What’s Wrong With Team Fortress 2’s Unlocks

I cooed a little about the amount of free stuff Valve have added to TF2 since release, but it’s not purely to fix or improve the classes. They’ve been experimenting with ways to leverage this free content to add an element of persistent progress and character customisation to TF2. But their experiments have been weird, and so far the resulting system doesn’t really do its job. If you’re all too familiar with why the current system needs changing, you can just skip to how I suggest changing it. Here’s what’s wrong:

hl2 2009-08-16 12-19-42-28

You can unlock weapons for a class by earning its achievements. That means everyone plays the same class when its new weapons are released, even before they’ve earned any of them. We’re bribed to play that class at the very time when TF2’s primary problem is inevitably going to be too many people playing that class. And we’re often bribed to play it in counter-productive ways to fulfill achievement criteria, some of which are just fun little jokes.

You can ‘find’ weapons and hats randomly. On the plus side, that sometimes gives you a weapon for a class you don’t normally play, encouraging you to try it out. On the down side, well:

  • A lot of what you find is duplicates of what you already have, which means that little gold message comes to be associated more with disappointment and absurdity than excitement or pleasure.
  • People’s fortunes vary wildly without any correlation to skill. Some people play for hours a night, rarely get a weapon, find only dupes, and have never seen a hat in hundreds of hours of play. Others consistently get unlocks every half hour or so, and have copious hats for classes they don’t even play.
  • Consequently, very rare and exclusive class items like hats don’t signify anything when you see a player wearing them. What does the mighty Camera Beard tell you about a Spy? Nothing, he just got lucky.

You can ‘craft’ items by combining lots you have to produce one you might not. Presumably meant to tackle the dupes problem with the random drops, but what we understand of the current system is totally bizarre. If you don’t have the Eyelander, you seem to need six copies of the other two Demoman weapons, plus at least eight melee weapons, to craft one without losing anything you need. In a given time period, you’re about 13.8 billion times more likely to just find an Eyelander than what you need to make one.

For a hat, you’d have to find eighty-one weapons you don’t need just to make a random one. To have more than a 3.4% chance of crafting the one you want, it takes a hundred and twelve. At the end of which, you’ve got something a new player might find in his first hour with the game.

TF2 Classless Update 13

That’s what’s wrong with the current system. I think it needs a few changes to work as an addictive RPG, as a way of customising your characters to your tastes, and as a way of showing off your skill or dedication in the way you dress. The unlocks system ought to make the repetitive violence feel like part of a larger goal, and give you a sense of progress even if you lose. Here’s how I’d do it:

Unlockable Weapons: You’d be able to browse these from the main menu to see what’s available, and select one you want to unlock. Each requires somewhere between 250 and 500 points, and once you select it all the points you score in-game, as any class, count towards that. That’s about 2-4 hours play – the Flare Gun might be 250, the Direct Hit 500. You need to be in a game with at least four non-idle players or bots for your points to count, but beyond that anti-exploit measures are probably futile.

On top of that, every five hours or so you’ll get a random weapon unlock that you don’t already have. If it’s the one you’re working towards, points earned so far transfer to what you pick next.

The idea: Every match gets you closer to something you really want, and the items you choose first make you a different player to those around you. At the same time, you can still get something unexpected for a class you don’t normally play that might encourage you to try them.

Achievements: I think they should stay – I even think the silly ones should stay. In fact, I’d get rid of the sensible ones, and just leave the ridiculous accomplishments – taunt kills, ironic deaths, corpse dancing and tortured puns (Slammy Slayvis Woundya? That’s what you’re going with?). But they no longer earn you weapons, they’re just an acknowledgement for any time you do something remarkable.

The idea: Silliness absolutely has a place in TF2, and trying to get things like taunt kill achievements just makes the game hilarious for you and your enemies. But no-one should be bribed to go for them if they don’t want to.

Feats: This is where the sensible achievements would go. They’re things that genuinely benefit your team, so you’re rewarded each time you do them: some bonus points towards your unlock (but not your in-game score) and a little pop-up: “Medic Feat! Extinguished five team-mates, +2 points”. Things like multi-kills, capturing a point alone, setting light to a cloaked Spy, killing a fully charged Medic, or making the winning capture would always be rewarded.

The idea: By letting people know they’ll be rewarded every time they do this, it both teaches and incentivises intelligent play. Achievements already do this a little, but not reliably: plenty of the actions they suggest are actually pretty dumb.

hl2 2009-12-18 23-55-36-10

Unlockable Hats: These are handled separately, but again you choose which you want to unlock. When you do, only points and feats earned as that specific class count towards it, and the number required is in the thousands – twenty hours’ play for most, more for some special prestige items. You still earn points towards your weapon unlock at the same time.

The idea: A hat says “I play this class, I play it well and I play it a lot”. A Camera Beard says “I am amazing or crazy.”

Crafting: No crafting. I don’t think the system is entirely unsalvagable, and Chris Livingston does a good job of salvaging it in a much shorter post than mine. But ultimately any full crafting system hinges on finding dupes, which I think ruins the “ooh, I found something!” moment by diluting it with disappointment.

[FBP] Dirty Squirrel is looking good!_0002

32 Replies to “What’s Wrong With Team Fortress 2’s Unlocks”

  1. I still think crafting is a decent idea, if only the drop system could be changed to more frequent (and consistent!) drops or the player gets to pick.

    This week I’ve played TF 2 ~18 hours and only gotten 2 random drops (+6 milestone ones). If drops occur every 6 hours for me, that means that it takes nearly 3 days of constant grinding to craft a weapon, assuming every drop can be used, and over 20 days for me to get enough scrap metal for a random hat.

  2. @Rei Onryou, do you not remember the triumph of BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA, we’ve seen the first piece of Tom based marvel, now we can only hope that he can build on that and become worthy of the ‘Game developer of the year’ medal that he needs to make himself.

  3. so you really want to work at valve huh? :)
    No seriously, keep em up, these are well thought out and interesting reads.

  4. Instead of making people choose what item to work towards (which means they have to pick items to work towards before they start playing the actual game), just give people points into a ‘bank’. When they get enough points for an item, show a pop-up telling them “hey! you can afford the blutsauger now!”

  5. This is a much better system than the current one. Any system basde solely on luck is not a good system. And crafting is gay.

  6. Its an interesting idea, but I’d never get the unlocks and TF2 would just die for some people.

    Sometimes, you are just not GOOD at certain games, unfortunatly. For every triple kill in a sticky jump, there is someone that gets killed by a scout because you can’t turn well with the keyboard.

  7. This is a superb idea, and needs to be put in game. To make it work, you’d have to strip out everyones items, but I wouldn’t mind.

    There should also be the ability to change what unlock you’re working towards, without too much penalty. You could perhaps sell items you have for half points or something, much better than the crafting system.

  8. This is very well thought out.

    I’ve heard very many people complain/whine about this system, and I’ve yet to be convinced that their counter suggestions would actually be better (I don’t think the current system is great, it’s just that most suggestions are actually worse).

    These all come from the standpoint of how it will improve the game play and why. Well done.

    I had actually read Chris’ article, and my problem with his suggestion re:”item drops” was that picking which weapon you want on random drop would just slow the game down too much.

    Your solution addresses the issue of getting the items you want, encourages smart game play, and acknowledges the zaniness that is TF2. I hope Valve takes this seriously.

  9. Tom, good ideas, but far too late I think. It’ll just anger players to change the system now. “I HAVE TO WORK FOR SOMETHING HE GOT FOR FREE?!?!?!?!?!”

    Then again, it’s the internet and multiplayer players are always angry.

    furthermore: I’m replying here cos this post is NEWER, but you asked “do scouts use bonk?” on that other TF2 post t’other day. Personally, I do, but I get no scoreboard points for it. :'( Why? I use it in this fashion:


    It might not cause me to win, but my team will, and that’s all that matters :)

  10. I still want to unlock new stuff through achievements, hell I’d like unlocking hats with achievements too. For me it makes spice for the game and it’s basically the only thing that makes me working for achievements, I wouldn’t really care about them much otherwise. Including the silly ones, I just prefer the bonus of new weapons, even though getting the achievement is a reward on it’s own.

  11. In fact, I prefer the achievement way to any other way. If there were more achievements with a large variety, you can even choose how to go about getting the unlocks: either you can be a really skilled player and get the unlocks by playing properly, or you can get them by doing the silly achievements. Or you mix them both. You choose. You’re rewarded both by the achievement itself and an item. I really don’t know what’s so bad with that; if Valve just made more achievements with a large variety, it could work wonders.

    Sure, Medic’s achievements are all pretty impossible. But Scout is easy, I got his achievements for the third milestone in about a day or two of casual play with some silly stuff included. So if you could do both, I can’t see the problem. You wouldn’t be forced to do the silly stuff, but you could do it if you like.

    Tom, I think that your concept isn’t bad, but it’s too complicated.

  12. I allways suppored free items for everyone, including hats. Unlocking stuff works in some games, like Call of Duty 4. You play with the new guns and perks when you get them, and aim to get new ones when you get bored with them. I liked it. It had some sense of achievement, and when I performed better as a player, I got things faster.

    Team Fortress 2, however, was, and should be now, a game that you just pick up and play. You don’t need silly hats to bribe you into playing, you just do. Achievements and updates (with content instantly being handed to you) should be there if and when you get bored of it, not unlocking things.

    For example, I really, I still don’t have the gunboats, even though I want to play with them. Why should I wait for some dumb luck, or idle so I can craft it? I just want to use it now while I’m still in the spirit of playing a lot because of the activity since the update. It’s stupid. Why is new content kept from me? What’s the point?

  13. Genius.

    I especially like the idea of getting extra points for doing sensible things (defending points, getting on the point (maybe even ‘altruistic’ things, like repairing another engie’s building, stabbing away an annoying sniper’s Razorback, overhealing X number of players, blowing out fires, etc)).

    I can only think of one improvement. When you get an achievement, you can press escape and immediately see which achievement you got, and what it means.

    Invariably I get some achievement, it flashes for a tenth of a second, and I have to go through that classes achievement list hoping to see whatever it was that I did so well.

  14. My friends and I were under the impression, when the hats came out, that earning all the achievements for a class get you a random hat. It seemed so obvious to us that we were kind of perplexed that you don’t really get anything for all the achievements and ergo stop trying to get them after, what, 15?

    There should still be some incentive to getting all the achievements, but one that is purely cosmetic but still shows dedication. Perhaps a hat is the wrong idea, but some kind of miscellaneous reward, i.e. a soldier medal for all the soldier achievements, or a cooler looking radio headset for all the scout achievements.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I would not try for achievements unless there was some kind of reward other than completion involved.

    And speaking of drops, my friends and I also thought that when you killed someone with a special item, you could go over, pick it up, and take it as your own. I still feel like that’s a good idea, and the Gibus kind of shows that. Hand out the new unlocks to about a fifth of the TF2 population, but ensuring nobody gets two for the same class, and when someone dominates them, the dominator gets the weapon. Of course, you could still get it through ‘feats’ or buying or the drop system or whatever happens, but having a bit more control over the gaining of the weapon adds a lot.

  15. With all the hooha around Modern Warfare 2, I do think it gets one thing right in the multiplayer that TF2 could take a leaf out of, and that’s it’s unlocks/challenges/rewards/perks system. It encourages me to play by offering new weapons the longer I play, and additional challenges that are by no means essential, but if I bother to do them, they grant me nice bonuses in Titles and Callsigns that I can use to show off. I think the optimum solution would be a sort of amalgamation of TF2 and MW2’s systems.

  16. Thanks for the link! And I’d like to defend, if I could, the choice of “Slammy Slayvis Woundya.”

    You work at Valve. Everyone’s been busting their humps to get the new update ready. There’s been brainstorming and playtesting and rendering and tweaking and fixing and coding and more testing. There’s been late nights and long weekends of work. Everyone is fried, over-tired, and punchy. Among the long list of things that need to be ready for the update in a few short hours are names for the achievements. Hundreds of puns have been suggested and tossed aside.

    Someone who has had very little sleep over the past weeks suggests “Slammy Slayvis Woundya” and it’s so damn bad that everyone else who has had very little sleep laugh their asses off. It’s so bad it’s perfect. Go with it. GO WITH IT.

    Sure, the next morning it seems embarrassingly bad, but at the time there was surely no better option. That’s how puns work. That’s what puns do to us. This holiday season, I choose to forgive. Won’t you?

  17. To be fair, the Medic update was the only one that had the really ludicrous achievements (You want me to Ubercharge a Scout? Really?). I’m pretty sure the rest have been reasonable.

  18. About that whole feats idea (i.e. extinguishing five teammates for two points), I’ve seen some servers do that, sometimes with HLStatsX or something similar. They give points for players who accomplish certain things like killing several enemies in a row or capturing a point, but these usually don’t go towards anything besides a larger number to boast about.

    My main qualm with the achievement system as they are now is that they can only be earned once. Once you get something for a particular accomplishment, you are never congratulated on it again. Once you get all the achievements… well you can still play the class, but sudden confetti showers and a crown icon over your head become a distant memory. That’s why I’ve always wanted repeatable achievements that tell me, “You exploded that soldier with his own delicious crocket! Now do it again!”

    Incidentally, is anyone here familiar with the Battlefield games, specifically Battlefield 2142? It’s unlock system is rather similar to what Francis is describing, in that it has medals/achievements that can be earned (some of them repeatedly) which gives a player points that they can use to buy the weapons that they want. There are restrictions (you have to buy the low-level weapons of one class to get to its high-level weapons) and there is still room for abuse (achievement servers), but it’d still be a step forward, wouldn’t it?

    Besides, in everything that Valve has done for TF2, there has always been the indication that this is but the groundwork for future grander plans. Perhaps the inventory system we are seeing now is but the beta for something more fully thought-out in the future.

  19. That’s a good idea – the current unlock system is such a confusing mess, although tbh my main problem with the game thesedays stems mainly from all the new weapons and items having made it far too complex and fiddly an experience; it’s no longer the simple, fun, perfectly balanced experience it once was.

    The first few unlocks for the pyro, medic and heavy were far more conservative and didn’t upset things too much, but the later ones have totally changed how some classes play, and the knock-on effect is a disruption in the once near-perfect balance of the game.

    It’s still a lot of fun, but tbh it’s all just a bit too hectic and frustrating these days. To be fair, if no updates had come out for TF2 I probably would have stopped playing a year ago, but the choices Valve have made for the character updates seem to be slowly transforming it into a different game thatI don’t enjoy half as much.

  20. Nice. That’s certainly simpler than mine and addresses most of the main problems. I’d still quite like some hats to be a badge of honour, though.

  21. Yeah, but It seems to me like out of all the things hats can be, a badge of honor or status symbol is the hardest to thing to make them and the easiest to invalidate through farming. I do like your system because it makes them a better meta-goal then mine. But mine seems easier to implement and finally accomplishes all the things the drop system was supposed to do in the first place.

    Thanks for the response, keep up the good blogin’.

  22. Of all the suggestions (from Tom, Chris, and Horace) I think I like Chris’s the best.

    Tom, yours is certainly workable, but I think it’s too complicated for something that really should be a sideshow to the action of TF2. It smacks of something you’ll have to “manage,” and I cringe every time I hear an action game purport to involve “managing” something. In fairness, the same criticism can (and should!) be leveled at the existing crafting system.

    Horace’s suggestion that duplicates should be eliminated is so obvious as to be mind-numbing. Unfortunately, he’s mistaking Valve’s intentions. They aren’t looking for a fixed reward schedule, like leveling skills in an RPG; they want a variable reward schedule, like slot machines or random loot drops in an RPG. There are two reasons for this:

    1. Variable reward schedules make for more durable conditioning than constant reward schedules — the habit is harder to break, making the game more addictive. The basics of this are summarized on wikipedia.

    2. Leveling lasts for a while, but random drops are forever. Valve doesn’t want a system that has a clear endpoint; they want you to never run out of things to unlock.

    So any system you create has to use a variable schedule so as to maximize those conditions.

  23. You just have to click what you want. You have to click what you want with Chris’s, too, just at a different time.

    Random drops aren’t a form of Variable Interval or Variable Ratio Reinforcement, the way they are in WoW, because they’re not a reward for a particular action. They just happen occasionally, regardless of performance. The choice here is between a system where rewards are tied to your actions, or one where they’re not. Reinforcement provides an excellent account of how much more compelling the former is.

    Regarding 2, random drops under Chris’s system aren’t forever. That’s why I like it. The element of choice means you can almost entirely avoid dupes, and crafting means you can turn those you do get into what you didn’t.

    My system takes at least 640 hours of play to unlock everything, and I suspect the others proposed here would work out at something similar. Even if Valve want us to play more than that in our lifetimes, they don’t need us to do so before they put out any more content. There’s no mileage in getting us to grind eight hours a day, just in making sure we don’t unlock content faster than they can make it. If that’s achieved, and I think all four systems we’re talking about manage it, all that matters is how compelling that reward structure is. Post-experiment interviews with rats confirm that pressing that bar is a lot more fun when it gets you closer to a pellet.

  24. They aren’t reinforcement for any particular behavior in-game, that’s true; the behavior they’re trying to encourage is playing the game, period. They don’t much care what you do once you’re in there, so long as you’re inflating their playerbase.

    To be honest, that’s the thing that bothers me most about the whole drop system: it’s unusually cynical for Valve. The achievements at least seemed to be rewarding you for exploring odd nooks and crannies of the game mechanics — the drops are a straight-up slot machine simulator. Every refinement they introduce seems to shore up the “incentive to play” angle rather than addressing players’ criticisms of the system.

    I was being pretty vague when I said your system smacked of “management” — sorry about that. What I meant is that when I pictured that system implemented in-game, I saw an RPG-style advancement screen involving a mess of progress bars and drop-downs. Nothing any more complicated than, say, the inventory and crafting screens they’ve already implemented, but does TF2 really need another fiddly menu screen?

    Frankly, it already baffles me that developers who gave the spy little paper masks to avoid cluttering up the interface with disguise icons are now shifting a bunch of game time out of the engine entirely and into the menus. I might be letting my personal opinion of what’s fun get the better of me, but I think that’s a trend we should strive to minimize. (The quick-switch system for guns you’re carrying is a great step in this direction, for instance.)

    Chris’s system would just replace the single oversized image on the drop screen with x smaller ones, requiring no additional game time or new menus. It may seem like a minor thing, but it’s enough to make that concept my favorite.

  25. What I really like about TF2 is that if you’ve an understanding of the games mechanics, you know that in one of those shots, the soldier is about to explode.

  26. This method sound a lot like another game I’ve seen. *cough* call of duty *cough*

Comments are closed.