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Chaos at the Drop of a Hat

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Valve's been known as a generous, community-friendly developer, and nowhere has this been more present than in their updates for the PC version of Team Fortress 2. They've given players new maps, new game modes, new items, and a little something called hats. These hats are nothing more than cosmetic changes to the character model, such as giving the Heavy a football helmet or the Pyro a fireman's helmet, but they are a customizing tool and are supposed to be rare items.

Naturally, everyone wanted hats, and when Valve implemented random item drops, they thought they would quickly get them all. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a problem: they had been made so super-rare that players were spending hundreds of hours online and not getting one. Thus, there was an anger building until an idea was born amongst some of the users: idling.

Idling was the process by which someone left their Team Fortress 2 game running for hours on end, doing nothing while picking up tons of items. After running into other players angry that they were not contributing and sitting in spawn the whole time, the idlers came up with another idea: create a map to idle on and host it on servers dedicated to running the map 24/7. There would be no fuss and everyone could get what they want. This was the birth of the idling servers. Even at this point, it was only a small portion of the community who were taking part.

That was, until a user named Drunken Fool arrived on the scene with a program he created specifically for idling. The program would trick Team Fortress 2 into thinking you were playing the game when you weren't, collecting hats and other items while not having to physically sit in a server. It encouraged more people to start idling, and while they remained a small group inside the TF2 community, they were a controversial one, considered cheaters by some and heroes by others.

After what seemed like forever, Valve finally spoke up, having known of the idling program and those who used it for a while. Valve's response to the situation was to slightly up the drop rate for hats, take away all hats and items gained through the idling program and give everyone else a special hat to themselves, a little "halo" called Cheater's Lament.

Needless to say, it didn't go over too well. In the immediate aftermath, some servers were reportedly banning people who had or didn't have the special hat, though this seems to have subsided quite a bit on a majority of servers. Still, there's a bitterness among the haves and the have-nots, and many of the halo-related threads on the Steam forums for Team Fortress 2 quickly have a trolling insult posted. Or they're complaints about some players not healing other players with (or without) the halo. Or they're links to mods to remove the halos from your sight. Or they're rants.

The question that arises over this whole debacle is did Valve do the right thing? Did they address the major issue surrounding this controversy? Is the game better off now that this fix has been put in place?

The answer is both yes and no. It was right of Valve to take away items obtained by exploiting a loophole in the game and Steam itself, so they did the right thing in that regard. But they did not do the right thing in failing to fix the underlying problem: the difficulty in acquiring hats, which was the driving force behind the idlers in the first place. Sure, hats should be rare items that aren't easy to get, but a slight change in hat rate drops for everyone isn't going to work. While you can't please everybody, it's hard to say that a game is honestly fair where those who put in hundreds of hours have the same chance at getting an item as those who just bought the game a week ago. Long-time players ought to have a slight leg up on others, albeit nothing major. Maybe just an extra chance here and there for something special based on their dedication to the game.

And it still hasn't stopped people from idling. Instead of using a program to trick the game into thinking you were idling, people are returning to the old method of using servers with the achievement_idle map, where players park their characters and go do something else. These servers have slowly started to re-appear as the change took effect and the idling program was made to be too risky and they are still churning out hats and items for those who visit them for extended periods of time. So if the idea was to discourage idling by punishing those who idled … why is it still a viable option to get hats and other items?

Finding a solution is not easy, and the idea I have is not fool-proof. If anything, it might encourage those bending the rules to do so more, but it better rewards everyone else. Hat unlocks are no longer tied to random chance drops, but are in part acquired through both skill and dedication to the game.

The first hat can only be unlocked after a player spends 25 hours playing a class, regardless of how many achievements they have unlocked. The second hat requires 50 hours playing a class, and for those classes who have achievements, at least half of the available achievements for a class unlocked. Those that don't (i.e. Soldier and Demoman) will not require the achievement condition until their updates are patched in. The final hat can only be acquired by playing 100 hours with a class and completing 75 percent of available achievements for the class. My original plan listed full completion instead of just 75 percent, but after remembering the abundance of achievement-based servers already out there, and remembering how painfully difficult some achievements are, 75 percent felt more fair to all players.

Will this proposal eliminate the idle servers and achievement servers? Certainly not. Nothing will kill those except for the release or removal of all bonus items from the game, and I don't think Valve wants to go down either of those paths. But is it more fair to the core that make up the TF2 user base? Certainly. And really, that's all I and most of them want: a fair chance at a hat.

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About Brian Szabelski