GMotW: Team Fortress 2 and the difficulty curve.

“Each class has a unique set of weapons at their disposal occupying weapon slots 1, 2, and 3 (often referred to as primary, secondary, and melee, respectively)… The choices players make in choosing weapons and items constitutes their loadout.”

Courtesy of the Team Fortress 2 wiki, let’s talk about Team Fortress 2.

I don’t, as a rule, like first-person shooters or online multiplayer games. I do like TF2. Somehow, it works in a way that, say, the various Halos never did for me. Part of this is because the Team Fortress games were early pioneers in the field of spawning players with all the weapons they are going to get. The importance of this, I think, cannot be overstated, and is doubtless a part of why the game is as popular as it is.

Nobody wants to do something that they are bad at. When faced with a task you are bad at, you either put it away (“ah, this sucks, forget it”) or attempt to be good (“no, screw YOU game, I’m gonna win!”). Most often you attempt the latter until stymied, at which point the fun-versus-effort dynamic shifts such that you switch to the former. In a competitive situation like, well, a multiplayer deathmatch, it’s a lot more difficult to undertake the sort of mechanical experimentation which allows you got get good, or even competent. Especially if you’re playing against the sorts of folks who know where the sniper rifle and rocket launcher spawn, so they go grab them right away, and you are lucky to get ten feet away from your base without your head or your self exploding. Bah, screw this game, I quit!

But no, TF2 eschews that. You want to be a dude with a rocket launcher, you are a dude with a rocket launcher: he is a Soldier, his name is Jane Doe, and he shoots ROCKETS from a point just above his right shoulder: what else do you need to know? You want to snipe, be a Sniper, you want to scout, be a Scout, et cetera, et cetera. While any competitive game (and anything you might call a game at all) has a learning curve, this flattens it tremendously, because becoming an effective member of the team is now less dependent on intuitively understanding where everything appears on the map, and more on recognizing what skills you possess and being ready to use them. Me, I’m bad at shooting, so I tend to stick with the Engineer or Pyro as needed.

The way TF2 handles loadouts allows players to obtain new weapons and change them out between rounds as well, such that a Soldier will always fire a rocket launcher but he may fire one which does less damage but gives him health on a hit, or which is especially effective at knockback at the expense of ammo capacity, or whatever other tradeoffs seem compelling (and tradeoffs are great, that I cannot deny). Ignoring for a moment the hassle involved in obtaining these specialty weapons (although those with mechanical effects can all be purchased), this is another means by which players may allow themselves to be more easily drawn into the game. I go soldier when it makes sense for the objective, but I never go without my Black Box for the extra healing it provides. Likewise, I never Medic without the Vita-Saw which makes getting killed less painful, and never Pyro without the Backburner to improve my ambushes, because I know how I play and what I like and these are the weapons which appeal to me.

… that being said.

That being said, Team Fortress 2 is starting to approach Item Bloat. This is an interesting phenominon, in which the multiplicity of options which once made things easier for new and old players to play to their strengths is going to invert. While the class system will remain, hopefully, static, the ever-increasing supply of weapons with strange new effects mean that players A) cannot effectively recognize or predict what other players are capable of, and B) cannot easily identify which weapon from a large set will most effectively complement their abilities.

To some players, the bloat point has been reached. To others, the current choices are not overwhelming, and I am of the latter camp, but I have concerns for the future. Already the difficulty curve is rising based not on knowledge of the individual maps but of the plethora of effects… I might know exactly how to get the sniper rifle, but I don’t know what it means to be crit-boosted, marked for death, mad milked, jarated, bleeding, on fire, speed boosted, overhealed, or any of the other dozen-odd status effects which might apply to me or whomever I point a weapon at. Suddenly it takes more knowledge to effectively create a character than it does to play, which is sort of like presenting someone with a game of chess and watching it morph into D&D 4E (and if there is a better comparison point for game bloat than 4E, I cannot think of one).

What is the future for Team Fortress 2? More stuff, more stuff, and less interest each update until, ten years down the road, they stop making new equipment altogether although the servers will remain up for another decade. That’s my guess.

Oooh, depressing note. It’s still a mechanic I can get behind, I just wish they wouldn’t abuse it so.


2 responses to “GMotW: Team Fortress 2 and the difficulty curve.

  • Christopher Dalley

    Well said about the item bloat. Even at the moment new players will most likely feel intimidated by the sheer amount of customisation options on display. I hope it never turns into a World of Warcraft situation where those who are accustomed with the game shun the newcomers to the point of it becoming impenetrable. That’s more of a worst case scenario than anything else, but still…

    Nice article, anyway.

  • Thought Check Games

    Hey, thanks! I also hope it never hits that point in TF2, although back when it turned free to play there sure was a backlash against all the newbies on the servers. Luckily there’s a fairly big divide between the competitive and casual players so, for the moment, it’s still possible to just pick any old weapons with no idea what they do and have fun experimenting without getting overly mocked or booted.