Robin Walker on Competitive TF2 and Future Updates

Monday, 18 January 2010 16:56 MMZ>eXtine

Community Fortress is proud to present its second interview with Robin Walker. We discuss the WAR! update, future updates, competitive play, and community involvment.

eXtine: Robin, its great to chat with you again. Let’s get right into it and talk about this WAR update. Valve introduced limited time events with the Halloween special, and then kicked it into high-gear with this new event that sparked a gigantic inter-class war. Can you describe how this event came about, and some of the difficulties Valve faced and overcame in starting this War?

Robin: After the Sniper & Spy update, we knew everyone would be disappointed if we went back to a single class update strategy. We also thought that you would all be disappointed if we rehashed the same trickery we did with the Sniper & Spy update. We felt that trickery had made sense for the Spy, but it wasn’t what the Soldier & Demoman are about. When we asked ourselves what kind of update the Soldier & Demoman should be, it seemed obvious that it should fundamentally be about combat. We also wanted to try and get the pre-update excitement into the game this time, instead of it just being on the web like previous updates. With all that in mind, we sat down and kicked ideas around, and the WAR! was the one that excited us the most.

eXtine: What aspect of the War surprised you the most?

Robin: It’s a tossup between two things that amazed us. The first was that the war was so close all the way through, and that it ended so closely that the propaganda contest actually became a factor. We really hoped it’d be close, but it worked out better than we ever dreamed it could. The second was the insane number of submissions we received in the propaganda contest. We’ve run contests in the past around user submissions, and they’ve never come close to this in volume. We had to improve our submission viewing system, and rope in a bunch of others in the company to help us get through the entries in time.

eXtine: The TF2 Halloween Special was a rousing success and the 12.5 million+ casualties of the Demoman/Soldier War clearly demonstrate the power of limited time events in TF2. Is this something that we can continue to expect out of TF2?

Robin: I think so. The technology behind TF2 is collecting features with each update we do, so each time we have a new idea, it’s often easier to do than the last. As a result, I think we’ll continue to try to do something new with each update, even if it’s a small twist on a previous idea. The time limited events, like the Halloween update, are often easier to design because they’re time constrained. We were able to focus a little more on fun in the Halloween update without having to worry about game balance, because it only lasted a week, and it was contained within a single new map, ensuring competitive matches were unaffected.

eXtine: The Blog updates seemed a bit more consistent in the lead-up to this patch then they had in the past. Is 7PM PST the time we should expect blog posts in the lead-up to big patches? Has Valve settled on Thursdays for large updates? How frantic does it get at Valve studios during this hype period?

Robin: Consistency is about the last word I think we’d ever use to describe our blog. As a general rule, we’re constantly wishing we would update it more often, and in a more timely fashion. Unfortunately, we’re often working right down to the wire, because the people who put together the web site pieces are the same people who work on the game. So it’s fairly common for the artwork on each update page to be built on the day it’s being published. This was largely why the updates were so late in the day throughout the Soldier / Demo update, instead of our preferred time of 2pm PST. It does get pretty crazy, mostly because half the team has finished their work, and is reading our fans yelling for the next piece to be released, while the other half of the team is still working frantically.

eXtine: We’re down to one class pack left, the engineer. Following that, will you start revisiting classes? Perhaps a 2nd Pyro Pack exploring her feminine side?

Robin: We’ve got multiple updates in the works still, at least one of which will land before the Engineer pack. As always, we haven’t planned too much out beyond that point, because we want to see what feedback we get from the community.

eXtine: There was some discussion about potentially compensating L4d mapmakers whose custom campaigns are of high enough quality to be released as DLC for Xbox Live. What is the relation between Valve and community mapmakers in regards to TF2 and what happens behind the scenes when a map becomes official?

Robin: Right now we simply purchase the map & the associated sources from the folks behind it. It’s pretty straightforward.

eXtine: Speaking of Left 4 Dead, L4D2 utilizes a lobby system for joining games and this feature was mentioned as possibly making its way into TF2. What are your thoughts on a 6v6 lobby system in TF2 and the status of any sort of implementation?

Robin: The guys behind the L4D2 matchmaking system are working on broadening it out into generalized steam matchmaking. Once they have it figured out, we’ll look at how it’d fit into TF2.

eXtine: Are you familiar with the irc channel #tf2.pug.na? Some steam groups have also taken to publicizing their PUGs (pick up games) or other events through the steam community. Has there been any thought to increase the capability of the steam community features to accommodate pick-up games or teams looking for scrimmages?

Robin: It’s been talked about a bunch, and was actually part of the original Arena mode plan. It’s not something we’re going to have a solution for in the short term, so we’ve recently added features specifically for some members of the community who are working on a system like it.

eXtine: The implementation of random drops caught people off-guard and many were upset with the system’s initial implementation. With the crafting system now in place and players at least having a Halo, Beret, or a Halloween hat, the uproar has died down. It’s also great to see the release of unique items as rewards to community members making positive changes for the game. What does the future hold for TF2’s item system?

Robin: We’re going to tune the drop rates a bit next. The goals around the tuning are to reduce the value of idling, and to increase the amount of items being found. Now that we have crafting, we’d like to give everyone more opportunities to do it. Beyond that, our next two high level pieces are item trading, and ways for custom content creators to get their items into the system.

eXtine: In our last interview together you said: “As an example of the kind of work we could do for them, several of the competitive organizations have built external tools, server mods, and scripts to help organize & run their tournaments. We’d like to see if we could move some of those systems directly into the game.” Has there been any progress on working together with the leagues and incorporating some of these systems in-game?

Robin: We’re talking to them now, and have some plans for things we can do together, but we haven’t got as far along this path as we’d like. Obviously, we’ve been continuing to push more of the commonly desired competitive server settings into the game.

eXtine: Does Valve have an in-house 6v6 team? Do any/many Valve employees play in competitive leagues for TF2 or other FPSs?

Robin: We used to have a competent in-house 12 man team, which could probably have been reduced to a reasonably competitive 6 person team, but in the last year it’s fallen apart as other projects have cropped up. We do have several people who’ve played competitively for various FPSs, but most of it was prior to working at Valve, due to the time you need to maintain your competitive level. Overall, though, we don’t consider ourselves good proxies for the competitive side of the game, so we need to listen to the competitive players themselves when trying to measure the impact of changes on their play.

eXtine: In your opinion, what long term things need to happen in order for competitive FPS leagues to reach a point of widespread acceptance and sustainability?

Robin: Actually, this is exactly the sort of thing that we’re always trying to figure out. We have some theories, but due to the reasons I covered in my previous answer, it’s often something we’re more interested in asking members of the competitive community. So if you’re an FPS player in competitive leagues, what do you look for in a league? Why are you in the leagues you’re in now? What has made you stop playing in a league in the past? What do you think leagues should be doing better at? How can game developers help the leagues out? If you have the time, whip up a quick email with your thoughts on these topics, and email them to me at [email protected]

eXtine: Valve has always encouraged players to get involved with developing and improving upon the game. Let’s say someone develops a training mod to help people “race to the middle” of 5-cp maps, which would be very helpful to competitive players new and old. Could a mod like this, or other community developed tools, ever become official and be included in TF2 proper?

Robin: We’re actually working on some training tools right now, although our focus is on the very beginner level. A community built version would probably have a different focus, and certainly an alternative viewpoint, so it could well be valuable. We regularly get emails from people wondering what they can do to get a community contributor item. The answer to that question is much the same as how to get your work included into TF2 itself: build something of value to TF2 players. Look around, and see what problems people are having. Ask other players what they think would make TF2 a better game, or have a better community. Most of these wishes can be at least partially fulfilled by content or tools built by players.

eXtine: What are some things that Valve would like to get done for TF2, but are currently considered low priority in the face of more pressing issues?

Robin: Wow, there’s about a million of these. We probably read 20 suggestions every day that are worth implementing, if we only had the time & resources.

eXtine: Valve has always had a strong connection with their fan-base, listening to input from players and responding accordingly. What’s the best way for players to share their input and ideas with Valve, is there some sort of Saxton Hale hotline?

Robin: If you have ideas for how to improve the game, the best thing you can do is to post them in the TF2 Steampowered forums. We read those forums daily, as well as a bunch of other gaming forums throughout the net. Posting your ideas publicly is useful because you’ll get feedback from other players, and you can use that feedback to improve them. It’s also useful for us to see what other fans think of your ideas. If you have bugs or exploits to report, you can do send them to me privately, via the Valve software email form at http://www.valvesoftware.com/email.php?recipient=Robin%20Walker

Much thanks to Robin Walker for taking the time to give such great answers to a very long interview, especially with Valve being as busy as they have been lately. Such a long interview in fact, that there were 8 questions he didn’t get to. Check back tomorrow to see those questions and ponder the unveiled secrets of Robin Walker. All these questions originated before the WAR patch was unveiled, then there was the holidays, and then more patches from Valve! Give thanks to Valve for being the best game company around, and start working on those contributions! Discuss the interview on our TF2 forums or on the Steam Forums.
Last Updated ( Monday, 18 January 2010 17:07 )
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