We've writen about Valve's approach to the market
many times before. The company believes strongly that "piracy" is a service problem
not a legal problem. It knows that it can easily compete with piracy by offering a better service, something that it regularly succeeds in doing. However, On The Media
calls our attention to an absolutely fantastic case study found on Gamasutra, not (directly) about how Valve competed with infringement, but how it turned Team Fortress 2 from a fee-based game to a free-to-play game and increased revenue twelve-fold
Of course, over the years, we've covered other online games going from fee-based to free and making more money
for it, inspiring more and more other games to do the same
. But what's most interesting here is the level of detail. In the case of TF2, it's clearly not about "give it away and pray," but a careful strategy that really does seem focused on connecting with fans
and being awesome
while giving fans a good reason to buy.
For example, the team at Valve connected with fans in a really cool way. It put out "teaser trailers" with product updates, and then scoured feedback to come up with ideas that fans might like in the game:
[Valve's Joe] Ludwig showed TF2's Sniper-focused update as an example. Each content update started with a teaser trailer that hinted at several possible new items or features, and Valve developers would monitor the community reaction in the forums to determine which aspects caught the players' attention. "We found people in the forums talking about how cool it would be if the Pyro could light the sniper's arrows on fire. To be honest, we hadn't considered it, but we were able to implement it by the time the update shipped," Ludwig said.
In another instance, players picked up on a blueprint displayed in passing within the teaser trailer for the Engineer-focused update of a mechanical hand item. Ludwig explained that "[The players] didn't realize it, but they were indirectly voting on the content of the update. When the update shipped, it included that robot hand."
Separately, Valve was very careful and deliberate about how they "went free" and moved to offering in-game purchases. Recognizing that there's an unfortunate incentive to then make in-game purchases make the actual gameplay worse (such as by making it "pay to win") the team made very strategic choices about how they would have in-game purchases, such that they were never required to play the game how you wanted:
Once Valve rolled out the in-game item system, it needed to get the players used to the idea of paying for them. "This wasn't a change we made lightly, but it was something we had to do to get our game into the free-to-play business model," Ludwig said.
"They had never paid for an item in TF2 at any point in the past, and we weren't sure how willing they'd be to pay now."
Ludwig outlined the players' possible objections to the item store, the first of which was TF2 turning into a "pay-to-win" game:
"We dealt with the pay to win concern in a few ways. The first was to make items involve tradeoffs, so there's no clear winner between two items. But by far the biggest thing we did to change this perception was to make all the items that change the game free. You can get them from item drops, or from the crafting system. It might be a little easier to buy them in the store, but you can get them without paying. The only items we sell exclusive to the store are cosmetic or items optional to gameplay."
In other words, this was entirely designed around the idea of giving people a good reason to buy
rather than a negative reason
that makes them feel forced to buy. Too many companies (hello most newspaper paywalls!) seem to think that "forcing" people to pay is a "reason to buy." It's not. It may get some people to pay, but it pisses off lots of people. Valve carefully structured its business model here to make people want
But the real key here is just how much this effort increased
revenue. Many people have assumed that taking a fee-based game and going free-to-play is really an "end of life" strategy to try to squeeze the last remnants of revenue out of a game, but Valve is showing it's not that at all. It was a strategic choice to maximize revenue. This is the same point we've made for well over a decade in talking about how to use free as a part
of a business model to increase your market
. When properly applied (which is not just "give it away and pray"), free becomes a revenue multiplier, and Valve's example of TF2 is really a perfect case study of how to do it right.