to make this game into something great for the ages was slowly picked apart until there’s nothing left except a familiar scenario of the absurd silence of the universe: We call into something we know that can respond to us from what we’ve been told, and yet, it doesn’t. We can argue as for why the universe won’t answer us, but at the end of the day, there’s only residual silence.

Jungle Inferno (2017) was depressing in hindsight: The makeshift nature of the update was a poetic foreshadowing that it’d be the sendoff before the game would enter statutory limbo. The animation for it featured only the voice actor of the Scout while every other mercenary remained silent, and the weapons added in the update felt like unpolished and rushed concepts. Aside from that, it wouldn’t be particularly special aside from the fact that it was the last major content update for a grueling 4 years now. And the years following Jungle Inferno were a series of dead months where the last lights of enthusiastic creators were moving on as they recognized that the spirit of the developers had moved on too. Many speculated whether there’d be a potential “Heavy update” as hinted at by the update page’s vague language but speculation quickly becomes conspiracy without any deliverance. Even expecting the agricultural machine of community content to keep working was becoming an infeasibility as new additions to the map pool became more scant if nonexistent, say for last year’s Christmas update where they decided to add some maps likely because of some higherup’s order. Truly, the state of the game speaks to how sporadic the inspiration is to keep it moving, like it’s your asleep grandfather in hospice care.

As Tyler McVicker said, if any other game had the same playerbase as Team Fortress 2 under different developers, it’d be receiving weekly updates. Despite this clearly not being the reality, many still assume the game is in a ripe state to soon receive such a treatment, whether it be the messianic proclamations of a port to Source 2 or the murmurings of an update dedicated to the Heavy, it doesn’t end and it never produces. The depressing reality of the game is that, despite it being one of the most consistently played games on the Steam platform, it’s overrun with bots that do their damnedest to make sure playing casual is a totally unenjoyable experience, yet despite this, people still dislike you if you proclaim such things as “Team Fortress 2 is dead” or even so much as imply abandonment by the developers. Why is this? Why do so many people want to counteract the narrative that the game’s official support is at the end of the road?

I think largely because there’s little left of what many people think they’re defending when they defend the current state of the game. The days where there’d be many community servers with their own subgroups playing their game in their own unique ways is long gone as various updates over the years have ‘modernized’ the game by stripping away a lot of the appeal in its segue from presentation to play experience. It contributed to the slow death of the undergrowth that kept its daring system of long-term support alive for so long with various attempts to change it to meet what was considered profitable at the time. And the worst part? Nobody of authority’s likely to come back and fix the damage done: There’ll never be a “whoops, we messed up” update that tries to restore the condition of the game that so many cherish in their minds as the reason for why they continue to play. People are defending the Team Fortress 2 of 7 years ago rather than game of today: A sad display of developer neglect to allow something as monumental as this game become the playground of script kiddies and grifters. It’s just… not profitable to fix the issue unless it becomes a matter of public reputation.

And it’s such a dishonorable death because Team Fortress 2 is a leviathan of a game: What seems like terrible design in one area ends up being great design in another, as if it were a point of geopolitical interest which mechanics complemented which playstyles. It’s amazing how one game can host such distance between its community members just because they play the game slightly differently, to the point where it’d tear itself apart by attempting to synthesize them. There’s no other game that compares to the sheer ripple effect this one had where it’s characters have turned into memetic puppets for people to use to convey ideas in both the discussion of metagames and just transcribing daily life across digital space. There’s no ‘stylistic integrity’ for the game to lose as a result of these distances considering how many different design philosophies the game underwent through years of swapping developers. Despite the historic claims of the game’s art style undergoing metamorphosis due to all of the promotional history, each new update attempts to revive the core artistic sensibilities of the game as a stylized reimagination of Cold War militarism.

Not only is there vast differences between the game’s domestic playerbase, there’s also vast differences in how the game is seen externally, as either being one of the most influential first-person shooters of all time or an outdated vessel for various experimental elements of virtual economy that has long run its course. And for a far more humbler view, it was a game that everybody who had a Steam account played purely for the fact that it was free-to-play and was given the vessel for promotion more than any other IP by Valve up until the latter 2010s. This was the zeitgeist many want to keep alive despite all signs pointing to it being a long gone time, yet we refuse to accept that the game has been abandoned, not because the people working on it were tired, but because Valve’s teleology as a corporation to pursue profit above all destroyed everything in its foundational history behind it, including the magic of Team Fortress.

I remember that fond time everyone else does: The philosophy of the game’s level design is a permanent lonely afternoon, like everyone else went home and your shift has just begun. I imagined a comedic, self-aware shooter that made a story out of the frivolity of fighting over nothing yet simultaneously pioneered the model of virtual economies, granting real-world value for things that have no material properties. And it was endlessly replayable thanks to the vibrant community dedicating portions of their lives into putting a piece of themselves into this game for the return of watching others partake in it. It was a digital home, an urban center that would host a similar vibrancy of real-world city life. But, like real cities, they can become abandoned due to changing circumstances, and my favorite game is unfortunately becoming an example of that lesson.

dm_mariokart2_b3, a map many consider to be a digital home.

Yet, the spaces that trigger the memories of this forgotten time are still present and as pristine as they were when I first experienced them. Sometimes, I still get on a community server and play a round where it feels like I was transported back in time. Sure, a lot of things about the game have changed, but the fundamentals are still identical, and with a game that spawns such a long prominent history of early Internet culture, it acts like one of the most virulent museum exhibits I’ve ever explored. It’s easy to reminisce though as you can do that with just about anything; it’s playing that’s the hard part. And with that, I find myself struggling to move on along with thousands of other players. But moving on doesn’t have to be the ultimately beneficial response, as the secondary option of breathing new life is always there, but where have those gone? How many active players are there for Source mods like Open Fortress or Team Fortress 2 Classic? Any organized attempt to truly change this game will either have to make itself independent from it or incorporate itself in a way that’s too much of a hassle to play in the vanilla game. It’s a crying shame.

Instead of letting us enjoy our abandoned game in peace, people have put it upon themselves to act as vultures to pick away at its bloated corpse and leave every other decomposer shit out of luck to attempt to derive what could be their last bits of enjoyment out of something that, for many, has defined their entire childhoods. Mine is one included, and what I do to pay respect to the game that gave me so much when I was younger is to go through its trove of content generated over a literal decade and put it back up in public display on social media for many to rejoice or take interest in the worlds they may have forgotten. I explore the depths of mod websites to plunge for forgotten community-made maps and bring them back to the surface for their momentary spotlight. It’s the least I can do without any knowledge of programming or how to run a server. I think of this process as the children of a parent taking care of them when they get old, with the digital home of Team Fortress 2 taking the place of a parent as sad as that may sound. But, that metaphor leads me into my final words:

Team Fortress 2 is a demented game.

In a way, the game’s aesthetic praised for its focus on 1960s Cold War revival and early 20th century American realism feels like a poetic exemplification of this element of dementia in the game’s lifecycle. Why is it demented? Look around: We’re all so melancholy reminiscing on something that we know for sure is gone thanks to specific actions made by irresponsibly powerful actors in the march of time. We’re remembering things for something that can no longer remember its own identity and is overrun by a disease that wipes away its core functionalities with the goal of killing it for good. And like many with dementia, the game itself isn’t gone: The core gameplay is still there and it’s just as alluring as it’s always been, but something has been lost for sure. And whatever that is — that spirit — I miss it.

Truly, since the game was born as Valve’s guinea pig, it’ll come to die, and from there, we’ll extract the important scientific knowledge of how feasibly long a game’s lifespan can be. We have nothing to blame except the very model of success that propped this game up for its own demise.

In the meantime, play on community servers.

Comic artist, metamodern philosopher, anti-schooling advocate, Cajun, color fanatic, & freelance astrologist. I write about your virtues and their aesthetics.