Anatomy of an Update

It’s been a good long while since Robotic Boogaloo, the first (and thus far only) community-created update, and I’ve been thinking about it lately. The update never sat well with me and even if we don’t all agree that the update wasn’t that great, we should all acknowledge it wasn’t well-received. But I don’t feel that should be the end of community-created updates. I think the TF2 community can and does do better. If we want community updates to be a thing that people celebrate on the same level as normal Valve updates, though, they need to BE on the same level as a Valve update, as opposed to being a thing of people seeing one is out and thinking “Aw fuck, hat glurge”. The next one, if there is a next one, is gonna have to really knock it out of the park to prove this is a thing worth doing on the regular.

Hopefully Valve will permit more community updates. I should think they realize they too are in large part responsible for the last one not going so well. Having shipped many updates, they could have guessed where the problems lie in Robotic Boogaloo. I get why they didn’t intercede if they did see these issues I’m going to detail. They wanted to maintain the integrity of it being completely community-made, but in being so hands-off, they pretty much left the people behind the project with their dicks hanging out when the playerbase was disappointed. It was a lot to ask of people who had never shipped a TF2 update before to bang one out and get everything right. The way the update was presented, as a community project and not as a stress test for a new content shipper, unfairly put the community on the hook for that disappointment.

With fewer restrictions of that kind and a more honest presentation, I think this game’s community could put together an A+ update.

Nonetheless, before I continue, I’mma go ahead and say that I’ll be using Robot Hats often as an example of how things could have been done better. I know the reasons for the limitations on it, yes, but the fact that it was a test for Steam Pipe’s mass item-shipper doesn’t change that it was underwhelming. So, if you’re someone in a position to feel slighted by this, please bear in mind a few things.

Insofar as this is a critique of Robotic Boogaloo, save for some very specific situations, it is a critique of the project’s execution, not of the individual works that went into it. There were a lot of very good singular works in the update, but an update is the sum of its parts.

Too, I wasn’t involved with Robotic Boogaloo. I don’t know the intricate workings of how it really was in development, and I’ve never shipped an update myself. Never even put together a fake one. I also don’t work at Valve so I don’t know the backend shit there either. My suppositions in places might be wrong occasionally. You can choose then to dismiss what I’m saying here as someone who just don’t know shit about it, but I’m also writing this from the perspective of the people to whom updates are supposed to sell TF2. Ultimately, selling TF2 is what you’re trying to do with an update.

And finally, know that Robot Hats was an experiment more than anything, and experiments sometimes don’t produce the desired results. And that is okay! Even Valve’s own shit doesn’t always work right on the first try, *cough*greenlight*cough*. Their entire studio is seemingly built around allowing this to happen because we learn more from trying and failing than never taking risks at all. Really, I wouldn’t have thought of any of this without Robotic Boogaloo, probably wouldn’t have seen it at the time if I’d been on the dev team, so one might even think of it less as failure than as a starting point. There was much to be learned from Robot Hats, and without it, we’d be just as blind going into an update today as Facepunch was a year or so ago. So everyone put your big girl panties on and prepare to think critically and constructively.

So. What makes a good update?

In looking at update histories, especially if, like me, you weren’t around IN THE BEGINNING, a lot of earlier updates look pretty boring and lackluster compared to later ones. But I have it on good authority that they were exciting as fuck at the time. Some of you who were around then may not have even liked them that much. And even now some updates are more exciting than others, obviously. I’ll go into what components make an update more likely to make the playerbase abuzz, but let’s speak on broad terms for now.

Updates are, above all else, supposed to get the players excited about playing.

TF2 is an ongoing project. Unlike more traditional games that don’t update in this way, TF2 is designed to generate bursts of revenue, as opposed to the usual model of one big load and then a long sales tail. In order to keep that income coming, and to justify maintaining the game, they need people playing and spending money in the Mann Bazaar.

That is, from a practical standpoint, what updating is about. I mean, don’t let that take all the fun out of it for you. Updates are also very much about fun! But that fun has a point: good updates make for more money spent in TF2, which means more updates in the future.

Obviously updates are supposed to bring the game back into the forefront of game news to attract potential new players. Used to be, Valve would report large influxes of new players with every update, each of them paying $20 (Steam sale pricing exempted) for their copy of the game. Now that the game is free-to-play and relies on the hat store to support itself, hooking new players and getting them in-game is especially crucial to TF2′s ongoing success. So anyone who installs TF2 and starts playing — and maybe buying items in the store — because they saw an advertisement or a blog post or whatever about your update is a point for you.

But you also want to bring back your existing players, because more than a splash screen on Steam’s store header or an Update News page, your existing players are what get new players to play. They love TF2 and they tell their friends, especially when fun, exciting new shit is happening. Now, if you’re the sort who participates in the fandom, TF2 is probably always rolling around in your consciousness to some degree. But a lot of TF2′s playerbase is perennial. They play for a while, then they get into something else, and either a player will come back for a reason all their own, or more likely your brand new, very exciting update brings them back en masse.

And the thing in updates that brings all the mercenaries to the yard is gameplay features.

The very first major update for TF2, The Gold Rush Update, did not have a comic, nor a hub as we know them today, nor even a multi-day reveal before release. It had two content features, the icon pack that accompanied Medic’s new achievements and the Meet the Scout video. Everything else — the Payload game mode, the Gold Rush map to play it on, the introduction of item loadouts, the first set of alternate weapons to choose within the loadouts, and the Medic achievements with which to unlock and earn those alternates — was gameplay.

Gold Rush was a pretty successful update, I am to understand. A large part of this is because TF2 had been out for five months with naught but bug fixes in that time. Anything new was going to be exciting. Another factor is that it changed the way people play Medic. Medic’s alternate weapons were designed with the criticism in mind that playing as Medic was too passive. With new weapons that encouraged and rewarded offensive play, more people were eager to play Medic. He went from the least played class to third highest. And if you didn’t want to play as Medic even with his new toys, you still had the new Payload gamemode to try out and the strong implication that, though only Medic had alternate unlocks presently, ones for your favorite class were forthcoming.

Simply put, it had something for most everyone who played TF2.

Of course, there’s always going to be someone who won’t like the update. However, you should not use that knowledge as a shield against any criticism ever, but as a caveat to the fact that you will try to make your project as broadly appealing to the playerbase as possible, and there will simply be a person or two that you cannot reach. This is because their wants and expectations will never be in alignment with the direction the game is going in. I am not speaking of those who wanted maps and weapons this time around. You cannot dismiss criticism from people calling you out for not meeting a base expectation. I’m talking about people who are unhappy with anything that came out since 2009 or people who want utterly outlandish shit like Portal guns. Those people you can roll your eyes at.

That said, the most common criticism I’ve seen of the Robotic Boogaloo update was that the gameplay features were disappointing. A lot of people misunderstood what that means. When people say the update sucked, they mostly do not mean the hats and the artwork sucked. Most everyone regarded the actual individual content features of the update very well. They mean that the update did nothing to make the game any different than it was when they last played it. Hats, especially hats that already exist in one form and take up valuable backpack slots, only appeal to people who actively collect any and all hats. Contrary to the running gag, these people are not actually the majority of TF2 players. An avalanche of reskinned hats has a very narrow field of interest: basically just people who are really into robot shit and traders. The hats themselves were fine as far as hats go; it’s just that relatively few people were that excited about obtaining them.

And in that, Robotic Boogaloo failed to achieve the number one goal of updates: get people excited about playing the game. The people saying there should have been weapons or maps are voicing a very legitimate point. What new experience can you have in TF2 that you couldn’t before this update? Unless wearing a metal version of an existing hat is a total game changer for you, none.

So gameplay features are absolutely requisite to your update. Your update ain’t shit without them. Let’s talk about the most basic features: gamemodes, maps, weapons, and hats.

Well, you got hats down, I’ll give you that. Y’all know where to find some cashy hats.

Here’s the thing about hats. They are a gameplay feature, in that they help you differentiate players from each other. That way, even if you can’t see their names, you know which one of those dickbags on the other team has earned your undying ire by his neon green Max’s Severed Head. But adding more hats does not change this feature; it just presents additional options for it. Hats are like the candles on the cake that is TF2. Decorative and fun, they add a touch more to the presentation, but ultimately, you cannot eat them. There is very little about hats that you have to actually be in-game to appreciate. Maybe you can’t fully realize the joys of jigglebones or particles from a picture alone, but those by themselves are not going to inspire the return to the game you want out of players. Which is not to say an update shouldn’t have hats. I think by now they’re pretty much required, but candles alone do not make a birthday cake. They can’t support an update by themselves.

I would really argue that no single feature should be the only thing about an update, but there’s definitely a tier system to what gets people’s gears going. As we have learned from Robotic Boogaloo, hats are at the bottom of that list. What’s at the top?

Gamemodes.

I think we all remember what a big deal the Mann vs. Machine Update was. Since, you know, Robot Hats was an extension of it and all. It added a shitload of individual features (upgrades, Manning Up, botkiller items), but the important thing is the gamemode itself.

I know there were tons of people flocking back to the game to try it out, because the waiting period to get into a server was half an hour minimum. New ways to play always bring back the crowds.

Introducing new gamemodes doesn’t always equal foolproof success, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say a single good thing about Special Delivery. That is why I would advise against building an update around a single feature. If Special Delivery was the only thing about the Pyromania Update, it would have been panned. As it was, it also had Pyrovision, new weapons, and the “Meet the Pyro” video going for it. They didn’t put all their eggs in one basket.

Gamemodes would seem to me the most difficult thing to implement in game officially anyway, so while they’re most likely to get people back in game, they’re probably not your best bet for approval. Nonetheless, you do have members of the community who can and have developed new ways of playing the game. Prop Hunt, Vs. Saxton Hale (and its expansion Freak Fortress), Randomizer, and Class Dash were all created by people outside of Valve. Most TF2 mods are going to be a little too out there for official distribution, but that does not mean community members cannot come up with and develop modes that are more in line with TF2′s style and canon. It is a possibility that you should keep in mind when plotting out an update.

A more solid and reliable option, though, are maps for existing modes. Preferably ones for those modes that are otherwise neglected, like Special Delivery and Territorial Control. But really, it’s been a year and half since MVM came out and we haven’t had an update with anything (save for the annual Halloween events) that wasn’t robot-related. There’s a whole rest of the game that’s been “neglected” at this point.

Major updates almost always contain at least one map, but often a few, because maps are the easiest way to appeal to the most people at the lowest risk. Especially nowadays when new maps don’t merely mean new places to play regularly, but also new places to dick around in Garry’s Mod and new sets for Source Filmmaker. True, you won’t win them all that way. I have a friend who plays on nothing but 2Fort. And that is what I mean by “you can’t please everyone.” You cannot please the guy who thinks everything but 24t sucks with a new map. But you can please most people with somewhere new to look at. Even if you don’t actually like playing a particular map, that TF2′s graphical style is so rich and the inventiveness of the developers, both Valve and community, in creating new riffs on the same gamemodes makes checking new maps out novel at the very least. And you have to be in-game to do that.

Maps are a little harder to get a hold of than items though. They take much longer to develop and Steam Workshop doesn’t support them currently. But you know who does? tf2maps.net. In fact, they recently had a Mann vs. Machine map-making contest. Knowing that makes the lack of maps in Robotic Boogaloo even more disappointing because the community was right there, making content that would have gone with the robot theme of the update. They were just in a different corner of the community than Facepunch.

Yeah yeah, I know, the item-shipper constraint. Whatever. There was a crop of community-made MVM maps and a community-made update about robots that didn’t include any. We could have had it allllll (rollin’ knee-deep in hats).

While maps have the broadest appeal, though, weapons are really what players are looking for in updates.

Weapons are more risky than maps. They can be hit or miss for a number of reasons. Most are for a specific class, and therefore only appeal to people who play those classes. And from there, they only appeal to those people for whom the stats are complimentary to their gameplay. I main Spy (as a Spycrab, but nonetheless) so new Spy weapons are always exciting to me, but there’s yet to be a knife with stats that work better for me than the stock knife.

However, you can bolster your odds a bit by creating weapons that present approaches to their respective classes that previously didn’t exist. The second I saw my favoritest weapon ever, the Disciplinary Action, I knew I had to have it. I’m not an offensive player. I didn’t even play Soldier much at the time. He was too slow and my aim was not very good, but I had been wanting to branch out from Pyroing. So the crop was an excellent addition to my arsenal because it opened up a new way to play as Soldier, not just as a forward assault class, but also as sub-support in getting slower classes like Heavies and other Soldiers to the front faster. That little bit of being able to feel like a credit to team did wonders and now Soldier is now my second-most played class.

Even if a player is not in the market for any of your new weapons, however, they’re still worth something to an update because they affect one’s gameplay experience, as evidenced by all the people who will start trashing you on the mic if you’re a Phlogistinator Pyro or a Force-A-Nature Scout. Or more beneficially, when Soldiers starting using their banners to buff other players or when Pyro was given the Homewrecker, a weapon that can remove sappers from Engineer buildings in one hit.

I’d say your best bet with weapons is to include at least one for every class, but that’s usually not how it’s done. A lot of times, updates like to focus on two or three classes and give them whole new loadouts. Less broad appeal that way, but it’s tidier to present three new class-specific weapons that should compliment each other than 9 singular ones at random. Again, if you have other, more broadly appealing gameplay features going on — and you should — you can get away with less even distribution like that.

And srs, don’t just make remodels for existing wepaons. Insist on actual stats for them. Remodels are just hats pretending to be weapons.

The easiest place to find weapons is undoubtedly in our own backyard: the Steam Workshop. There is tons of cool shit going on in there and it’s all community rated. Nothing says “community update” like shipping out the stuff in there that the community created and the community voted up. It’s there for the taking, so take advantage.

So that’s Gameplay Features 101. You ready for the advanced curriculum?

The Mac Update is probably best remembered as the one with the earbuds, unless you’re a Mac user, I guess. But it also introduced Training Mode, which lets you take a basic course in how to play as a class with bots in the privacy of your own local server. At the time, you could only train as Soldier, but since then, training courses have been added for Demoman, Engineer, and Spy.

We got Coaching in the Hatless Update, wherein an experienced player could volunteer to be connected to a new one in order to instruct and guide them in playing the game. This was an improvement on Training in that human players obviously add a lot more nuance to the game than bots do, and a human coach can help you recognize and understand stuff that training doesn’t cover. Stuff like timing and situational awareness.

Remember the Replay Update? It gave us the ability to record demos without actually having to dick with the console. It basically just put an interface on the existing tools, but it made it way more accessible to the average player. It was also the beginning of the kinda-annual Saxxy Awards.

The Mann-Conomy Update brought us the store and the crate, both features that remain prevalent three years later and are thus what we remember from it. But it also introduced the ability to bomb a server with random item gifts for all the other players (one of my favorite distraction/morale tactics), item sets (which, before they were altered in the housekeeping update, granted the player additional effects when all items therein were worn), and the Dueling mini-game. Oh, also trading.

And almost every significant addition to the gameplay came with some sort of achievements to go with it, to show off to other users that you had tried the new stuff out.

See where I’m going with this?

Gameplay features don’t necessarily have to be modes, maps, or weapons. Being able to trade off (and later sell) the shit you don’t want for shit you do, being able to show off your exploits on YouTube without mastering the use of the console, and making the game more accessible to new players: those are all gameplay features that improve the experience of playing TF2 even if they don’t directly affect playing itself. If you have ideas for this kind of thing, you may as well speak up about them, since you already have Valve’s attention if they’re asking you to make an update. You might even propose extensions or improvements on existing features, like making Coaching actually worth doing by giving coaches more control and privacy with their student than they have just spectating, or completing neglected features like the remaining Training courses.

That all sounds pretty heavy for a community-made update, I’m sure. Odds are, Valve is not going to entertain anything too difficult to implement. I suggest thinking about alternate features nonetheless. I feel understanding what things make updating worth doing helps one to also understand why updates come so infrequently and why people get so excited about them. Yes, comics and SFM pictures and hub content are fun, but a positive lasting effect on the gameplay is what people expect. That is what an update must deliver.

And at the end of the day, it matters far more that we have good gameplay features than if an idea was only conceived by someone in the community, but Valve had to do the grunt work to make it happen. I applaud Valve for the way they’ve always given their fans so much opportunity to be involved beyond just being the end user and it was a very brave thing to give the community as much room as they did for Robotic Boogaloo. But I truly don’t care if an item was completely done by community members without any help at all or Valve made their idea a (virtual) reality. The Equalizer might have been modeled and textured by Valve, but it’s a community-made item to me and I don’t think that’s a unique opinion. An update being entirely community-created with only Valve’s blessing is a great achievement, but to pitch that as the main characteristic does the community a disservice if the game isn’t better off for what the update adds.

So tl;dr, you have a lot of options for gameplay features, some easier to implement and more expected than others. But you need a combination of these things, not just one, to justify making an update. Updates in and of themselves get people excited, but without the gameplay features to back it up, that sugar high is gonna be followed by a hard crash. Stuff that gives people a reason to get in the game will keep them floating.

But just because the gameplay features are the backbone of updates should not diminish the importance of the content features. The content features are how you get people in a tizzy. In the case of a community update, it’s where most of your community is going to be pitching in. And it’s where most of the fun in updating is too.

However, the content requires forethought and organization. A plan of action.

First thing’s first, though.

There is a serious semantic difference between a community update and a community-made update. And while people get that distinction once it’s explained, the immediate assumption is that anything community-made was open to contribution from the whole of the community.

This obviously was not the case with regards to Robotic Boogaloo. Most everything in it was technically made “by the community”, but only from that subset that lives on Facepunch or was subsequently invited to it. That the update was touted as a community project, when it was really only that one community, got a lot of people buttmad. I’m all for people understanding what words mean and being dismissed with an eye roll if they refuse to do so. You can save yourself a lot of grief and hassle, however, if you just stop and ask yourself: are we making a community update or are we making a [insert your forum or group here] update? If the latter is more the shape of things, call your shit a Facepunch Update or whatever and not a community one. You will thank yourself later.

One might argue that it really wasn’t a Facepunch update once they got the fanartists involved. I disagree because the central node was still Facepunch and those artists had to be invited into the country club if they weren’t already members. Nonetheless, reaching out like that was an excellent decision to make. If you are setting out to make a truly community update, you should follow it to the logical extent of that conclusion.

TF2 has the best, most creative and vibrant fan community of anything I’ve ever seen ever. Not only do we have a very rich mod community making maps, weapons, hats (so many fkn hats), models for GMod and SFM, animating us little movies, and fickling with the code to bring us new ways to play, but the non-tech arena is full of resources too. We have cosplayers and crafters, writers and roleplayers, musicians, animators, artists out the ass, and probably shit we ain’t even thought of yet. You have these people, provided they have the time and wish to help you. Ask nicely and include as many as you can.

But don’t just pack a bunch of shit in either. When you start out planning your update, it would help a lot to have a cohesive idea or theme that you’re building around. That way, you can include things that contribute to that idea and cut things that don’t.

Early updates did not have themes per se but later ones, the ones we remember for content features, typically do. Some of them even have two; an obvious one (like the character or gamemode) and a subtler one. The WAR! Update was Soldier and Demo, for instance, but also about creating a playful rift between players and making them fight it out. Pyromania was a celebration of Pyro’s playful madness but also a commemoration of them finally completing the Meet the Team series and giving the players the Source Filmmaker to make their own films. The Sniper vs. Spy Update was about Sniper and Spy, clearly, but also about the sort of one-upmanship the gameplay between those characters involves. Having these kinds of loose but central ideas will help you unify your presentation.

Let’s apply this concept to Robot Hats. There were two themes about it. Metal hats and “community-made”. Neither were really that solidly realized, to be honest. To me, if I was going with community-anything as a selling point, I would be doing a lot of things that espouse that notion. My gameplay features would encourage players to work together and be good to each other. I would be trying to include anyone I reasonably could in the update development process. I would be giving people every opportunity to participate rather than just watch. If community is the theme, then the update should be oozing camaraderie out of every orifice.

Similarly, just having robot hats was rather pale in itself. If my central theme was robot hats, I would want not only the hats, but I’d want them to be important beyond just that people I’m supposed to recognize as my friends and peers made them. I would want the story and the game to show that, right now, we are all a-fkn-bout about robot hats. I’d want people to have a definitive advantage for wearing my robot hats, some tangible reason to want them. You’re trying to sell the damn things here, make them valuable! And not just rare item valuable.

Using both themes together would have been just grand. There was a point at which it was smartassedly suggested that to appease people pointing out the lack of maps or weapons in Robotic Boogaloo, they should have tacked on a hatmap and hatgun, to which I replied with a couple smartass ideas of my own. A hatmap or a hatgun of some kind actually could have gone a long fucking way to incorporating the robot hat theme more meaningfully. Something that featured the BLU team too would have helped on the community front by metaphorically demonstrating our fandom hugfest and how we’re really all on the same team. (And it would have been a concession for the LIES and DISAPPOINTMENT of the MVM trailer versus the reality of the actual gamemode. I’m still mad about that.)

Community is an obvious theme for community-made updates, but you can also go with themes for other purposes. Remember the day or two before Robot Hats came out when writingcyan did that very scientific survey of all the fanart and fic across, like, six websites and found that Demoman was the least appreciated class in that respect? And then our Tumblr dashes were treated to a deluge of Demoman to make up for it? You could theme your updates to bring attention to classes and other aspects of the game that go less appreciated or are as of yet unexplored.

But what comes first: the theme or the gameplay features? My theory is the theme usually is a result of gameplay features, but I think more elegant updates place them in a codependent relationship. Ideally, they should reinforce each other. It’s far more important that the content serve the gameplay, but having the gameplay incorporate the content is an A++ move.

This is something Halloween updates do particularly well. Valve will put out a lore story up for the Halloween event, and then build a map and gamemode, complete with achievements and item rewards, that are directly tied to that story. This is not always necessary; most updates aren’t this bound to their content features. Generally, this is a thing done when the tone of the update is completely off the wall. Though there’s never a TF2 update that is totally serious, I think there’s a palatable difference between one that played more or less straight like a general class update, and one like a Halloween update where the canon is veering into lolwatsville. Like when the team must fight a wizard over a rental dispute, when Mann Co. pirates a space launch for the Australium, or when metal hats destroy the future. And in those cases, that’s when the story should be evident in the gameplay features.

If you’re not going for zany and crazy, though, then you need to say so with your comic.

The comic has come to be the opener for an update. You present your premise in it. It sets the mood.

And for this reason, the comic is where I think the most improvement could come from.

I don’t want to hate on Heartsman, who drew it, ’cause it sounds like he was doing a lot of the work for Robot Hats including managing the whole show and modelling things himself. Looking at his credits, he looks like a goddamn champ, but also very overextended. Part of being a good project manager is not doing everything yourself. As an extension to that, another part is determining who is the best person for each task and assigning them that task. I don’t know if asking other artists to get in on the project was a last minute kind of thing and Facepunch just doesn’t have anyone they thought was better at drawing. If that’s the case, well, okay. But I personally feel, judging by the comic’s art, that drawing it should have been delegated to another artist.

Who should draw the comic then? It’d depend on who you had on the team at the time. Ideally, not the same person every time we get the opportunity. Contrary to most things re: updates, this is a situation where you may wish to diverge from Valve’ style instead of trying to emulate it. But for practical reasons, you want someone who has clean, confident linework and a firm grasp of the character models. Part of what was so ennnnnnnnnn about Robot Hats’ comic was that the characters looked weird, like vague approximations of themselves, and then looked even weirder when they were making reaction faces. The expressions were difficult to read. It forced us to assume or guess a lot at what their responses actually were, based on the dialogue.

I’m not gonna nitpick the whole damn thing, but here is a quick example of what I mean.

How does Grey Mann feel about what he’s hearing? Mild concern, disbelief, horror? Especially in the second panel. What does that face mean? Who is speaking the words he’s making that face at? An educated guess would be Soldier for the second panel, but not because it sounds like anything he’d actually say so much as that he’s the only one who cares about America. The first panel’s dialogue sounds most like an excited Medic, but I feel more like Engineer was the intention.

Likewise, I don’t wanna hate on Cat Bountry either. I’ve never read any of her fics, but she’s well-respected in that circle and I assume that it’s deserved. But the comic’s writing had it’s own share of ennnnnnnnnn. Grey Mann’s plan unraveling because of its own stupidity is converse to his character. Robots that called him “boss” and made observational suggestions? The team’s accents were off and the dictions were weird. I mean, that stuff’s hard to nail down and it’s definitely better to go short with it like the comic does than to go too far because then it becomes comical for the wrong reasons. If you’ve been chosen to write the comic, though, it should be because of your similarly masterful understanding of these characters. All you really have to work with in the comic is the characters.

I’ve only ever written a few dozen comic strips in my day, but in doing so, there is a definite difference between it and writing fiction. Fiction requires a broader skillset because it offers a lot more room to work in. You can explore the character’s thoughts and motivations, the intricacies of the situation, and you have as little or as much room as you need to do it.

Comics, conversely, are a visual medium. Writing for them is similar to theatrical writing. It’s much more expeditious and you don’t have all that space to explain yourself. Everything you do must be conveyed through the character and the stage direction (which is why having a very clear artist is a must). So in that, it requires a more narrow range of skills, but they have to be especially practiced at it.

Now granted, this was a particularly silly situation for them to be in, but nonetheless a character is still themselves in weird situations. Getting that right is crucial. We should be able to tell which character is which, even if we couldn’t see the artwork. In the example above – if I am right – Soldier is dead on with regard to his immediate interest. America would be his first concern if he felt it was being impugned upon, but he’s off in the way he expresses it.

The thing to do then is get people who have skills in these particular areas. Comic writers obviously, but I also think this would be a good place to employ your roleplayers too. RP, particularly scripted RP, requires the same kind of skills as comic writing. You’re trying to keep it simple and quick, and your characterization, especially dialogue, must be spot on. People playing canon classes as opposed to original characters are rare, but they’re out there.

And yeah, more than one person should be writing. Not a massive team, but more than one, like as a TV show might have. Perhaps a couple of comic writers to make sure the stage direction is clear and maybe a couple RPers just to make sure you’re getting your Soldieriest Soldiers and Scoutiest Scouts, but the group as a whole has the ability to consult and suggest things to each other. With more than one person, too, they’ll be able to crosscheck each other for characterization, plot holes that people might care about, and jokes that just aren’t that funny.

Again, not wanting to shit on the parade, but the comic had a definite streak of that SO RANDOM humor. President Pomeranian, Soldier eating a money and mayonnaise sandwich? It kinda veers into that realm of Jhonen Vasquez-ian, Roman Dirge-ish sort of humor that middle schoolers love. I mean, I like Invader Zim too, but that kind of joke is more often than not a comedic crutch. It relies on the hope that people will just be tickled by the absurdity than because you actually said anything witty or clever. Sometimes it can be legitimately funny, but mostly that’s the kind of joke you only want to make if you are damn sure it actually is funny and not because you’re hoping it will be.

One final note about the comic, and this goes for any promotional material really: If you have a class wearing an item in promo art, and that item is not currently available in game, then it needs to be in the game when your update ships. Especially if your update is nothing but hats and misc.’s as it is. I’m speaking specifically about Soldier’s Pretty Pretty Princess set.

Think back to the Mac Update. Do you remember the promo video for that? And how Engie was holding that rifle with the decorative inlay and the weird scope that we later learned was some sort of battery pack? Remember how OMG WAT DAT people were about it? And then how it was delivered to us later in the Engineer update?

When you fail to deliver an item that you have included in your promo shit, you disappoint people. The number of people will vary depending on how ! that item is, but disappointment is something you’re trying to avoid here. Suffice to say, I am not alone in wondering where my goddamn Soldier tiara, gangsta rang, necklace, and HOLLA HOLLA badge are.

You might be chomping at the bit to point out that the Frontier Justice didn’t actually ship with the update it was first shown in, contrary to my advice. The difference between that situation and this one with Soldier’s tiara is that the Mac Update didn’t include any weapons. Because no weapons at all shipped, it was okay that they held the one they teased us with over for the next update. When your update is nothing but hats and misc.’s, though, there’s no reason to hold out on a set of hat/misc items that you’ve put in your promotional material. Even if it wasn’t robot-themed.

Speaking of the Mac Update video, though, let’s talk about SFM movies. The one included in Robot Hats was a nicely animated video. A little sparse on the concept, but A+ animoots. I wonder, though, if it might have been more effective not as a mere entry into the rest of the content of Robot Hats, but if it had been released a few days prior to the update as a teaser. It’s a short video with a small, abstract plot, similar to the Mac Update video, but more akin, I feel, to the Engineer teaser. Just enough to let people know something was coming, but not exactly what.

To have such a video in the content of your update is a waste of that video’s potential. It’s the first thing you see when you go to the Robotic Boogaloo page, but placing it there assumes that it will be the first exposure to the update a person will have. If a person already knows what the haps are re: robot hats, because people are already going apeshit over it already, the video just comes off as a tease after the reveal. Releasing it before anything else instead gives people something to buzz about in anticipation of your update and places the video in a better position to be appreciated as an orchestrated part of it as opposed to a check mark on a list of update features.

But nonetheless, you may really want a video in your update. In such a case, I’d say it should be something like later Meet the Team videos. Give us some characterization or some plot with a hair more extended narrative. I feel videos in an update serve the same purpose as the comic, and so they should perform the same task: presenting the premise and setting the mood. This does not mean one precludes the other though. You could have both. Mann vs. Machine had a video and a comic. Two comics, actually. The key to their dual use, however, is that they didn’t tread over each others’ territory.

The two comics, “Blood Brothers” and “A Fate Worse Than Chess“, set up the story. They were about the periphery characters, separate groups of such, and how the drama of their lives has become the issue of our playable ones. And the video is about the reality of dealing with that issue for our mercenaires. They cover different aspects of the same premise, thus there’s room for both comics and videos in the update.

It is perhaps worth nothing that Valve has yet to make a video starring any of their non-playable characters. I’m pretty sure the community has made models for most of them though. Saxton Hale, the Administrator, Ms. Pauling, even little Jack from the Smissmas comic. If you can get people to voice those characters – and yes, we’ve got voice actors too – you have the means to do so if you choose.

Videos don’t write themselves either. While I do recommend not necessarily sticking the comic on a fiction writer, at least not alone, there is still plenty of writing yet to be done in an update.

Obviously there’s a shitton of copy-writing to be done. TF2 copy-writing has its own sort of character, and it’d be best to assign this to people who get how it should sound and feel. Because it’s not attached to an actual character, though, you have a lot more leeway and people are judging it less harshly than your comics. Unless you make snide comments about how hats are better than other gameplay features or if you make subtle jabs at self-publishing that fanfic writers take personally, of course.

But aside from those things, there is room for legitimate fiction in updates.

There was quite a bit of discussion about this on tf2chan and some people were very vehement that there was just no place for fiction in an update, no way, no how. The argument against it was that people would go find fic to read if they really wanted and didn’t need it in an update. Too, it was supposed that players wouldn’t read fic if there were brand new gameplay features to try out. But… that presumes that the new gameplay features ship at the same time as the fic does.

The most recent updates have been pretty much immediate ship-outs, but a lot of times, updates have a three-day slow reveal period before the actual update is available. Valve probably just does this to build anticipation if they don’t have another clearer motive, like the WAR! Update’s Soldier/Demo kill count contest. There are good reasons to do it in yours too though. For one, you could possibly do things similar to the WAR! Update and thereby give players a way to participate in your update even if they only play the game. But more likely, giving your update a three-day spread out gives you room to hand out more content.

I might agree with the person who wants to argue that no one’s gonna read your fan fic if a new TF2 update with more than hats just shipped. But they probably will if you’re on Day 1 or 2 of the reveal. On those days, everyone is poring over the pages, enjoying all the content, searching for hidden links and looking for clues to ARG shit if there seems to be one running at the time. So the days preceding an update going live are perfect for posting some fic.

Not just any fic, though. Obviously you want impeccable characterization and good grammar and shit. But moreso, going back to theme integration, your fic submissions should be directly relevant to the rest of the content in your update. For instance, Pyromania included transcipts from a senate hearing on Saxton Hale’s theft of Australium, which tied into the premise of the Doomsday map and Special Delivery gamemode. If you have something that doesn’t tie in directly but you just cannot live without, you can include it in a hidden page, like how the Pyromania Update also included hidden pages to a picture book about Soldier needing to find a new home, which was an extension of the theme of the upcoming Spectral Halloween Special.

Short vignettes would get the most read, but you could get away with a full story, I’m sure. And it should probably go without saying too that any fic in your update should be original and never before released.

And that brings me to art.

Robotic Boogaloo included many of our favorite fan artists and showcased their work in a gallery. And that was great! Except for the part where I had already seen almost every image in the gallery on Tumblr first.

Here is what happened with that. Obviously everything was very super secret and none of these artists let on that they had been doing art for an actual TF2 update. But the second the update shipped, most of them posted their own contributions to it to Tumblr. From there, every TF2 blog reblogged those pictures. The images were delivered straight to their followers’ dashboards before those followers might even have known there was an update at all.

So what is one to do about that? Forbid artists from posting their own art? Of course not. The reason they all rushed to post their contributions was because if they didn’t, someone else would. And that person would be getting all the notes for their hard work. That the art is going to be on Tumblr is a given. Going back to the argument about fic, though, if I really want to read fic I can find it easily and the same is true for art. Now, fic is a little different in that it’s less Tumblr-friendly. It’s way easier to link to a fic than to copy and paste it into Tumblr’s bullshit editor. Conversely, why wouldn’t you just post the picture itself to Tumblr instead of linking to its page when that’s as easy as it is and you know everyone will give you a million notes for it?

The solution to this problem is simple. Any art you accept for your update should be in some way dependent on its integration in the update to be fully appreciated. A gallery was nice, but I didn’t need to see the pictures framed in it to really enjoy them. Seeing them on Tumblr was exactly the same. But if the art was, for instance, an accompaniment to a fic? Well, that’d change things a little wouldn’t it? It would undoubtedly still be posted to Tumblr, but you’d need to read the fic to get the full context. Thus, even if someone saw the image on Tumblr first, the effect of it is not diminished because it’s now presented in a different, more complete context.

Similarly, think of how the SFM entries were handled. They too were featured in the gallery, but they served as part of the update pages themselves. Mechanized Gentlemann’s Monthly was :D on it’s own. It’s far better as an illustration in the robot hat factory complete with caption. Or a more direct example, a picture of Soldier pawing at Spy’s rainy window is thought-provoking. Adding the text explaining that he’s begging to come in and Spy’s pretending to be dead in the hopes he will go away takes it to a “Why didn’t they write the whole thing and sell it as a hardback picture book in the store for $20 plus extortionate shipping fees?” level.

On that note, a word about merchandise. It’s sort of an overlooked aspect of updates, but occasionally updates do introduce new merch. The Ballooincorn and the Archimedes plush. That fkn plastic Sandvich. I’ve actually seen some really good ideas for TF2 merchandise from the fans. Like that Pyro sweatshirt with the grenades across the front that Valve informally polled for interest on Facebook about? Valve sells that sweater in the store now. Here’s a pretty neat idea Lux had about blindbag “crates” with alternate weapons for the NECA action figures that you could trade with other people. Or maybe have some of your writers and artists gets together and actually make those Saxton Hale comics. Can you imagine? An actual Girl’s Adventure Starring Saxton Hale! Shit’d be cash. Literally. For you. Again, it’s one of those things that is less likely to be implemented, but you may as well suggest it if you have the designs. It’s where you could get your crafty folk in on the game as well as more of your writers and artists.

And ’cause I know some grumpy fuck is out there naysaying, as of the time of this writing, that fucking fifty dollar vinyl Sandvich is sold out. A vinyl Sandvich that, as I was disappointed to learn, was a single hunk of plastic and not a stacking puzzle like you might guess if you’d seen the poster. A $50 paperweight, basically.

If you sell it, they will buy. Especially if it comes with a redemption code for a limited edition in-game item.

But what about people who don’t draw, write, design toys, do saucemovies, make models, or anything else that seems apparently useful? People who just play the game?

Really, that’s everyone. Remember, you’re not updating for the sake of the people who make art and fic and and and. You’re updating for the players. Everyone who plays.

I mentioned earlier about the WAR! Update and how it had the delayed release schedule that allowed time for the the Soldier/Demo fight. Any player who killed a Demo while playing as a Soldier earned a point for all Soldiers and vice versa. In the end, Soldiers had more points and they were rewarded with the Gunboats, an item that could have been just as useful to Demos had they won. That was an excellent way of letting the players participate in the update and all they had to do… was play. Had the store been around back then, it would also have been a super crafty way to get players back in the game — and buying things — before the update even shipped. But most importantly, giving the players a way to affect the outcome of an update is a lot of fun for them! And I am personally enamored with the concept of letting people “vote” on things by killing each other. Very manly and democratic.

There are other ways to let regular players have an in. Like the time Valve let people submit descriptions for items. That was sorta novel. You could permit players that sort of avenue to help out and award special items to people you select for it. There’s also the favorite trick of having a hidden page in the update and giving a special item to the first 1000 people who find it. Or taking that a step further, making those items a special quality and awarding normal variants to people who dominate others who have them. A really A++ update will include some opportunity for the common player to participate beyond just criticizing.

Which brings me to the last point. Before you ship your update out, you need have a good heart-to-heart with the people on your development team and make it understood. If they cannot take criticism – of which there will be plenty – in a calm and rational manner, then they need to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up. A couple people in the Robot Hat team were less than graceful in their response to the very valid criticism they got and it was really secondhand embarrassing. As a member of that team, you’re not just representing yourself when you act like an ass. You’re representing your dev team to the players and you’re representing the players to anyone else who happens upon discussion of your update, maybe because your update has them interested in playing TF2.

But with all the stuff we learned through Robotic Boogaloo, and indeed every update that came before it, we should be in a position to make a better update next time. One that’s thematically cohesive, showcases what this game’s vast community is capable of, and has gameplay features that people will be excited about before and after it ships. An update that achieves the goal of updates: making money an improvement on the game itself and giving people a reason to play. A community update that is not only a testament to the people investing their skills, talents, time, money, and energy in making it, but a gift to that same community for being so damn invested in the game themselves.

    • Simon
    • January 22nd, 2014 10:33am

    It always comes down to money, doesn’t it?

    Good advice, DJ. I’m surprised you didn’t ask for cross-team Hi-Fives again, though.

      • DJ
      • January 22nd, 2014 11:20am

      If I was putting together a community update, that’d be the first thing on the list.

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