The Future of Unlocks in Competitive Team Fortress 2

In recent months, Valve has begun releasing a slow trickle of new content in the form of community weapons. They new weapons have been a point of some contention, with some division among players as to whether they should be allowed, and leagues somewhat unsure as to how to respond. In this post, I will try to address two of the major concerns that arise when critically examining the new weapons: the availability of the new weapons, and the manner in which they impact gameplay.

Issue #1: Availability

From a league’s perspective, it’s easy to see why unlocks in their current form present something of an issue: they contribute to imbalance in the playing field. If certain players do not have access to a certain functionally distinct weapon, that weapon should not be allowed, period. This became an issue starting with the sniper/spy update, when the new unlocks were available only via random drops. Leagues swiftly banned the new weapons, Valve moved just as quickly moved to bind milestone achievements to the new unlocks.

The system that we have now is something entirely different, and something that is not nearly so cut and dry as “completely random” or “obtainable via a 100% reliable method.” What we have instead is a random drop system combined with crafting, which gives players the possibility of obtaining the new weapons. There are a number of things that are decidedly wrong with the current system from a league’s perspective. Perhaps the most obvious is that now, even in spite of the new recipes that have been added, not all of the weapons can be crafted with 100% reliability. The “generic token” recipe used to craft gunboats yields gunboats only 50% of the time. The unique gunboats recipe is almost worst, requiring two items which each have a 50% yield rate via crafting: the razorback (which shares “sniper secondary” status with the jarate) and the demoman’s targe (which occupies the same slot as the scottish resistance). The only reliable way to craft the gunboats is by using the razorback and targe obtained via achievement—hardly acceptable for a player whose role might shift from soldier to demoman on occasion.

The other inherent problem with the crafting system is that it assumes a certain amount of “raw material” for crafting. However, Valve has capped the drop rate for “raw material” at around eight items per week. Why is this a problem? It adds another barrier to entry. When you arbitrarily limit the rate at which players can obtain items, you create a theoretical maximum amount of time that it takes a new player to obtain all of the tools that it takes for them to be competitive. The current model might work in the short term, when only a small handful of “craft only” items exist, but the model isn’t scalable.

There are a number of solutions of varying complexity which could be used to help remedy the issue of unlocks being the potential cause of an “unbalanced playing field,” but very few of them address the root of the issue. However, there is a simple solution which completely resolves any logistical complaints that competitive players might have about new weapons. The solution is this: Allow players free access to all of the game’s weapons when a server is running with mp_tournament 1.

Simple, no? Perhaps the most beneficial part of this solution is that it enables Valve to address the complaints of competitive players while leaving play on public servers completely unaffected. Most pub players will never set foot in a mp_tournament 1 server. Competitive players, meanwhile, will have free access to the weapons for practicing in scrims and pugs, as well as use in the matches themselves.

This solves any number of issues surrounding the current backpack system. With it, there will be no more complaints from people who failed to craft the gunboats on their third attempt, or stories of people who accidentally crafted their equalizer away before an important match. It assures a perfectly level playing field. If Valve were to implement such a solution, most of the argument and dispute surrounding the addition of new weapons would vanish instantly.

In the absence of such a solution from Valve, leagues are forced to make do with what means we have available. Although imperfect, Valve has provided players with a number of tools which should ensure the availability of new weapons within a certain time frame. Addressing the issue of availability is as simple as instituting a “cooling off” period after the weapon’s release before they are allowed in matches, where the “cooling off” period is the maximum amount of time that it would reasonably take a player to obtain the weapon. Given current drop rates and assuming the use of unique recipes to ensure a 100% success rate, that period seems to be no more than two weeks in most cases.

Issue #2: Gameplay

Although availability of new items is a significant issue, it’s not the only one that leagues face. All new weapons affect gameplay, and some of them impact gameplay in a significant way. That’s part of what Team Fortress 2 is as a game, but when players find that the rules of the game they are playing are changed mid-season, possibly in the awkward gap between the regular season and playoffs, that becomes a legitimate concern.

Or does it?

The argument as it appears on paper, that players should be graded consistently throughout the season, and all matches should be played using the same settings, is a flimsy one at best. Changes of any nature besides unlocks are included without hesitation, no questions asked. In April, Valve significantly buffed the pyro’s air blast and the minigun’s windup time, and nobody in the competitive community batted an eyelash. There was no talk of “testing the new changes” before allowing players to play matches on the latest version of Team Fortress 2.

It’s also worth mentioning that, in terms of consequence, there are a number of other variables which are far more significant than the addition of new weapons. For one thing, most leagues play a different map every week, sometimes introducing entirely new maps that most players have little experience on. If the baseline for comparison is “Badlands with vanilla weapons,” “Badlands with Crit-a-Cola scouts” bears a much closer resemblance to the game we’ve become familiar with than “Gullywash with vanilla weapons.”

I think that most players have come to understand that playing different maps, sometimes even playing new maps in a league setting, is something that is ultimately beneficial for Team Fortress 2 as a competitive game and necessary to avoid stagnation. There might be certain maps that you really really hate, but still people suck it up and, somehow, we manage to all survive playing our matches on Obscure and Mainline. Why should unlocks be any different?

There are, of course, some exceptions. The sandman is is a classic example. However, it’s important to realize what the sandman is: a highly exceptional case that is fundamentally different from any other we’ve seen in Team Fortress 2. The approach to the sandman after its release was not “subject it to playtesting during the pre-season to see whether it proves to be game-changing in a negative way.” CEVO banned the sandman within a day and this quickly became the precedent for leagues. The agreement that the weapon should be banned was nearly unanimous. When a weapon is as ban-worthy as the sandman in its original state, it doesn’t leave much room for discussion. If a new weapon has been out for several weeks and the community is largely indifferent about its impact on gameplay (and those who are concerned with its affect on gameplay are not overwhelmingly opposed to it), it’s probably a sign that the weapon is not ban-worthy.

Some of the new weapons will affect game balance. That much is clear. However, changes to game balance are not bad by definition. When the blutsauger was first introduced, apart from being strictly superior to the original syringe gun in a nocrit environment, it also provided a tangible buff to what is arguably the most powerful, vital, and game-changing class in the game. One of the built-in constraints that the current competitive format provides is that off class limits. Even if the scout were to be ruthlessly buffed, it would be impossible for the scout to become powerful to the exclusion of other classes, as we have a hard cap of two scouts per team. The more important consideration is whether the gameplay changes that result from the new weapon are negative. The sandman in its original state was a scout buff, but that’s not why it was banned. If the sandman had been a pyro weapon, it still would have been banned.

When Team Fortress 2 first started receiving weapons updates, it was assumed that they would be allowed in competitive play. Allowing new weapons was the default stance. With the fallout of the updates for scout (which added the sandman) and the sniper/spy (which added the random drop system), we seem to have lost this. Ideally, Team Fortress 2 should return to a state where new weapons are allowed by default and banned only in exceptional cases.

There are two considerations when deciding whether new weapons from competitive play: logistics and gameplay. Although we’re still waiting on a more permanent solution from Valve, issues of availability become moot within a few weeks of a weapon’s release. Once logistical problems surrounding a new weapon have been resolved (either by an improved system or the passage of time), only weapons which indisputably have an extremely negative impact on gameplay should be barred from the game.

What is needed:

Valve needs to come up with a system to ensure that all competitive players will be assured access to the same tools. The simplest solution seems to be to simply provide all of those tools to anyone playing on a server running mp_tournament 1. (Another item that might also be worth considering is re-adding the “equip” command to allow for weapon toggling scripts.)

Leagues, in the meantime, need to come up with a solution that allows all players a reasonable amount of time to obtain new weapons. Leagues also have a responsibility to ban weapons that are inherently detrimental to gameplay. However, leagues should also not overstep their bounds: when logistical barriers to weapon use have been removed, and a weapon is evidently not exceptionally detrimental, it should be allowed.

Players need to realize that Team Fortress 2 is a game that is constantly growing and evolving. Players should understand that balance changes are not inherently bad, and players should not unreasonably exclude new weapons from competitive play. Playing a competitive game which receives a constant stream of new content is a unique privilege that few others share, and while it’s an experience that isn’t without its growing pains, it ultimately contributes to the health and strength of Team Fortress 2 as a competitive game.

Written by Kuiper


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12 years ago

I have the problem where I crafted my Kritzkrieg and now they drop it anymore. I have found a lot of other useless weapons but this happened just before tournies and no I am stuck without an important weapon in my arsenal as a medic… I don’t even know how to craft a Kritzkrieg…

12 years ago

To craft Kritzkreig: Craft a medic token (three medic items to get it straight, or three items of any one class to get some arbitrary class token, then the class token with one medic item to rebuild it into a medic token) and a secondary slot token (three secondary weapons, or similarly to the medic token) and then craft the two tokens together with a scrap metal.

KunG Fu
12 years ago

This is what I use to see what crafts what:

Hope it helps. 🙂

12 years ago

Same thing happend to me Racoon i crafted my krietzkrieg before they had the update showing you what you had equiped so i lost it.

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