Is CS:GO’s F2P Shift a Sign of Valve’s Declining Powers?

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Is CS:GO’s F2P Shift a Sign of Valve’s Declining Powers?

While the titans of PC gaming at Bellevue have already managed to pull off multiple iterations of the F2P model without sacrificing the gameplay experience and esport potential of their titles, a critical look at the broader landscape might prompt you to look at CS:GO’s similar shift in a different light: there’s a pretty good case to be made that Valve are becoming reactive rather than proactive in the software scene.

The Bomb Has Been Planted

After a relatively quiet start to 2018, the latter half of the year brought along an incredible set of changes to Counter-Strike. Beyond the long-awaited arrival of the Panorama UI and the pleasant little surprise of the MP5’s return, the core economy of the game was adjusted alongside the price of the scoped rifles shortly before CS:GO would finally become free to play a few weeks ago – sort of soft-launched in August with a separate costless version of the game that only allowed offline play and access to GOTV. Of course, this change would bring along a battle royale mode for the title, something that was rumored to be in the works for a very long time by those with a penchant for digging through Steam updates.

This isn’t the first case Valve transitioned one of their games to a free-to-play model: Team Fortress 2 was practically the first high-profile title to adopt this monetization strategy after previously charging a flat price. With DotA 2, the developers also have experience with designing a game from the ground up with a F2P system in mind. Clearly, with the steady stream of income from the skin economy of CS:GO and the marketplace, the game purchases only account for a fraction of the corresponding income at this point. If anything, the real limitation to this move seemed to stem from the concerns about hackers, and the rapid improvement of VACNET was good enough for the developers to pull the trigger. Just for funsies, we’ve got a brand new game mode as well – a win-win situation, right?

Terrorists Win

There’s a less positive reading of the situation: it’s no secret that CS:GO’s concurrent player count was dropping as of late as the rise of the battle royale genre siphoned away a decent chunk of people interested in this kind of gameplay. As enjoyable as the eternal war between terrorists and counter-terrorists is, it offers a much smaller-scale experience. Not only that, but there weren’t many impactful updates to the game for a while before the second half of 2018: in terms of development, Valve spent a lot of time in the hardware wilderness and chasing the mirage of VR before finally shifting back towards new game projects, and it seems quite clear that Steam itself is atop their agenda. While they’ve been reasonably adept at managing their esport titles nonetheless, their recent moves seem to reflect an attempt to catch up with market trends rather than leading the pack.

Looking at the situation through this lens, CS:GO essentially had to drop its price tag to attract new players while its developers tacked on their small-scale take on the latest FPS fad (taking longer than even Call of Duty to get on the hype train). If you’re concerned about the state of CS:GO and its guardians, its esport offerings should also raise an alarm or two. Of course, the third-party circuit is very healthy, and Valve continues to keep an admirably off-hands approach, but their flagship tournaments have lost a lot of sheen over the years due to a high-variance format coupled with way too many invite-only spots that only take the performance at the previous major into account.

While Astralis was a well-deserved victor at London, most of the recent Valve-sponsored tournaments either gave us winners that would fail to even come close to replicating their accomplishment elsewhere (Cloud9 at Boston and Gambit in Krakow) or playoff participants that successfully fluked a set of best-of-one games but failed to cut the mustard in more skill-testing formats (for instance, the team playing under the Quantum Bellator Fire banner at the time of the Boston major or compLexity and HellRaisers in London). With ESL dumping million-dollar bonuses into the Intel Grand Slam and BLAST hosting special one-off events all over the world, Valve’s majors are starting to look less and less relevant in comparison.

Not only that, but even the fact the men behind CS:GO ramped up developer communications and social media activity could be construed as an admission of failure as well. It wouldn’t be noteworthy in the case of most companies but a pretty it is a major change for Valve who always preferred to communicate through updates. This only worked when the products were pristine: nowadays, you could argue that their changed emphasis on communication only serves to emphasize the limitations of their old approach at the tail end of 2018. For instance, Artifact was released in a shockingly bare-bones state, and while the rapid pace of patches and significant changes (like a complete 180-degree-turn on their initial commitment against card modifications) seem to indicate that the game is heading in the right direction, its lack of essential features on day one and a monetization system that looked more hostile at first glance than it actually was basically wasted the goodwill accumulated over the pre-launch period of that particular title.

Perhaps the real question for the future is whether Valve will once again become more active as a game developer or will these projects (alongside indulgences like the Campo Santo acquisition) continue as a sideshow alongside the behemoth that is Steam. If anything, Epic Games is encroaching on Valve’s territory more than the other way around: their recently launched store is offering a serious monetary incentive to developers, taking a much smaller cut in a hope to drive them away from the premiere platform. Certain high-profile indies like Supergiant Games have already taken the bait.

If you sign up to this way of looking at these recent events, it’s hard to see how the Counter-Strike theming on a battle royale experience will turn things around – still, how does it stack up to its competitor strictly regarding gameplay experience?

Enter the Blacksite

It’s safe to say that a vocal minority of the core audience had nothing good to say about the existence of a battle royale mode in their favorite game, promptly review-bombing it after it reincarnated as a F2P title. With no monetary investment required, it’s definitely worth a look – however, it turned out to be a pretty strange beast.

Danger Zone is indeed a lot faster than Fortnite or PUBG, owing a lot to CS:GO’s gunplay and the heavily limited player count on the servers (16 or 18 depending on whether you’re playing solo or in a squad of two or three). Games rarely take longer than a few minutes until full completion – something that’s also heavily influenced by the inclusion of a tablet that divides the map into sections and gives you a vague idea of the proceedings around you. It dramatically reduced the camping options that play a significant part of the experience other battle royale titles. The fact that it also provides you with an approximation of your opponents’ location in the late game means you don’t have to watch every single angle all the time: a very impressive design choice.

The unique (and perhaps odd) nature of these systems – alongside a drone-based purchase/resupply option, the requirement to pick up each bullet individually and the fixed first-person view – means there’s still a lot to figure out and experiment within the game mode. It is, however, still too early to tell whether Danger Zone is complex or just complicated in its current state.

Perhaps the biggest criticism is that it feels like an afterthought compared to the core Counter-Strike experience, which makes perfect sense considering that has circa two decades of polish behind it by this point. It’s CS:GO for when you don’t want to actually play CS:GO and also a battle royale game where you don’t really want to play a proper one. It remains to be seen what kind of a home it will find with such an odd value proposition – but Valve’s rigorous updates might bail it out at some point. It certainly feels like the company and their products have become too big to fail: it’s going to be interesting to see how this particular offering will hold up in the long run.

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Luci Kelemen
Luci 'YelloRambo' Kelemen is a veteran writer mostly focusing on the industry side of esports and the design specifics of card games like Hearthstone and Artifact. His work is featured on PC Gamer, Tempo/Storm, and many other gaming sites. Twitter @luci_kelemen.