Monday, 11 July 2011

Microtransaction Week Part One: Valve, Unusual Hats, and the Free Market. What the Hell Went Wrong?

In what I hope will be a week that might culminate in an interview with a person or company that uses microtransactions in order to facilitate business, this week will at the very least include two entries. The latter entry will deal with microtransactions as a whole, whilst the one you’re reading now will be very focused. As I so prophesied in my introductory post a whole couple of days ago, it’s time to talk about Team Fortress 2 hats. (Huzzah!…?)

Although it seems like a much longer removed time, I remember the launch of the Mann-Conomy update at the end of September 2010. As much of an outcry as there was from the SPUF community - a group that for the most part will surely find a reason to cry out over just about anything ever - that this would ruin the game, the update and the addition of microtransactions to TF2 was for the most part well thought out and smooth.

By far the most successful part of the Mann-Conomy was and continues to be the various Polycount sets that have stood as an example that user-created content can take a prominent role in games beyond a sea of mostly poorly edited levels when map generators are given out. Like most people, I was blown away when a couple of weeks after the update the figures showed that the cut of the Polycount that some of the set creators took was according to some articles, anywhere from “$39,000 to $47,000” within the first two weeks. That figure comes from this IGN article: here.

While some players were rather dismissive, saying that buying items would give those that could afford them an unfair advantage, for the most part that advantage would be fleeting due to the drop system and crafting still being viable options to gain any missing items. Those aforementioned systems were also joined by the long awaited for trade system, which was pretty much just what was advertised: trading between users for nearly any available item.

It all seems pretty keen so far. But the one stumbling block that was introduced and still persists is a thorn in the side of both the players, and although they probably wouldn’t admit it, Valve itself. I’m talking about crates, and the rarest drops that come from them: unusual hats.

As any long term player will tell you, Team Fortress 2 is the best hat based simulation with added combat elements that money can (or rather used to be able to) buy. Hats were already rare - if purely cosmetic - commodities. Aside from the first four released Polycount sets, hats served no purpose other than simply being decorative. Of course this fact didn’t keep players from going insane over trying to get as many as they could. Unusual hats only exacerbated this problem, and turned what used to be a solely in game problem into an entire free market with its own agendas and concerns: one that Valve itself had absolutely no control over and only the most minimal stake in.

The concept seemed so innocuous: crates dropped just like random items, but could only be opened with a key. Keys on the other hand can only be purchased from the Mann Co. Store for $2.50 or so a pop, depending. Every time you open a crate you could get any of the listed items, or you stood a very slim chance of unboxing an unusual hat. Unusual hats are simply hats with various particle effects attached to them; again, aside from any Polycount hats which already had inherent gameplay value in their respective sets, these hats had absolutely no beneficial effect. In fact some would say quite the opposite in that some of the more obvious effects probably made you Sniper bait and also encouraged players to gun for you given the chance.

Now, I happen to be the kind of lunatic that doesn’t entirely mind people trying to murder my face off even harder - I main Medic, on Arena, it’s to be expected - and I really thought that a Vintage Tyrolean with the scorching flames effect was neat. The thing about wanting and even getting this neat hat though, was that even though I can’t say I regret the purchase (I no longer have the hat though) and I would admit that now that I even have a steady source of income I’ve been considering getting a new one. But what I can’t ever justify is the price.

Something that came from a crate that costs $2.50 to unlock was purchased for nearly $250 dollars. That’s right, a purely cosmetic (i.e. worthless) virtual item had a mark-up of over 100 times any purely objective value attached to it. Think that’s insane? You’d be right, but that’s not even the worst of it. Some hats can and have gone for over a thousand dollars. If you go to the unusual hat club or tf2items you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of people selling these virtual items for hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Even as someone who has participated in this market and may very well participate again I can say without a mote of hesitation (and likely with a great deal of hypocrisy) that quite simply: that is fucking ridiculous.

Valve is a company that is known for the measures it takes in making sure that it has control over the situation, at least that’s a major facet of the image they like to portray after bouncing back from the Half Life 2 leak. And yet I cannot believe that given some of the fervour generated only months earlier over the Golden Wrench debacle that Valve could not have guessed that this would happen. Do they benefit from unusual hats? Sure, but only marginally. People might buy tens or hundreds of keys, but aside from the $2.50 it took to open the crate, Valve sees none of the money from the sale of these unusuals. However, that definitely doesn’t keep them from seeing a lion-share of the inherent problems.

When dealing with such a suddenly valuable commodity there is going to be people that are willing to use underhanded tactics. From scams that relied on bait and switch methods, to people challenging Paypal claims for virtual items they received - and in the majority of the cases succeeding at getting their money back - Valve has had to deal with countless complains from people that have been scammed, duped, or just made stupid decisions that they want reversed. It’s all a giant headache for the company and the gamers, and most infuriatingly of all, it’s something that could have been completely avoided AND made Valve richer in the process.

Keep the crate unusuals if you want, we’ll call them free-range unusuals for the sake of this argument. At the same time though, in order to counteract the ridiculousness of the current situation, something could have been simply implemented that although likely to inspire another round of rage from all comers would have and still could be ultimately a saving grace to both gamers and Valve as a whole.

In the Mann Co. Store give the player an option to buy unusuals. Start at a base price, something sane but not inexpensive. Let’s say $10 as a fair base. Throwing that money at the store gets you a completely random unusual hat: any class, any effect. Don’t like what you got? Tough cookies. But, if you’re willing to give a little more, say, $2.50 more, then you can choose the class. For $5 you and choose the exact hat, and another $5 gets you the effect you want. So to break it down: it’s a random unusual for $10, all the way up to the exact unusual you want for $20.

Now, I can guess as to what some of the objections would be to this plan. First and foremost is that it makes buying keys a moot point, not to mention rendering unusuals from something “rare and special” to something altogether common. The thing is that unusuals aren’t all that rare: more will be unboxed and the market is already saturated to the point where it seems at times to be nearly collapsing in on itself. Also, something I didn’t mention earlier is that any unusual you buy from the store will simply be bound to your backpack: untradable, much like community items or - ugh - a golden wrench. Unusuals unboxed can be traded to anyone for anything. But because anyone can just go to the store and get the exact unusual they want, they’d be remiss to pay anything in excess of say even $100 for one where the only difference is that it can be given away if you grow bored of it.

Another issue I see people bringing up is that $20 is still expensive. It’s a couple of cheap games on Steam, or a decent one when a sale pops up as it so often does. My counter to this is that people have been spending amounts that are easily 10 to 50 times that for one hat. As with all microtransactions, if you don’t want to buy an unusual you absolutely don’t have to, but if you do, this model would mean that you don’t have to choose between paying the rent or end up having to turn a couple of extra tricks after working at McDonalds in order to afford what is ultimately, a rather silly virtual item.

And of course, Valve benefits the most from this: they get $10 to $20 dollars for absolutely nothing, and if anyone complains that they got ripped off trading in free range unusuals, Valve can simply say “Well, that’s too bad, but hey, you could have just bought them from us if you wanted, and been absolutely secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t a scam.” Granted, Valve probably wouldn’t be as overtly smug about the whole thing, but they could afford to be what with the extra piles of money that would be coming in from implementing a plan like this.

Now, as acerbic as this rant was, on the whole I think I need to go on the record as saying that the Mann-Conomy is mostly a good example of how a microtransaction system should be implemented. The glaring issue of unusual hats aside, the store can get you items if you have some spare change and don’t want to be assed to wait, or it can get you some cute modifications for items or some seasonal swag. On the whole, Valve actually did a good job, which is more than can be said for some other systems. But the topic of microtransactions in general is one for another day this week, so with that I bid you adieu. Until next time may you find yourself not poor and Irish without the need to sell your kidneys.


  1. If valve was really feeling hurt by this system that they have they would stop it... for they have that power.

    I suspect that super overpriced hats creates an environment where many MANY keys are purchased for personal and profit reasons and the fact that people are buying these hats at crazytown prices means that those hats are actually worth that amount of money (though maybe not to you.)

    I have a good feeling that though Valve may be putting on their poo poo expression in the face of this situation they are thumbing through their fat stacks at the same time.

  2. There's no doubt that Valve is making a fair bit off the sales of keys. But they could be making so much more, while at the same time preventing headaches over people complaining they got ripped off because they traded outside the system.

    Granted, even if Valve does intend to change anything, they need to tread very lightly, since the genie is out of the bottle no matter whether you think that's a good or bad thing.

  3. Although it may not say so in the terms of service trading "outside" the system is just an extension of the system itself. One that Valve, unless utterly incompetent, could have easily foreseen; as these microtransaction models have been around for a while.

    Additionally you are bang on about the changes and them having to tread lightly if they truly want to avoid the aforementioned hazards.


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