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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
More: Console/PC

[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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