It turns out that Team Fortress 2 is more important to Valve than we thought. In an interview to Gamasutra, Team Fortress 2 lead designer Robin Walker said that this game was something of a guinea pig to future business model ideas and potentially for the long-term survival of the studio.
“[When the game shipped], MMOs were the dominant story in the industry, and one concern we had was that we might not be able to survive if we didn’t build one,” Walker said. “We didn’t think we were ready to undertake that, but we did think that we might be able to build some pieces of one, learning enough so that if or when we did need to build one, we had less risk on the table. We decided that persistent item design and storage seemed like a reasonable amount of risk for us to bite off, and could be made to fit into TF2’s gameplay.”
A few years later, the rise of free-to-play and microtransaction-based games was the new trend and another decision had to be made.
“A couple of years later… we were starting to feel the same way about microtransactions as we did initially about MMOs: that our company was at risk if we didn’t have internal experience and hard data on them,” Walker said.
That was the thinking behind the passage of Team Fortress 2 to free-to-play, a move that increased the revenue by a factor of twelve and gave the studio enough data and confidence to make Dota 2 completely free-to-play.
It’s hard to believe that Valve, the makers of the successful Steam platform, the Half-Life and Portal series would go under without the experience gained with Team Fortress 2, but we can see how it served as a great testbed.