Dear God this was a long time ago.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: the life and death of Team Fortress Classic.]

The evolution of Team Fortress Classic is one of the strangest I’ve ever seen. It was so sudden and so decisive that it, quite literally, divided the player community into two halves. As the community played quasi-intellectual tug-of-war, individuals began to take sides and the game itself began to change - every server began to branch off into its own set of rules and restrictions. Most of these are still explicit, but some became unwritten and, to this day, are laid carelessly about the fringes of the game, the final nail in Team Fortress Classic’s long-suffering coffin.

Team Fortress began as a Quake mod in 1996. Based on the Quake engine, it was an incredibly fast paced CTF game based around movement exploits: bunny hopping, rocket jumping – all that fun stuff. It developed a small but devoted following, but only a few people followed it to its next iteration in the form of a slow paced Half-Life mod called Team Fortress Classic, three years later.

Team Fortress Classic caught fire, both as a competitive and a casual game. The draw of CTF is universal, and the meticulous setup of offense and defense adds a fresh layer of strategy to what is otherwise a pretty plain variation on Team Deathmatch. As the competitive players began to explore the limits of the game they found it warm, fleshy, and pleasantly yielding. For awhile, everything was roses and unicorns and happy springtime elves.

Look at them! Look how happy they are.

At some point, the competitive players rediscovered a familiar exploit – bunny hopping – and the evolution of Team Fortress took a sudden leap. Now, bunny hopping refers to a lot of different things in a lot of different games. In many games, bunny hopping simply requires you to mash your spacebar key as quickly as humanly possible and watch as your character hops up and down erratically like a foaming idiot – but this is not the kind of bunny hopping Team Fortress classic has. In Team Fortress Classic, bunny hopping requires a complex series of deft mouse movements that takes a few days to learn, and many more to master. However, bunny hopping allows you to travel almost twice as quickly across the map, as long as you know where you’re going and don’t hit anything.

In a split second, the game changed completely. Bunny hopping gave skilled players an impossibly large edge over unskilled players. Players who memorized the map and knew how to bunny hop were unstoppable. However, the game remained balanced, albeit fast paced and hectic. At the competitive level, the game flourished and continued to evolve around bunny hopping, returning to its fast paced roots from a different and refreshing angle. However, at the casual level, the game suffered. Bunny hopping was difficult to learn, and bunny hopping players had such an advantage over other players that it began to drive new players away.

As fewer and fewer players joined the game, the community became divided. Some players argued that bunny hopping was a necessary evolution in the game, that it made it more interesting and that it was the only way the competitive game could evolve, all of which was true. Other players argued that it was too hard to learn, and that it was driving away new players, and that was true too. As the community divided, casual servers made up their own rules, disallowing bunny hopping and other forms of movement exploits. Meanwhile, the competitive league began to shrink due to the lack of new blood. Eventually, the casual community, having actively restricted the evolution of the game, grew stagnant, and Team Fortress Classic became a ghost town with a few dedicated followers. Its own evolution had destroyed it.

It looks so wrong, but it feels oh so right. What went wrong? Occasionally the player community decides that a certain change imbalances the game ([EDIT: Akuma] in Street Fighter) and restricts it. However, it is usually the competitive community who dictates this change, not the casual community. When the casual players decided to restrict bunny hopping, the competitive players let it run free, and it became the very heart and soul of high level play. It was true - bunny hopping did not imbalance the game, and it was a key point in the evolution of the game’s strategy - but the player base couldn’t handle it.

When the casual community isolated themselves from bunny hopping, they isolated themselves from any high level play and, thusly, the evolution of the game as a whole. Each server was its own tiny world parked within the greater lot of Team Fortress Classic. To play on a different server meant learning the game all over again, and so, with a crippling lack of new strategy and a daunting multitude of restrictions, the casual community drew its dying breath. The competetive community continued on in small, nomadic groups - but the game is a ghost of its former self.

Although I’m usually against developer involvement and I prefer to see how a game evolves on its own, the learning curve of a game is pretty important. If a technique creates a chasm so large that the casual community just ignores the game at a competetive level, the evolution of the game is brought to a screeching halt. All the new strategies are meaningless to the casual community, and all the casual players are useless to the competetive community. The learning curve had to be fixed. In Team Fortress Classic, that gap between the skilled players and the new players, though necessary in all games, was just too daunting, and it ultimately scared away all the players that it needed to stay alive.

[James Lantz is a starving writer whose idea of proper viral marketing is to blurt out "Psychonauts!" every other sentence. He also writes a blog, of course.]