Let’s whine about hats: TF2 is going too far

Let’s whine about hats: TF2 is going too far

[Insert ordinary praise for the game and a slow introduction here]

Have you listened to the developer commentary of TF2? As you’d expect from Valve, they’re clever and give you a pretty thorough look behind the curtains of the game. Unfortunately, some of it is out of date by now, and only serves as a reminder of earlier times. Times without paraphernalia better suited for games like Men of War.


Aside from featuring Hydro, a map I haven’t played in years, the commentary usually reflects exactly how I want a game to be designed. So let me quote the art lead of TF2, Moby Francke:

Having decided on a stylized art direction, we experimented with a variety of styles before settling on the example of J.C. Leyendecker, an enormously popular illustrator of the early 1900s. Leyendecker’s rendering of clothing and material provided a great example of how to add detail to a character while keeping the clean, sharp silhouette shapes that were key to our class identification. We used normal maps to craft folds of clothing, which provided a fine level of detail when seen up close, without detracting from color values meant to draw the player’s eyes to the all-important weaponry.

One of the best features of TF2 stems from this: thanks to the art style, everything happening on the battlefield is always extremely clear. You never mistake a Heavy for a Scout, even if they’re not moving. This extended to the weaponry – you wouldn’t confuse a bat for a pistol.

Yeah, or so it used to be.

It was the class updates which first started to make the game messy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a supporter of the updates, and wouldn’t have played on if it weren’t for those. But even those were flawed. Let’s examine a few cases.

The spy’s primary – if you can call it that – weapon is the revolver; its replacement is the ambassador. While not visually identical to the revolver, it’s darned near similar, and this difference will usually be completely missed in the heat of battle. Fortunately, the way the spy works, this shouldn’t change the course of the game too much.

The spy also has another revolver called the big kill. This one is identical in operation to the default revolver, but blurs the visual lines between the ambassador and the revolver even more. Which one of the three was the headshotting one again?

The pyro’s default secondary weapon is the shotgun. The replacement for it is the flare gun, which is visually distinct from both the flamethrower and the shotgun.

Her (let’s presume this) default melee weapon is the fire axe. The replacement for it is the axtinguisher. While it doesn’t look like a flamethrower, it does look very similar to the default axe. The effect, of course, is profound, because many players will completely change their playstyles to fit the axtinguisher. The visual similarity isn’t even main problem, as you cannot see what the enemy is wielding while he’s setting you on fire. Is he going to whip out the axtinguisher next? Is he going to continue firing?

And then there’s the homewrecker. Contrary to the big kill of the spy and lugermorph of the engineer and scout, the reskinned third weapon does act differently from the other two, and again, the playing style of this pyro may change accordingly. At least the visual style is different from the two axes.

Oh, and the demoman has four and a half differently-acting melee weapons.

All this amounts to one thing: even if I usually know who I’m fighting, I don’t actually know who I’m fighting. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a spy with a retro Casio watch or an even more retro Breguet watch?

Unfortunately, the deluge of weapons only form a part of the problem. You’ll notice that I haven’t actually talked about hats yet. Let’s.

The reason Valve probably think they can get away with adding LVI of the damned things is that they don’t do anything in the game. The problem in that reasoning is that most of the game doesn’t actually happen in the game, it happens in my brain. For my brain, the hats have a substantial effect. The clean and clear models Francke talked about got a big kick in the cock as 1) some of the hats can be worn by all classes and 2) they almost completely envelop one of the extremities of the model. The head is normally the part of the body we look at to recognise someone, and hence we do it automatically in the game as well.

As if that wasn’t enough, Valve have created several objects of clothing which do have purposes in the game, like the soldier‘s gunboats (I need to pay attention to fucking shoes!?) and buff banner.

All this in conjunction with making the game simply more overflowing with unnecessary detail is, for me, starting to make the game unplayable for me. Lots has been said about how pointless or asinine the hats are. What’s saddest about the whole ordeal is that they affect the game. You cannot opt out of it, because you can’t see your own model anyway. Playing on vanilla servers isn’t an option either, because they’re fucking *vanilla,* and that’s boring.

And again, it’s cheap. It’s immediately obvious that Valve are out of ideas to keep the game fresh if they’re telling their employees to concentrate on goddamned hats.

This is, of course, a potential problem with all multiplayer worlds. If they’re not static, i.e. there aren’t any updates or content addons, then an individual does not have any control over whether the current iteration works for them or not. MMOs are especially susceptible to this drift, and TF2 is looking more like an MMO with every update.

I know, I shouldn’t be against change. It’s good when developers try out new stuff. I’ve already played it enough and if I don’t like it there are always other games to play, books to read, wines to drink. And yet I miss it. Hence this eulogy, commemorating the better days of the game. Hats off to those days.

Get it?

27 thoughts on “Let’s whine about hats: TF2 is going too far

  1. Hats off to the better days indeed!

    I absolutely looooooved TF2 around launch and after the first few class updates, the only problem was that after a while the new weapons changed how the game worked so much. Just look at all those achievement servers there have been. The hats haven’t helped draw me back into the game, and seeing that recent Worms/Hats pre-order malarky…*shudder*

  2. You don’t need to change how you play a pyro with the standard axe or axtinguisher. This whole article is just a big whinefest about a great game that changes over time. Does it matter what item a person is carrying. No, it matters what class they are and how you deal with the situation. I wish there were more developers like valve who did games like this.

    1. It very much matters what weapon a person is carrying.

      Example: The Demoman.
      The Targe and Eyelander(Or skullcutter) are weapons that completely change his playstyle. While normally, you’d want to keep close to him so he can’t stickyspam you, and try to kill him there, with these unlocks you’re trying to keep enough distance that he can’t get a guaranteed meleecrit on your head. In addition, the scottish resistance is the difference between being able to rush in and kill him before he can mouse over and detonate or having to clear all the stickies first. Plus 6 stickies.

      Example: The Medic.
      The Kritzkreig alone is simultaneously one of the least different looking and the most different functioning weapons in the game. Healing is the same, but the charge is the difference between an invincible pair of bastards and a glass cannon critfest.

      Example: The Pyro.
      Airblast has a hell of an effect on the class. The visual difference between the Backburner and Flamethrower is minimal, but the game-play changes are massive. As a Backburner Pyro, you can only do two things. Ambush for crits or charge for confusion. As an airblast Pyro, you can reflect projectiles, put out teammates, juggle adversaries, neutralize ubers, and even rocket jump, all at the cost of a little power. Yet another game-play changing weapon choice that is almost impossible to perceive.

      Example: The Spy.
      For this class, at least, this is justified, in that if you knew the spy was a dead ringer, there would be no point. The spy is all about not knowing where he’s going to strike, how he’s going to strike, and who he’s going to be. He is not meant to be seen if he’s doing his job well, and if he’s not, his weapon choices are not going to matter much.

      TF2 really is a game of silhouettes, knowing who you’re fighting has a huge impact on gameplay, and while I wouldn’t posit that the hats prevent this like the author does, I do agree that silhouettes for the unlocks could have been better.

  3. Ryan, you’re not really backing yourself up much. “You don’t change how you play a class because I say so.” That’s just plainly wrong. If you see a pyro with the default flamethrower, you’re not going to shoot rockets at it as an inexperienced soldier, because it’s likely that they’ll promptly be shipped back. Not so with the backburner. As a defense or support class, you’re not going to want to chase after a medic with the blutsauger. Et cetera.

  4. I think the blurring of the visuals between weapons makes it more interesting! Part of war and battle is deception. However, if you make things to blurry, obviously the game ceases to be much of a game or very fun. It’s really all about balance. I honestly like the balance now where it takes me more than a passing glance to know exactly what the person is using. In my opinion, it makes it a better game, not a worse game. The hats on the other hand… I give a ‘Meh’ to.

  5. Hmm, I can see where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure everyone will be bothered by it. I’m not sure that I think as much as you do when I’m playing the game. I just kind of plan for everything. I’ll fire rockets at any pyro, but be aware that they might be bounced back. Staying away from classes like the pyro and demo-man is a natural thing to do, so it doesn’t really matter which close combat weapon they have.

    And I think there’s enough identifying aspects aside from the faces which tell characters apart. Plus, the halloween hats you use in the article are unusually similar, and only appear on one holiday a year. With most hats you can still see the faces. I’ve always found the hats and different weapons to be just a bit of fun. If you play the game very seriously, I can see how it would all be quite annoying. The question is, how much of TF2’s player base is the same?

  6. I agree entirely, the hats make it harder to tell who you are fighting quickly. I don’t mind the updates, though consider a fair few to be out of character, but the hats add unnecessary confusion.

  7. I play do not struggle at all to work out who is using what load out. The only time I ever have a problem is in the 32 player servers because I can’t keep track of my opposition and truth be told the game designed/balanced around that number.

    Many of your problems with weapons I really don’t understand/cannot relate with. Without being too harsh, maybe I’m just better.

    Also I don’t know why this article is called hats are going to far, most of your gripes seem to be with the new weapons.

  8. There is a lot to be said about the muddying of the clean lines of the classes, but it has always struck me as more of issue for new or returning players. I’ve not really had much trouble picking out the new unlocks meself, at least once I’ve adapted to them (e.g. The Ambassador is clearly distinguished by its report, a Pyro is clearly using an Axtinguisher if he switches up to his/her melee weapon post-ignition and in practical terms you’ll always be keeping your distance from a Pyro anyway). Though I am a bit biased towards them as two of my favourite sub-classes, Huntsman Sniper and Targe Demo, have arisen from the updates. Still, I’d be nice if Valve did add a proper “vanilla” mode when they do finally call time on the game.

    Decrying the Halloween masks is a little silly though, they were only in the game for about a week as part of the Halloween event.

  9. I really don’t think there’s any evidence that the new items are ruining the careful art direction set up to allow recognition at a distance. You’ve not even mentioned the fact that a huge amount of the recognisability is due to the meticulously crafted animations (which as a game animator is a bit annoying).

    Do the hats and guns have any effect on the body shapes, which are by far the N0.1 factor in the silhouette? No? Oh right.

    ”It

  10. I agree that from a game design perspective it would be ideal if every weapon could be as easily distinguished from each other as the sniper rifle and bow. I understand your point, but in practice it hasn’t bothered me much to be honest. In a typical game, I usually keep a rough mental record of the enemy team composition, and the weapons they use if they stand out (like a pyro who actually makes good use of the air blast). Playing that way, surprises are pretty rare. Except perhaps with melee weapons, but in my opinion, having some element of surprise with those is fair.

  11. I wonder if Valve could make a client-side option, ‘disable hats’. After all we can disable sprays, and prevent the server from downloading a tranche of Quake sound effects or showing some horrible HTML welcome screen. All those, but especially the custom sounds, have a big effect on how the game feels. So do the hats, which I dislike for their triviality and hype.

    That said, I’ve set all my classes to wear the Modest Pile of Hat, which is just a grey bowler hat. This means that when I change class other players can still know it’s me before they aim at me. Is this important? No, not really. But a potentially useful thing for hats, if limited – there’s only a couple that can be worn by all classes.

    I found that when you’re playing TF2 ten hours a week, you know what class is what regardless of the silly hat anyway.

    Also – what Dave said.

  12. To be honest, I once had the same complaints as you. Especially since Valve started adding community-made hats and weapons there’s just a hell of a lot of stuff to pay attention to. After each update it strains the brain to keep track of all the new content they’ve added. I think it’s a bad idea because overall it makes the game less accessible since new players must feel like there’s a mountain of content to become familiar with.

    However, that mountain of content is not insurmountable. Though difficult to deal with at first, I have gotten familiar with all of the new items. Once you are familiar with the hats it really isn’t a problem to quickly identify classes from a distance. Most hats are class-specific (which helps) but aside from that it’s much easier to identify classes based on their body silhouette while ignoring their head entirely.

    The weapons are more of a challenge to deal with since the visual difference is often more subtle and the impact on gameplay is more dramatic. For example, a heavy with Natascha is a very different threat from one with Sasha; similarly a pyro is fought differently depending on whether they have the regular flamethrower or a backburner. However in most cases, the difference is accentuated by audio or other cues so even though you won’t know ahead of time, it’s more clear once in combat what weapon the enemy is using.

    tl;dr All of your points once bothered me too, but I’ve gotten used to them and now TF2 is more fun than ever.

  13. Seriously all I could read then was “whine, whine, whine”.

    If you find valves method of making games doesn’t suit you then don’t buy them. It has been like this since Half Life 1 when they added user created mods and content to the discs.

    What your saying is Valve should start ignoring their community and not evolve their games. The way they evolve their games is the exact reason I love them so much.

    I actually stopped playing TF2 a couple of weeks after release as it had nothing more to offer. I’ve since come back as Valve constantly add new unlockable weapons and hat’s and more ridiculousness.

    It sounds like you should be playing the Xbox version of TF2 it’s completely hat and – as for all console multiplayer – fun free.

  14. For me, hats don’t affect class identification, regardless of distance.

    I see two problems that plague TF2, they are:

    1. sloppy game balance: items are thrown in the game without proper playtesting, in order to gather data. This leads to constant bends of game rules, which has several consequences:
    A. classes filling the purpose of the others, which eventually causes bad class lineup.
    B. unpredictability: players never get comfortable with the game, they aren’t able to exploit strategies and improve their game, because the game changes every two or three months. This might sound good for some people, but has a very damaging effect on the fun the game can provide, and also on competitive scene.
    C. Complexity: new weapons require, for the purposes of game balance, rethinking of the old ones. So, for every gun or gimmick that is added to the game, more work is required to achieve proper game balance. This works is slow, and has been done poorly.

    2.bad optimization: the content is being delivered without optimization (some of the new weapons don’t have different LOD models), leading to performance hiccups and technical problems. This kills the game for those affected by it.

  15. Chucrute, I’m not sure I’m reading you correctly. Are saying that the items in the class updates aren’t playtested? Because Valve arguably sets the bar when it comes to playtesting; they’re extremely thorough, hence the delayed-release effect known as “Valve time”

    This isn’t to say that the items in the main updates *are* balanced upon being released, mind you. Balancing competitive multiplayer is one of the single hardest challenges a game designer can face; the average experienced player feels he has a clear idea of the merits of different weapons, but compare his evaluation to that of another typical skilled player and you’ll see plenty of discrepancies. One man’s trash is another man’s build of choice.

    1. I played a lot of TF2 for the last 3 years, recently i’ve found very hard to like/play the game, something from past experiences was lacking or broken, i tried to understand why, until this interview came up (http://www.randomchatter.com/2010/08/ff-50/). See questions 10 and 11. I had a feeling the constant changes in game were the cause, hence my comment above.

      About playtesting, they do it for sure, but i don’t know if it is enough. It’s now uncommon to see threads in the steam forums questioning that. I agreed with you that game balance is murky territory, maybe it was a poor choice of words on the original comment, my main problem is with constant changes in core gameplay (charging targe, airblast, the wrangler, huntsman). This isn’t beta anymore, it’s not the time to experiment with the game. The updates were poorly implemented, for example, they are still fixing natascha. Valve should review their work with TF2, scrap some ideas that were bad, sometimes i think they are afraid of community reaction, or of admitting they were wrong. Hats are one of these ideas that made the game worse instead of better, not because of their design, because they started discussions between players and promoted rivalry instead of friendship.

  16. I’ve not played in any servers with silly hats, but just from looking at the pictures I agree, your argument is spot on. They seem to just muddy what was a beautifully clear system of recognizing other inhabitants of the game world.

    Hats off to this article.

  17. Honestly did a blind deaf person write this?

    Ambassador is the white one while the other two revolvers are dark colored.
    Also distinct sounds.

    Knowing what kind of watch a spy has makes his movements much more predictable and is fine to be left up in the air for the stealth and deception class.

    Backburner/Flamethrower are very recognizable from the front with the Backburner having a team specific color at the nozzle while the Flamethower is just black.
    Also distinct sounds.

    Fire axe/Axtinguisher have different handles and heads and is also sort of a non issue since no one uses the fire axe. Not to mention when someone pulls out a melee weapon they are usually RIGHT IN FRONT of you and facing you, which should make it easy to quickly identify.

    The 4 demo melee weapons have RADICALLY silhouettes different from one another them being: bottle, sword (the demo’s eye even glows when he gets kills with it), battle axe, and club with a railroad spike at the top through it. Honestly if you can’t IMMEDIATELY distinguish between these the second they are pulled out even at a decent distance I don’t know what to tell you.

    The targe is always present on the demo’s model and he makes a very loud yell when using it.

    The healbeams emitted from the mediguns are different (medigun has plusses flowing out of it while kritzkreig has yellow lines) and which one they are using become VERY apparent when they are deployed.

    Gunboats I’ll give you, but the Buff Banner has a distinct backpack that the Soldier is wearing (which I think actually might be bugged so you don’t see it but that’s another argument).

    Not to mention even for the less distinct things you can usually tell by the way the person acts. Bonk and Crit-a-Cola look very similar but have VERY different effects and situations where they would be used, a targe demo will act differently than a sticky demo, gunboats soldier will act differently than a shotgun/banner soldier, etc.

    Don’t even get me started on the hat thing (I liked how you didn’t show all of the model in your pictures) and how all of the classes have very distinct ways they move and hold their weapons.

    It’s one thing to not care for hats or whatever, but to suggest that they make the classes difficult to identify is ludicrous, not to mention the hat in the picture is the only all class hat that covers the head entirely and was only able to be viewed for about a month around halloween (if someone equips the hat now it does not appear).

    Yes, in real life we use the face to mostly distinguish people, but that’s because people tend to have similar body types, this is not a problem in TF2 with only 9 very different bodies with distinct weapons to recognize.

    The “MORE HATS” thing is a joke.

    Honestly most of your problems with the game seem to stem from a complete lack of experience.

  18. OP has never played the game! I totally agree with the above poster..i’m also inclined to shout TROLL! TROLL! TROLL!

    Can’t recognize the classes? lololol o have a friend who plays at 20 fps at 640×480 and he seems to know just fine!

    You sir, are what’s wrong with the internet today: give a platform so every idiot can voice an ill informed opinion.

    As SPUF members would say, and rightly so in this situation, GO PLAY MW2! on your xbawkx.

  19. I love how the picture you presented was of hats that can be used only during Halloween.

    If you pay attention, most of the weapon differences you need to know, you will; the Scottish Resistance, for example, has stickybombs that are obviously visually different from regular ones. The Direct Hit makes quite a different noise than the regular rocket launcher. Your argument about the gunboats and buff banner is moot; if you are attentive enough to tell which they have, you are at an advantage, if not, you are surely not at a disadvantage.

    Don’t give in to nostalgia and don’t post anything this biased.

  20. 1. If you cant tell a difference between a regular Heavy and a Hat wearing Heavy you should stop playing video games and delete your system32 folder.
    2. The hats can be replaced by a transparent model. So shut the fuck up, loser.

  21. I haven’t played TF2 since the Eyelander (it really was the last straw) for this exact reason. While this article doesn’t get all the facts right, it still more or less hits the nail on the head. TF2 was nigh-perfect on release and has turned from a stunner into a clapped-out slapper.

    Vote with your feet. Stop playing TF2 and they might get the message. Truth probably is that the gormless majority of players actually prefer gobbling up trashy hats and poorly balanced extra weapons, mind-numbingly dull ‘crafting’ and ever-disintegrating usability. Most people don’t know want they really want and will happily keep playing a game as long as it keeps providing novelties.

    1. Hear hear Crispy, TF2 was awesome when it was released and some of the early class updates were quality, but eventually they just went a bit too far for me. From the outside TF2 now sounds more like an RPG/FPS than the great FPS multiplayer shooter that it started out life as.

  22. wtf??? what kind of useless whining are you in about??? are you gonna stare at ppl or kill ’em?? like you care what they do just pull out your gun and flame them too dont stand there thinking what that guy is gonna do or else youll be dead

    its called an action game not some random rts where its abt strategy and predicting moves.

    got it??? act quick dont think

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