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The Kid Who Created Team Fortress 2's Controversial Anti-Free-to-Play Mod

Asher Baker created the mod getting headlines, but he's not even against free-to-play.

Moving Team Fortress 2 free-to-play follows Valve enabling other F2P games on Steam.
Moving Team Fortress 2 free-to-play follows Valve enabling other F2P games on Steam.

When Valve turned Team Fortress 2 into a free-to-play experience, it opened the floodgates. It's not like Team Fortress 2 hasn't been ridiculously cheap in the past--once, it was just a few dollars on Steam--but the difference between any amount of money and free is a big one.

The people who have been playing Team Fortress 2 since its launch in 2007, however, are a dedicated bunch. You don't play a game for this many years without forming expectations about the people you play with.

As such, not everyone responded to the decision with open arms.

Asher Baker, known in the Steam community for his various Valve-related plugins and workarounds, created "Free2BeKicked (Anti-F2P)," a plugin that detects whether a player has a Team Fortress 2 premium account. Getting bumped to premium after downloading the game for free is simple; you only have to purchase an item from the in-game store. If you don't have one, you're kicked out.

It's worth remembering this is happening exclusively on private servers, not on Valve's, and anyone who purchased Team Fortress 2 in the past automatically became a premium member when the switch was pulled.

Baker and others in the community got the sense Team Fortress 2 was heading towards free-to-play before Valve ever announced it, as some backend changes rolled out. As this happened, then followed by the official announcement, there was chatter about a plugin to kick free-to-play users. Baker was first asked by a friend in the Team Fortress 2 trading community.

To provide a better sense of the mindset, Baker provided me with a transcript of an IRC dialogue between himself and "dvander," the founder of Alliedmodders, where Baker's plugin is hosted.

<dvander> personally i put it in the same category as banning high ping people which i hate
<dvander> but valve has created a problem
<dvander> a community needs a barrier to entry and it needs a way to heal itself if there is a misbehaving member
<dvander> if there is no barrier to entry - and no recourse against those people - it could be bad
<dvander> but its too early to tell
<asherkin> there are also a large number of tf2 servers aimed specifically at trading, the non-premium players can't start trades and therefore just end up in these servers taking up a slot and begging for items
<asherkin> (it's a trade server owner that originally asked me for the plugin)
<asherkin> and yeah, I also dislike high ping kickers, that silly cross-game vac ban detector, and even this one
<asherkin> but I figured it was better to do it myself properly before someone released something that did something silly like parse their backpack page to see how many slots they had etc.

Between some public requests for a plugin and other private conversations, Baker relented.

"Basically it just boils down to there being a demand for it," explained Baker over email recently, "yet there being very few developers who had the necessary background knowledge to do it without 'hacks.' I was in a unique position due to my work on Open Steamworks."

Team Fortress 2 quickly overtook Counter-Strike as the most popular game on Steam.
Team Fortress 2 quickly overtook Counter-Strike as the most popular game on Steam.

Open Steamworks, as Baker puts it, is "a series of scrounged, leaked and reverse engineered headers that allow the usage of the client-side portions of Valve's Steamworks API [application programming interface]." It allows people like Baker to create things that are not necessarily kosher.

According to Source Mod (and Baker), there are 16 servers running his mod. He can't be sure, since the ability to query servers running on Linux for their rulesets is broken at the moment, and from what he can tell, the majority of Team Fortress 2 servers are hosted on Linux machines.

To get a sense of how the community is hashing this out, read this rather contentious thread. Hostilities are definitely abound.

I've contacted Valve about whether the company's okay with Baker's mod, but haven't heard back. Baker expects it's not, though less because of what the plugin does, more that it's possible.

"I would doubt Valve are okay with [this] method," he said.

To explain how Baker's plugin works would get unnecessarily technical, but when asked whether Valve would have an easy way to get rid of it, Baker launched into a lengthy breakdown of how the plugin detects free-to-play users. In summary, it comes down to the way Steam authenticates.

"While Valve may wish to prevent the plugin from operating," he said, "it would only end up with a large amount of work and worse methods being used to the same effect. As long as there is demand a version of the plugin will exist, although probably not written by myself."

It wouldn't be surprising if Team Fortress 2 moving free-to-play is a signal for future Valve products.
It wouldn't be surprising if Team Fortress 2 moving free-to-play is a signal for future Valve products.

And while you might expect that Baker is one of the many outraged at the influx of newcomers to the Team Fortress 2 userbase, it's not true. Baker's loyalty, as he puts it, "is to the server operators."

"I anticipated a negative response from the general player base and a positive response from the server operators," he said. "I hadn't anticipated it to be this strong either way, even including receiving death threats. [...] I don't really have a personal opinion about TF2 going free to play, it's brought in lots of new players, but I'm not sure it's worth the long-term cost. I think that once the droves of inexperienced players dies down, we're going to be left with a (slow) steady stream of new players (good), but primarily just cheaters and people evading server bans."

It's understandable there's issues within the community, as Team Fortress 2 was not free-to-play on day one. Were Valve to release a game with a free-to-play model on day one, the fervor would be less.

DOTA 2, anyone?

Patrick Klepek on Google+