Valve's growing virtual economy, and how it has changed Team Fortress 2

Valve are well known in the world of videogames for doing things a little differently to your normal developers. The company's head, Gabe Newell, is probably one of gaming's most well known faces and Valve's franchises are among the most well known, particularly on PC. Half Life 2: Episode 3 might be the big name on people's tongues, but Team Fortress 2 is not always considered. Yet it should be, for Valve are clearly interested in it themselves. For those unaware, Team Fortress 2 is a class-based first person shooter which has one thing over other games: hats. Yes, hats.

These are purely cosmetic addons, yet they have been a big deal amongst the community. Certain hats, particularly the rare ones with effects, are worth real-world cash. Extremely valuable hats have been known to change hands for 600USD and up. Make no mistake: it is an economy in every sense of the word. It has its upturns and downturns, and it has its share of traders looking to make the most of every opportunity. This is based upon the experience of a relatively new player and also a new trader, so might not be based on the same experience as some of the more familiar workers.

Valve hired Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis recently, with the intent of having him advise on their economy. This caught my personal attention, since it seemed like an interesting reflection on how videogames have progressed and where they are going. People have complained about 'free-to-play' shooters such as Combat Arms being 'pay-to-win'. The same complaint has even been levered at DICE's Battlefield 3 on occasion, thanks to the Premium feature which was added to the game before the Close Quarters DLC released. Making the same argument about Team Fortress 2 is much more difficult though, since everything people will pay for can be attained through regular gameplay and luck.

The community like their headgear, moreso than their weapons. Hats are worth a great deal more than weapons to players, which is interesting in itself. Appearance comes second to everything else in other first-person-shooter titles, and yet the Team Fortress community manages to make it into its primary focus. For this reason, weapons are worth much less despite being able to do more for your actual gameplay. A fedora might make your character look cooler, but how much use is looking cool if you can't deliver performance as well? This is interesting, for the value of each hat is merely temporary. It could change in a short period of time if people chose for it to, but obviously it would mean spending a great deal of money on virtual items.

This one page of Mattie's backpack is worth more than you'd expect... a lot more.

Mattie! alone holds an inventory worth - wait for it - $30,000 (almost). Thirty thousand United States dollars in virtual items. That isn't an exaggerated value. either. It's a value the community itself has created, for he holds a huge number of items that are very in-demand among traders seeking to acquire items for themselves. $30,000 could even be seen as undervaluing the inventory Mattie! has collected over a long period of time, for different sites and people will price it differently. Regardless, it's worth around 850 Buds in community terms. And the going price of Buds? At the time of writing it tends to fluctuate between $24 and $30, depending on who you're trading with. Meanwhile, Carter's inventory contains items which are virtually priceless. The community determines the pricing and yet cannot determine Carter's inventory's value, purely because it contains items of such rarity.

Perhaps now is the time to explain what Buds are. They're another cosmetic item in the game, but crucially, they're also one of the de-facto currencies of the community. They have no value other than the value the community has put upon them, and the urge people have to acquire them. Buds were added to the game when it released for Mac OS X, as an accessory for people who played the game on a Mac in the early days. Obviously, keeping something like that as a fairly limited item wasn't going to go down well with people who were trying to collect everything they could. Therefore people began to try and get Buds, and their more limited number meant people would be prepared to spend money on them. The Mac owners who originally received them could see the profit available, and likely traded them on.

Now, Buds are one of the main currencies of the game. If you're buying something valuable, Buds will be how you're doing it. Then there are "Bills". These are copies of Bill's Hat; a promotional item given to those who pre-ordered Left 4 Dead 2. Bills, as they're simply called, are another form of currency worth less than half what Buds are. Going further down the currency rung, you have Refined Metal. Nine Refined Metal make one Bill's Hat. Three Reclaimed Metal make one Refined Metal, and three Scrap Metal make a Reclaimed Metal. In other words, the system is one where people are almost forced to begin with smaller trades so they can actually get the currency together to make bigger trades. It's a metagame within the actual game, to get the materials you need to actually get the goods you want.

You could expect to pay up to $30 for those sweet, sweet Buds.

As you would expect a dedicated community has been developed around trading, with specific trading servers and maps created. The maps tend to feature spawned bosses intended for holiday events, though the servers tend to be fairly organized locations for people to meet and haggle over pricings. The community based around trading tends to be very specific in their desires, and therefore, it makes for an interesting shock. The community has created and cultivated the economy, and now it tends to take it very seriously. There are still some trades made for the sake of getting what you want over profit, but most people tend to know the exact price they're aiming for on an item.

This comes from my own experience, as I attempted to trade something worth two Refined Metals for two items that added to the same value. I was turned down for this trade simply because it was not in the currency desired. Every trader has their own experiences with the system and therefore they know exactly what they want, so they can resell it or they can make use of it themselves. Strange weapons might be harder for them to sell and therefore they will express more interest in your metals than in your actual weapons. The weapons might but worth the same value but they aren't in the right currency. This isn't the deepest it goes though - oh no, it goes much deeper.

People will be concerned about their item's levels. While the levels are no longer entirely random, they can be more desirable depending on a figure which is completely cosmetic and does not impact on the weapon at all. The most valuable levels seem to be the 'funny' ones, such as Level 69 items. Level 1 and Level 100 items also exist, though there are some purists who will seek an item with a specific level if the number is of significance to them. The number might not be something many people will value though there are extremely specific collectors that would be eager to find that special something. It might not be special to anyone else and yet it means they may be more willing to pay for it. In some ways you could compare this with automotive purists. Some people might buy a modified car for slightly less than the standard one because it is cheaper, though the purists would probably be prepared to pay a little more for something they will appreciate more amongst themselves.

Valve's economist has his work cut out for him developing this economy and helping it to continue to grow under the eyes of the community that it has spawned. The game has evolved far beyond its own origins thanks to its community, so it only makes sense that Valve's team evolves to cope with the demand that people place on their virtual items. This is not the first time Valve has acted based on its community, even with Team Fortress 2 alone. The company created the official Team Fortress Wiki thanks to the work of its community and their constant development of wiki pages. Another prime example comes in the form of the Steam Workshop, where players can submit their own item designs. Sometimes, these items can be implemented into the game, and people will begin to trade for them. Again, there will be specifics people will want when trying to trade for it. Some exceptions are made with terms the traders rely on to bargain. The economy is such a large metagame that it has its own terminology.

Something as minor as an item level can completely change an item's value.

Items described as 'dirty' tend to be uncraftable or otherwise restricted, and therefore their value will be decreased substantially. Dirty items tend to be thrown in to swing deals which might not go your way otherwise. These items are known as 'sweets', and tend to be used only to sweeten a deal. If the item is something someone wants badly enough though a dirty version will often suffice. Strangely there are some dirty items which can be worth a lot because they are dirty. It sounds confusing, but items can be crafted. Often the crafted item is random, though if you're lucky enough to craft an early example it will have a Craft Number, and items with these numbers can command a considerable price premium over others. Sometimes traders will seek these items out for their numbers, much like the item levels. It isn't uncommon for someone to ask if they know where to get, say, Craft #40 of something they want. Again, this is technically dirty but the number makes it so much more special that it could potentially sell for more than a 'clean' version of the same item.

The Team Fortress 2 economy is an unusual beast, but one that can be interesting to partake in. The items can all theoretically appear at any time circumventing any need for actually trading though you would need an extraordinary amount of luck for it to happen. The economy is fuelled by the players and regulated almost entirely by them. Valve can always change the economy if they want to and completely devalue things if they want to flood the market with items. They have not done it up until this point, and they likely still will continue to not do so because of their responsibility. The economy allows Valve to profit just as much as well since people will buy keys to use in trades, and therefore Valve are keeping their own profit margins in check if they feed the community the goods they want on occasion.

Getting into the trading world in a big way requires a considerable amount of luck though is entirely possible to do. It can be highly addictive, or you can come out of it feeling cold. The entire thing comes down to your own interest in seeing it, and how it all works. My own experience as a trader in Team Fortress 2  is limited though I've been lucky enough to be able to acquire some items I could then resell for what I wanted and continue to involve myself in trades. It's an interesting way to make money and it would be a slow way to riches but considering you can do it for as little as $5 (minimum amount required for your Steam Wallet to upgrade your account and unlock trading privileges), you can't really complain. If you have the game you may as well see what you can do with items you don't want as much any longer. The game can be as expensive as you make it, if you're spending $600 on a hat, or it can be something you unlock the full experience in with as little as a dollar. Either way, you definitely have nothing to lose out on by playing the game and seeing what you can do with it.

Valve's own interest in the economy is evident since they do have an economist on side now. That fact alone should prove persuasive enough that Valve have created an environment in which people can profiteer as they seek. Considering the finer details of how Valve's economist was highered it could be indicative that the company is trying to bring this success to other games in the future. While it is unlikely to appear in Half-Life, there is a chance that it could appear in more future games. Defence of the Ancients 2, or DOTA2, is already developing a trading community though not at the same rate. In the future Valve's titles may all be brought together by a community of traders. If this is the case, I cannot wait to see what the future holds for traders in PC games and the virtual economies they will spawn.

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