Valve rocked the PC gaming community June 24th when they released the Uber Update- the most ambitious Team Fortress 2 update so far- and that’s saying something. Team Fortress 2 has benefited from support far beyond what games usually receive and as a result, enjoys a rabid following nearly 4 years after its initial release along Half Life 2 Episode 2 and Portal as part of The Orange Box. The biggest piece of news was that Team Fortress 2 would now be free to play for anyone with a computer that could run it.
Before I get into this, I have to disclaim that I love Team Fortress 2, and I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I have nearly 300 hours in the game since it launched. I have had great times, made great friends, seen amazing and silly things, and the coup de grâce- I sold a cosmetic item that randomly dropped for $180 after a $5 investment in keys to open crates. It’s safe to say that I’ll be playing Team Fortress 2 another 3 years from now; the lure of over-the-top gibs and ragdoll kills is too much to stay away from long.
I was talking with a buddy of mine on Steam about it, and his immediate reaction was “wow, that’s really cool of Valve!”. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s cool of Valve, too, but of course there’s a profit motive here- to get TF2, which is on both PC and Mac, you must also download Valve’s digital distribution system, Steam. Steam is a great platform, I’ve seen it win over people that swore off of PC gaming after one too many nights trying to get a direct IP connection to work behind a campus router, and I’ve seen it convert die-hard console gamers into people that plan weeks of work off around the next Battlefield release. However, Valve isn’t stupid- their pricing model makes for ridiculous deals, and I have several games on my PC that I’ve purchased but never played, simply because I couldn’t pass up the price. Giving TF2 away is a great way to get those deals in front of gamers, and there’s precedent too- some of the biggest giants in industry today give away their core products.
Google and Microsoft give away Search. Apple gives away iTunes- hell, I HATE what a system hog it is on my PC but that damn iPod is just so small and elegant and shiny and functional! Facebook and Twitter give away their services (with judicious AdBlock use, they are truly free), Zynga made more money last year than EA by “giving away” “free” games” that I somehow spent $50 on in 2010. Network TV, one of the oldest advertising markets there is, has known this for years.
Giving useful product and services away works. (Think of the backlinks!)