Entire team is microeconomists

5 Apr

I didn’t really have the experience to reply honestly to Elliot ‘Elliot’ Metson’s medium-spicy rant on the prevalence of item trading in Team Fortress 2. That all changed when, faced with a locked crate which didn’t contain a single item I already owned, I broke my months-long box abstinence and forked over for a key. I was hoping for a variant rocket launcher. I got an ultra-rare hat for the Sniper with swirling ghost effect.

I really dropped a kritzkrieg on the odds – the probability of finding an ‘Unusual’ quality piece of headwear like this is just 1% per crate, and I’d barely opened more than ten overall. So, it’s incredibly valuable, a powerful compliment magnet, and the design provides a tenuous but amusing link to my actual name.

So wearing it was pretty much a horrible, crushingly unfulfilling experience. The chunky, glowing ghouls that orbit the Robin don’t so much attract messages of congratulations and envy as messages of deadly headshots by enemy snipers, who held over me the advantages of both skill and not having a massive fucking ‘THERE’S A GUY’S HEAD HERE’ indicator gliding around their mushy bonce. Mainly though, I never play Sniper anyway – why couldn’t I have found an Unusual for a class I liked? My Pyro, Heavy and Engy and had non-standard headwear but nothing that literally shone.

Cue a visit to one of these mysterious trading servers Elliot Metsioned. Mentioned. Someone, somewhere must surely be willing to part with a sparkly fire helmet in exchange for my fabulous felt wares. Immediately it appears I’ve hit the jackpot: three servers in the browser that claim to specialise in only the rarest of trilbys, sombreros and berets.

It’s probably a serene a place as TF2 ever gets. A tiny, cooly-lit cove, the peace only spoiled by guys with microphones discussing how many earbuds a green energy Tyrolean is worth. In the distance, a rogue Engineer wanders silently through the skybox. This is where it begins. As I waited for someone to offer their Pyro hats – it felt slightly more polite than shoving my single, solitary hat in the faces of people who seemed to have twelve – I began to learn just how deep TF2 trading goes. There’s a baseline currency – the limited-edition iPod headphones handed out to promote the game’s Mac release – and every other item in the game has a fluctuating value relative those little white wires. Other promotional items (Sam and Max gear seems to be the most highly sought-after bits of kit, and Bill’s hat from Left 4 Dead is similarly prized) dominate the conditions of most trades, and items are rarely traded for what seems like a clear equivalent. For instance, after making an informal offer of my Robin for a dude’s Unusual Merryweather, he pretty much laughed in my face.

“Add more stuff”

“What kind of stuff?”

“Better stuff”

I had no better stuff. Meanwhile, the collectors were at play. These are the hardest of the core: bragging of dozens of amassed earbuds and Bill berets, sporting multiple Unusuals, calculating what their backpack was worth in real money (frequently over a hundred quid/bucks) should they wish to flog something to lesser beings via PayPal. Whereas I was struggling to offload one item, these guys would gamble three – they’d created a game where two players, both as the Spy, would repeatedly taunt until they performed the ‘Spycrab’ animation (of which there is a 10% chance of occurring when taunting). First to three Spycrabs wins the pot: more Unusuals than I’d probably see in my life, gambled away with little sadness or regret. Cue plenty of quiet, impotent glaring at those who’ve attained greater wealth than I. This must be what Communists feel like.

Still hoping for a buyer whose prices weren’t quite so stratospheric, I hung out for a bit longer. A few stragglers came and went when they realised no-one was biting, but the gang of obvious regulars to this server stayed put, occasionally making huge deals with each other with minimal fanfare, pleading or thanks. Eventually someone whose handle I recognised from the PC Gamer server (my usual haunt when I’m not playing FPS Monopoly) showed up, which was awkward in a kind of meeting-in-the-same-branch-of-Ann-Summers sort of way, but hightailed it before I could offer to take his cap off his hands. I was almost completely silent for huge swathes of time, in fact. There’s a kind of barrier to entry to this world, this odd mangling of what TF2 usually can be. They don’t ask you to pay an entrance fee of 40,000 earbuds when you connect, of course, but this is the big leagues. Anything which isn’t limited edition or is glowing/on fire doesn’t get the time of day, and most other trade servers are for small change – weapons, tins of paint and such. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground, a place that caters to people who deal mostly in high-demand but not unreasonably precious bits and bobs, which considering the eye for profiteering some of these guys have seems like a missed chance to plug a gap in the market.

I got rid of my hat in the end. By chance I re-joined after dinner at the same time as a fellow trading newbie and, since neither of us really knew or cared about the specific market value of our stuff, we quickly agreed to swap and split. My journey for a unique-ish Pyro hat was a failure, but the prize was equally sweet – a recreation of one of my favourite Firefly props, with a starbright TF2 logo swimming around it.

Before today, when people spoke of this most curious of developments – either the blossoming of a new in-game community or the oozing growth of a bunch of material-obsessed lunatics, depending on who was talking – it sounded like a completely alien concept, with all but the quickest and simplest of trades happening in my chosen battlefields. Now, I know for sure – it is completely alien, an utterly distinct game-within-a-game, a billion miles from Dustbowl and Badwater with an unlikely chance of contact between the two. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but I hope to God I never have to go back there.

Fortunately, I don’t have to.



One Response to “Entire team is microeconomists”

  1. Elliot Metson April 5, 2011 at 12:36 am #

    I’d have taken the Robin. :(((

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