It's hard to believe that it's only been about a year and a half since the Mann-Conomy Update hit Team Fortress 2 like bolt out of the blue. Trading, unusual hats, an in-game store; all of these things changed the way Team Fortress 2 worked for better and for worse, but one of the most impactful additions were the original five Polycount sets, among them the Saharan Spy set.
Whether you love or loathe it, the Saharan Spy set added some interesting and powerful new tools to everyones favourite stab-happy saboteur. But what about the mind behind the design?
I was lucky enough to be able to talk to Shaylyn Hamm, known to the Steam community as Chemical Alia. She's the designer of the Saharan Spy set, one of the first five Polycount sets made available with the unveiling of the Mann-Conomy in Team Fortress 2. You can find her work on her personal website as well as her deviantART account. As one of the Polycount winners, she has a unique perspective of being one of the first users to see profits from microtransactions.
Me: To begin I wanted to ask you how you personally felt about the success of the Polycount update. I know that Valve mentioned that the sales of the items went beyond their expectations, but did you have any inkling that the "Mann-Conomy" would take off like it would?
Chemical Alia: I thought it was really cool how they implemented the microtransactions in an in-game store, this makes the items easy and quick to purchase and trade. I honestly didn't know what to expect at all about the store, and didn't learn about it until shortly before they implemented it in the game, so it was a pleasant surprise.
Me: So, the Polycount creators, yourself included, were unaware that you'd be making any profit from your creations?
Chemical Alia: Yup. I entered the contest as an excuse to make myself work on some portfolio pieces, and maybe a line on my resume if I won. I thought it would be super awesome to have some of my assets in one of my favorite games.
Me: I can see why Valve wanted to keep the fact they were adding in microtransactions close to their chest until release. It was a move that was met with a fair amount of scorn from the community. Despite this I think that I was overall a fairly good success, especially in terms of paying users for creating high end in-game content. To this end, I was wondering if you think a model like this could be applied more broadly, and if there are really any limits to what can potentially be created for profit.
Chemical Alia: I was quite satisfied with how they implemented the selling of items as an optional way of acquiring them, it seems fair. I do think that people will complain when any new system or features is introduced, but the sales do speak to the success of it so far.
Ideally, I think it would be awesome if something like the contribution system with royalties could be applied to mapmaking as well, though I'm not sure how the problem of having to buy maps can be worked around.
Me: I know they are trying to implement some system of reward for the mapmakers, but I don't think it's been as successful to date.
Chemical Alia: Isn't it some kind of donation system?
Me: I believe it's buying a special hat from the store, and then stamps for each map. (Note: I later learned that the map makers are paid a general lump sum for their submissions if they are used, and then earn royalties from their work as well)
Chemical Alia: Ah, okay. I know some great level designers who wish there was a bit more incentive, considering the time that goes into making custom maps
But at the same time, I do think it's best when creative stuff is driven by the excitement of just making the product and wanting to share it with the community than just seeking profit.
Me: That's quite understandable. On that note, I'm curious as to how much time the Saharan Spy took to come to fruition, from concept to completion, including the things like the set props and the illustrations.
Chemical Alia: I started the contest about two weeks after it began.
Looks like I started it on 2 June and posted my final on 1 July.
A lot of it was just planning in the beginning, and I didn't have all of time since I was moving to a new apartment and worked til about 7 every day.
I think I ended up modeling the revolver in the last 2 days.
Me: So, due to circumstances you kind of engaged in it as a side project of sorts?
Chemical Alia: Yeah, though it seemed like a great opportunity for me, so I really wanted to make it work somehow. I had a contract with id at the time as an artist intern, and I was spending all of my spare time working on my portfolio in hopes of getting a full time job by the time the contract was over.
My job didn't involve any actual modeling or texturing, so it seemed important to work on that stuff in the evenings.
Me: Would you say that the modelling and texturing and other in game work was difficult even with some familiarity of the system, or was it somewhat routine? As a bit of a tangent do you think that it would have made a difference if Valve hadn't somewhat limited things to be based off pre-existing weapons in terms of the broad strokes?
Chemical Alia: I was pretty familiar with the TF2 style and Source tools by the time I started on the contest, since I had just finished my first two female character models at the time. And props/weapons are a lot less complicated in comparison.
If Valve expected us to come up with our own balanced gameplay mechanics, I might have been less interested. I had enough time to focus on the art, and I thought what made the challenge interesting was finding a way to work with the restrictions of existing models and gameplay.
Me: So overall the restrictions were helpful and of course the modelling was something that you already had great interest in.
Chemical Alia: Yep.
Me: Without bringing figures into it, I'd like to know if the set has remained a good commodity in terms of sales.
Chemical Alia: I'd say so, way more than I ever expected.
Me: So long-term viability hasn't really been an issue.
Chemical Alia: I was expecting it to continue to sell for a while and drop off, but the tail is longer than I thought it would be
It's not something I would wish to rely on, though
Me: Of course. Given the success however, do you believe that in time there could be an emergence of freelance designers, developing content for games that interest them without being tied to one particular series or company?
Chemical Alia: It seems a little early to say
I'm sure other developers are looking at ways to implement similar kinds of systems in their game for community-contributed content, and I'm sure there's a lot of people who have picked up modeling books and tutorials as a result of the TF2 store's success, but who knows if it will become a new trend
Me: That somewhat answers my next question as well, that being whether you believe that microtransactions might become a viable alternative to the current one-time payment set-ups; do microtransactions have the potential to become the main way companies make income, or do you think they'll always sort of be tertiary?
Chemical Alia: I honestly have no idea. I think there are a lot of factors, from the way games are distributed to what kinds of games a developer makes and if microtransactions are even possible
I don't really follow business trends in the game industry very closely, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some developers and publishers want to move more towards a model like that.
Me: Certainly the amount of money that companies like Valve and Blizzard have made is a powerful incentive to include microtransactions, as well as a great way to create interest within the community itself towards producing content with the potential to be published.
Chemical Alia: Yeah, their success has definitely shown the potential, and that it can be successfully implemented in different ways.
Me: Are there any final thoughts you'd like to share on anything we've discussed? Or perhaps something you'd like to touch on that hasn't been already?
Chemical Alia: Well, I just hope that the community is satisfied with the result, whatever it is developers decide to do with their games. I think that's most important, trying to find ways to make games more awesome and involving the customers.
Me: Indeed, we can only hope that both the developers and community can both keep open and friendly relations with each other.
I hope you enjoyed the interview, I certainly have a good time finding out some of the thought process that goes into making these items, as well as just how successful the Mann-Conomy continues to be.