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In-Depth:  Team Fortress 2  Community Contributors' Five-Figure Payouts
In-Depth: Team Fortress 2 Community Contributors' Five-Figure Payouts
October 21, 2010 | By Kris Graft

October 21, 2010 | By Kris Graft
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[Gamasutra speaks with Valve's Gabe Newell, Robin Walker and Team Fortress 2 community content contributors, who took home as much as $47,000 each in royalties from the game's recently-introduced virtual item store.]

When Valve Software announced the results of Polycount's Team Fortress 2 item-modding contest, the winners were just excited that their creations would be in the popular mulitplayer shooter.

But with the recent introduction of the game's user-created virtual item marketplace, the Mann Co. Store, the winners' items went on sale to the Team Fortress 2 community -- and a 25 percent revenue share to the modders led to a surprising payoff.

Today, Valve said that community content creators Rob Laro, Shawn Spetch, Steven Skidmore, Spencer Kern and Shaylyn Hamm took home initial royalty payments ranging from $39,000 to $47,000 each from the first round of Team Fortress 2 content creation. And these are just the checks from the first two weeks of operation.

Kern told Gamasutra, "By having [user-generated content] implemented in the way that Steam has it, where people are getting monetary gains for the items they put in, it rewards people who put in the good items, who listen to the community and put in the stuff that everyone wants to see in the game. ... It'll bring out the quality artists to do the work."

He added, "It was completely mind-blowing, the size of the return that we're getting on these things."

Skidmore said, "I feel like this is going to open up a whole new level for everyone in general that plays these games who has an interest [in game design]. ... It'll ultimately be better for the industry, attaching the community to the game developer."

Valve said it was going to deposit the royalties in the modders' PayPal accounts, but the revenue from the sales was so high that it exceeded some of the service's limits on deposit size. Valve flew Kern and Skidmore to the developer's Kirkland, WA headquarters to give them the payments in person.

"Short Circuiting" The Path To A Development Career

The Half Life and Left 4 Dead developer introduced the "Mann Co. Store" into Team Fortress 2 in late September. Items range from under a dollar to $17.50 for the most valuable items. The introduction of virtual items into the core gamer-focused shooter caused a mixed reaction among fans -- some contended that the sale of certain items would cause gameplay imbalance, others noted that the items are still attainable through gameplay, and having a storefront where they could buy items instantly would give them the option to save time.

To Valve boss Gabe Newell, giving content creators a cut of the sales benefits Valve, the modders and the community as a whole. Newell noted that about half of the 250 people currently working at Valve came directly out of the gaming community.

He explained that typically, when gamers in a community have an idea or want to contribute something to the industry in a professional capacity, the path would be to create something interesting and get hired by a game company.

"I think this sort of short circuits that process," he said. "Once people ... realize this is about their community, and that the right people are getting the benefits, ... after a while, they'll say 'this is really how these kinds of communities need to work.'"

He added, "It benefits us because it grows the community, right? These [content creators] benefit, but we benefit too. Team Fortress 2 is a better product because we have community contributions in it. They're going to go off and listen to what the community says about how they can do that better, and we can draft along, as we both benefit."

The Next Steps For User-Generated Virtual Item Sales

As Valve studies the metrics and continues to develop its user-created content marketplace plans, its goal is to provide a framework for content creators to make and sell a range of products. Valve also implemented the framework behind the Mann Co. Store technology into its Steamworks tool suite, which is available to third-party developers as well.

"Hopefully we'll see other developers and publishers find a way to use something like this in their games as well," said Doug Lombardi, Valve's marketing director. Valve is currently getting a grasp of Team Fortress 2's storefront before thinking of applying such a model to the studio's other franchises.

Robin Walker, project lead on Team Fortress 2, said in the short-term, Valve is working on ways to streamline the process of getting user-generated items into the game by improving the tools used to create items. "We've received lots of really good submissions already and we expect that to rise dramatically in the next few weeks." he said.

The next step for Valve's user-generated ambitions will be to create a way for users to make and sell a wider breadth of items for Team Fortress -- level designers, server operators, animators, custom UI modders and even guide writers may in the future be able to put their items up for sale. "We would like to figure out how they all can participate in this so that everyone is making the community better in some way, and benefit from that work they're doing," Walker explained.

Valve isn't one to shy away from new business models. The company's industry-leading Steam digital distribution service provides the company the means to survey metrics when conducting what Newell has called "experiments" with different pricing models for games.

Asked if a peer-to-peer marketplace could support ongoing development of an online game, he replied, "What you really want to do is create per-person pricing, or per-person monetization or per-person ways of creating value. ... In a sense, asking 'could you support a game entirely with just this as a monetization model,' you could."

But he said committing to one specific model limits revenue opportunities. "The way that you create value is by giving [customers] more options."

For creators like Kern and Skidmore, their first foray onto the Mann Co. Store is just a hint of things to come. "Everyone who entered this challenge went into it with just the prospect of getting their items in the game, and that was awesome," said Kern. "... But now this is something that has evolved into a store that's actually going to pay the creators. ... It's going to provide a lot more motivation for more people to jump in and actually put more thought into what they're doing with the Team Fortress community."

[Those interested in contributing Mann Co. Store updates can visit the official website for more details.]


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Comments


Chris Remo
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Holy shit

Andrew Dobbs
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Agreed.

Tim Carter
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Now if only the community level designers could make that, too.

Kris Graft
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That's what they're working on... there could even be a TF2 guide writer that's getting royalties. Not sure how that'd work, but it's really interesting. They're trying to get contributors from all areas into this.

Tim Carter
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A TF2 Guide Writer?



Anyway, I'd like to see how this happens. The thing is that the community is used to getting free maps. And the software is set up to automatically download them when a player tries to log onto a server playing a map he doesn't have.

Bart Stewart
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Shouldn't this become the new dictionary definition for the "everybody wins" entry?



Or maybe "virtuous cycle"....



Either way, THIS is the future of user-generated content.

Michael O'Reilly
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I think that's unfair to say. I, as an owner of the game, lost.



Now while it's nice that artists can be rewarded for their modeling skills, it is a design fallacy that "More = Better". The game was once very elegant -- an example of beautiful subtractive design and a cohesive art direction. Now the game is a mess. It's not at all unplayable, but the game, I feel, is a worse in the design category. The fun is much more shallow now, more zany and wacky and slapstick.



Now, you can make a game like that and that's fine, but my problem is that not only did Valve turn another game into that, it turned it into a game that has basically the reverse design philosophy and I would argue that TF2's initial design does not hold up well with all this cruft stuck in it. If Valve designed a game around this concept, things could be much more reasonable.



Another point is the Valve made unlocks, while.... inelegant in relationship to the games original design, were at least INTERESTING. All this new stuff is mostly Diablo-esque tweener nonsense that doesn't (or barely) enable interesting, new gameplay. It also encourages Valve to "do the wrong thing" -- keep their broken and childishly designed drop system, keep bloating the games with mediocre items (ability wise, the models are lovely) and coming up with Zynga-esque schemes like the crates.



So I and many people I know lost out. I can't play the game I bought anymore -- it's a vastly different game that I don't like and it wasn't the type of games (example: An mmo) where drastic change would be expected. Valve has never done me right on their multiplayer offerings, and while they will make a killing off this decision, I will be avoiding their multiplayer games from now on.



Whats tragic is the guys I would say are the hardest working and most beneficial to the community and the gameplay of the game, the map makers, get nothing at all -- and if Valve started selling maps, the community would suffer. They'll get the short end of the stick, even if their contributions have been infinitely more valuable. Not that I begrudge the model makers of the polypack -- in fact I'm glad they've managed to make money. Instead, I am disappointed in Valve for letting the situation get this far and betraying many of the games early adopters who liked it for what it originally was.

Chad Godsey
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Yet people like myself play consistently and enjoy it for the same reasons we enjoyed it three years ago. Sure there are new items, sure there are plenty of new options in gameplay, but most of them are minor side grades to the regular weapons. The others contribute interesting new gameplay that otherwise would have never existed and contributed to TF2 becoming stale.



As far as crates go, you can act like it's a terrible thing and compare it to Zynga style player manipulation. However in the end there's no reason that you yourself need to purchase anything. It's often easier to use crates in the trading system to get something you want.



I want to agree with you on the point of community map makers. It's already been leaked that Valve did pay the few whose maps are now official. Going from the numbers here, we can safely say that they did get the sort end of the stick. But maps aren't something that exist on a player to player basis. You can't just throw them into a virtual item store and watch as the mapping community gets what it deserves. I'd be greatly surprised if Valve isn't aware of this and isn't somewhat bothered by it like us. But we are surely not at a point where simply pointing fingers at Valve is at all reasonable.

Michael O'Reilly
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I would be lying if I said the majority of players were happy. If that were the case, Valve wouldn't be making a ton of money. What I am instead saying is that it is disingenuous to say that this is all rainbows and happiness and that many of are very dissatisfied with the game we purchased changing so drastically for what many of us consider to be for the worst. I have friends who, game design issues aside, won't play anymore because they feel the game and all it's items are too impenetrable.



I think the sidegrade argument is a weak argument that too many people are making these days. It doesn't excuse bad design or bloating issues within the game. None of my issues involve certain weapons being too good. Stuff like the Equalizer is all but a flat upgrade, but is good for gameplay. Conversely, I'll use the melee kit for the Demo as an example. This sidegrade is actually fairly weaker overall, but I would argue much worse for gameplay. Arbitrary damage resistance to some attacks is not fun or interesting and randomly dying to a charge isn't particularly fun. The player playing the melee Demo has the fun of the charge, but the rest of the fun is superficial. Mostly all he's doing is standing next to people holding his melee attack button.



The community items are words less interesting. "Oh hey, this battle axe does a little more damage but makes me slower!" "This piece of chocolate overheals me!" They're not terribly interesting and choose to just make a mess of things. Back in the original release of TF2, if I saw a scout, I KNEW what he could do and knew what weapons he had. In fact, in the dev commentary, Valve made a big deal about this. Now I see a scout, well... He has 3 very different shotguns, can use a consumer product to either become invincible, do crits, or gain health by damaging me, can have anywhere beteween 110 and 150 health. Also he might be able to temporarily stun me. Awesome.



I can go play Street Fighter and Guile will always be Guile. I never have to go "Oh, well maybe this Guile doesn't have to charge for flash kicks"! No, Guile is immutable, as were the TF2 classes. If Valve did this from the get go, I'd have less to gripe about because I'd understand the game I was getting into. Switching from a minimalist to a maximalist philosophy is quite the change to make in updates!



I'd also like to comment on things going stale. There are many many old games that are still played today. Any Street Fighter, Starcraft, Quake 3/Live, Counter Strike, whatever. These communities all shrink after the initial 'honey moon' period of a new game, but the core community remains. I feel like Valve's update system has ground away at the core community in exchange for retaining less dedicated gamers with 'cheap thrills' every 3-6 months or so. This might be beneficial now, but I feel well the update cycle burns out, so will the game at this point. The core gameplay is less solid now. There is so much 'superficial fun', that they have to keep updating the game to retain players. I feel if the game was left as is, a stronger core would still exist now and you wouldn't see the same big lulls in between updates. Valve profits more this way for sure, but I can't say the game is better for it. I also can't help but to feel a little betrayed by Valve. I felt betrayed back when I had to farm achievements or randomly wait for new items, as I felt that was against the spirit of the game as it was released.



Anyways as far as the crates, you're right. They are, as former diablo players would put it, the modern Stones of Jordon. Still, it makes me think Valve has no intention of being responsible with their new mechanism. And yes, fair enough on the map making points. I feel less justified in placing blame on that topic like I have the above topics. That is just a shame, really and I don't have any good answers my self.

Bart Stewart
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I hear what you're saying, Michael.



I think the number of TF2 players supports the argument that most players find the additions acceptable, if not enjoyable. But you're certainly entitled to your personal feeling that the updated game lost something you cared about in the orginal version. (I felt the same way about SWG.)



That said, it's also worth noting (as I implied) that we're only seeing the start of where developer-rewarded user-generated content is going. If this catches on with other developers (as I hope it will), then as it matures I would expect everyone to get better at it.



That means the user-generated content that benefits the most players receives the greatest rewards, which then perpetuates that process. And while it's true the "everybody" part of "everybody wins" isn't completely accurate, it's pretty darn close. Most players get new content they like; creative players get more encouragement to make even better new content; and the publisher gets happier -- and possbly more -- players and their money.



Nothing's perfect, but that will be a lot better than the "we never asked for that!" approaches to adding new content we've seen in games in the past, I'd say.

Tim Carter
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Yes, I think it would Bart.

Michael O'Reilly
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I suppose in the whole scheme of the industry, you are right, this is a win win. In the scheme of the game it's self, it is a mixed (though admittingly, mostly good) bag. In the case of TF2, the system perpetuates content I don't believe the game really should have, but in future games this will most likely be a net good.

Jacob Pederson
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Rock Band Network was there first, but still, this is totally rad ;)

Mun Lee
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Wow! It's great that the developer went ahead and honor the artists' work. You hear a lot of unkept promises these days.

Curtis Turner - IceIYIaN
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IT"S OVER $9,000!!!111 /head explodes!


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