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Art: Heavy weapons guy eating a banana at the end of pd_watergate.

Om nom nom, nom nom. What’s that, Banana? Aliens are drunk!

Partly a paint-over, but mostly by reference, a rendering of one of my favorite Team Fortress 2 maps, Watergate (TF2 Wiki: “Watergate”).

It was the map that introduced the game mode of player destruction, in which slain players drop some sort of tokens that are later deposited, and the team to deposit enough to match a goal number wins.

Some of the other maps that use the mode have better calculations on that goal, and there’s a lot of variation in how fun the maps are. Watergate remains my favorite, even if it’s got a steeper goal than the newer maps of the mode.

The main drawback to player destruction is that if you happen to be abandoned and by yourself, you have no way to finish the match, as you can’t generate new tokens, so unlike most modes, the only move is to quit out. That can especially be a problem with bot-riddled matches, as the bots will eventually quit and you won’t see fresh players.

One solution there would be to do what versus Saxton Hale does, and have a capture point become available if the map goes on too long. But it’s an older mode so I doubt it will ever see such an update.

A Team Fortress Reskin Crafting Quest

Wait. There are craftable hats, too?! BRB.

Back in late 2021 while playing Team Fortress 2, I encountered members of the Ham Mafia, a service organization dedicated to the pork leg melee weapon known as the TF2 Wiki: Ham Shank. Originally a promotional item from the Wikipedia: Don’t Starve game, at some point it became craftable and some players made it part of their game persona to wield it, to make up lore around it, and even to give other players the item for free.

I too wanted to bludgeon other players with a hunk of ham, but not wanting to be affiliated with any sort of mafia (they make you burn a saint), I looked into the crafting requirements. That sent me down the rabbit hole of the other less-available items I could obtain by crafting.

There were 11 craftable weapons that I didn’t have. Two were general-use melee weapons (the ham shank and the TF2 Wiki: Freedom Staff). Most of the rest were class-specific melee weapons: the Heavy’s TF2 Wiki: Apoco-Fists; the Scout’s TF2 Wiki: Three-Rune Blade and TF2 Wiki: Unarmed Combat; the Pyro’s TF2 Wiki: Maul; and the Spy’s TF2 Wiki: Wanga Prick and TF2 Wiki: Sharp Dresser. Besides, there were two primary weapons: Pyro’s TF2 Wiki: Nostromo Napalmer and Sniper’s TF2 Wiki: AWPer Hand. Finally, there was Spy invisibility watch, the TF2 Wiki: Quäckenbirdt (not shown in the art, because it’s invisible). All were promotional items except for the Unarmed Combat and Wanga Prick. All lack their own specific crafting recipes, unlike most items you can craft.

And so, from December of 2021 I began to save my item drops to use toward crafting these items. The chance to craft each one required eight item drops: two for a scrap metal, three class-specific weapons to make a class token, and three slot-specific weapons (melee, primary, or PDA2) for a slot token. Throw those three together and the crafting server rolls the dice and gives you one of the applicable items.

In order to keep things sane, I devised a strategy: other than the Spy watch, which required other Spy watches that don’t drop as often (as there are only two that can come as item drops), I would save up and craft everything in batches.

For the first four months, there was no crafting at all, only saving up my item drops and keeping track of what I had and what I needed. On 2 April 2022, I had enough items for my eight first attempts. And I had immediate success! I got the Apoco-Fists, which meant Heavy was no longer a contender (so all his drops could be used for making slot tokens) and I got the Ham Shank from trying to craft the Pyro melee, which was fitting given the Ham Mafia business was my original inspiration.

Eight attempts? asks the reader. Yes, the multi-class melee weapons didn’t make sense to have their own attempts, as I was just as likely to stumble upon them while crafting class-specific melees. And that’s exactly what happened with the Ham Shank.

Anyway, it was mid-May before I got to the next batch, which landed me only one of the spy melees, the Sharp Dresser. And that month-and-a-half cadence held for a time, so at the start of July I tried again, and I added the Pyro’s Nostromo Napalmer and the Scout’s Three-Rune Blade to my backpack.

While only getting half of the Scout and Spy melee targets wasn’t great, it did reduce the number of items I needed for subsequent attempts, as did checking off one of the two primaries. At the end of July I was ready for the fourth set of attempts. There were only four dice rolls, and I came up empty other than a duplicated Sharp Dresser. My first whiff, but it would not be my last.

In late August, I was not yet ready for a full set of craft attempts, but I was getting a bit sick of all the primary weapons accumulating. See, the imbalance of slot token fodder meant I had more than enough to try to craft the AWPer Hand while I still couldn’t try for the four remaining melee weapons. My impulsiveness got the better of me, and I went TILT trying to craft the Sniper primary, only to whiff six times in a row! I still had enough to keep going, but decided to hold off until I could make an attempt with all the melees too.

The next week, I had enough to roll with, but more botches left me with only another duplicated Sharp Dresser plus an extra Three-Rune Blade. And late October saw another failure and a third duplicate Sharp Dresser.

It took another two months, until Christmas of 2022, for me to have all the items for my next shot. Baby Jesus smiled up or down or whichever direction at me! I came away with both the Spy’s Wanga Prick and the Scout’s Unarmed Combat as Christmas bonuses. Cross the Scout off the list, freeing more items up, while Spy’s were in reserve for whenever I got enough watches for a PDA2 token.

That left only two attempts per batch: Pyro’s melee (plus a multi-class) and Sniper’s primary. And on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday in 2023, I made my next attempt. I crafted the Freedom Staff on that anniversary of one of the greatest advocates for freedom in memory. While it didn’t free up more items, it did mean I didn’t need to worry about the multi-class melees any more.

Though I was one step closer, I still had two items to seek per run. At the end of January, I also had enough Spy watches to try for that item besides, but I had another luckless day.

The good news was that from the year-mark on, I could do a two-week cadence. The bad news was that from the end of January to April I had 13 busts in the crafting department. The only saving grace during that time was I happened to craft another multi-class melee: the TF2 Wiki: Bat Outta Hell. Readers may have seen it up in the art and wondered why I didn’t mention it before. I already had an untradeable one from Scream Fortress (Halloween) Merasmus drops, so I wasn’t actively looking for another. In any case, it took until late April to break my losing streak, when I finally snagged the AWPer Hand. That left only Pyro’s Maul (and the Spy watch) to acquire.

I stuck to the two-week cadence, and after only one miss, I got the Pyro’s Maul. I was effectively done, except the Spy watch, which at a one-in-three chance was more dependent on the luck of getting the crafting materials than on the luck of the craft. On my next attempt, only last weekend, I got that watch, the Quäckenbirdt, and have completed my quest.

Before I started, I had run the numbers on the quest. I estimated a worst-case of about 70 individual crafting attempts. I ended up taking 63 crafting attempts to get it all done. Not too far off the worst-case. I didn’t estimate how many months it would take, but 1.5 years feels about right.

In terms of the most items spent, the AWPer Hand took me 21 attempts, which comes out to around 160 items (though slightly fewer because the failed attempts still produce an item that can be fed back in for the next attempt).

The best part of getting the items was playing with them. They are all reskins of items I mostly don’t use, so getting a chance to switch up my game by using Sniper or the stock invisibility watch (which is what Quäckenbirdt is) gave me a chance to revisit other playstyles I don’t usually try.

My favorites of these items are the Nostromo Napalmer and the Apoco-Fists, with the Unarmed Combat getting an honorable mention.

Team Fortress 2: Surviving Bots

Playing Team Fortress 2 takes a certain amount of patience these days.

For some years now, Team Fortress 2‘s casual mode is full of automated clients that cheat. We call them bots. They go by various names, play different classes, have different behaviors, but it’s rare to go more than a match without seeing at least a few.

This post isn’t an attempt to fix the problem, as that’s something only Valve can do. But it is an attempt to help players understand the problem and improve their experience even a little bit.

First of all, what are the types of bots? There have been many names over the years. Different ones in different regions. Some of them go out of style, sometimes there are flashes of new names that don’t stick around. The named bots all have their own styles. Most wear achievement hats, some have a few extra items. Some are worse to deal with than others.

In particular, there are namestealer bots, which change their Steam name to match a real player. They do this by adding characters that aren’t normally visible. The purpose of namestealing is to make them harder to kick and make it more likely that players kick other players accidentally. Due to the lackluster player identification options, it’s easy to make a mistake. (If you do accidentally kick a teammate or vote to kick one, don’t feel bad. It’s not your fault. It’s primarily the people who run bots and secondarily Valve’s failure to fix their game. And if you play enough, a bot will steal your name and you’ll get kicked, too.)

Second of all, what are the types of bots? The most common by far is a Sniper bot. It may or may not spin or look in odd directions, and it will wander around and hit headshots almost all of the time. Some spam noisemakers or voice commands. They throw on an achievement hat. Some wear the Cozy Camper for additional survival. After Sniper, there are Heavy bots. Not a lot to say about them other than their standard Gibus headgear. There are also the occasional Medic and Engineer bots, which are less harmful in comparison to the others, but should still be kicked.

Other bot behaviors of note

Bots will eventually leave on their own. It’s not clear why this happens, but it does. It’s not unusual to see a group of bots all leave at the same time. It’s a sight to behold if you’re one of the only humans on the server, to see it go from infested with bots to a ghost town in no time.

The reasons behind them leaving aren’t known, but possibilities include:

  • Being ordered to go bother a specific server by whoever controls them.
  • Some kind of anti-detection mechanism. (This is doubtful.)
  • An attempt to spread their time bothering more players by not staying in one place too long.

Some bots will try to kick humans. Namestealers will try to kick the person they stole the name from, but some others will try as well. The people who make the bot software have a network service to let them recognize each other, but not all of them use it. The ones that do will avoid killing each other, and will vote against kicking each other, but only in some cases.

The bots that don’t recognize each other, or that only recognize their own subtype, will kill and kick other bots.

Kicking Bots

The best way to deal with bots is to kick them off the server. This requires vigilance, because the bots can vote too, and if enough of them get in a server, they can and will kick real players.

You can use the button on the main menu, or you can bind a key to callvote, which will open the menu if you’re allowed to call a vote and no votes are in progress.

There are some rules to how voting works:

  1. You can’t kick bots on the other team. They have to take care of their own and you of your own.
  2. You can’t call votes for the first two minutes you’re on a server unless you join when the map is starting (or up to 90 seconds thereafter).
  3. You can’t call votes for two minutes after the last one you called.
  4. The client being voted on always votes against being kicked. (As far as I know, this is done by the server.)

Other aspects to voting aren’t as clear. For example, there are times where even proper votes can fail. It’s not clear if that’s due to a bug or an exploit by the bots. The team will make an honest effort to kick and people will vote, but the vote just does not succeed.

On the other side, a majority may not always be necessary. I have seen at least one tie of four-to-four pass in recent memory. Again, not clear whether it’s a bug in the voting, in the display, or what. And while I’ve almost always seen needing four votes in favor of kicking, I’ve seen bots pull it off with a vote of three to two. There is definitely a minimum number of players required to successfully kick. I believe it is a majority of five. But it’s quirky.

If a voter leaves a match or gets autobalanced during a vote, their vote is discarded. There is an exception: a client being voted on can be autobalanced, in which case I believe their vote still stands. (If the vote passes, even though they are now on the other team, they are still kicked.) If someone being voted on leaves, they are automatically kicked.

As long as some clients haven’t voted, the vote will remain active up to its time limit (perhaps 30 seconds). While a vote is in progress, other votes cannot be called. So you should always vote if you can (against if there’s any doubt). (This doesn’t matter too much in practice, because there’s usually at least a few idle players about that hold up the votes.)

Kick namestealers first

It doesn’t do any good if someone accidentally kicks you, so if you see someone that’s stolen your name coming or already on the server, prioritize that player for a kick. (This is the airplane rule about putting your oxygen mask on first.)

After that, you should try to kick namestealers that stole someone else’s name, because bots often vote to kick humans and against kicking bots. The more humans on the server, the better.

Mute the bots

A bot account isn’t going to turn into a real player. And some bots can and will spam either the chat or the voice channel. By muting bots you see, you avoid that the next time you see them. But you also can use it as a lazy metric for deciding who’s a bot and get a general sense of how often you’re seeing the same bots. It’s not perfect, because if you play enough you’ll want to mute some actual people who abuse the communication tools, but those numbers are tiny compared to the number of bots.

For me, at least 80% of the bots I see playing are ones I’ve seen before, based on how often I need to mute bots. I’ll see a new batches come through, but most of the bots are the same accounts over and over. (I haven’t tried to parse the file where mutes are saved to try to get an idea of how many there are. There are some third-party efforts to track bot accounts (and to automate kicking). See Github: PazerOP: tf2 bot detector for Windows, for example.)

Muting bots has a few other useful side effects. Visiting the mute menu does show the player avatars and time-on-server. Both of those can clue you in to which is the real player and which is a namestealer. (There are broken parts of the HUD that are supposed to show avatars on hover ID and on votes. See Github: ValveSoftware: Source-1-Games: issue #2233: “[TF2][Bug] Avatars during vote kick events do not show” for the votes part of that.)

Playing on servers with bots

Sometimes the server is overrun with bots. The easy fix is to quit and requeue, hoping to find a better server. But if you want, you can see what it’s like to live in the Terminator future when killer bots are everywhere.

Some people swear by the Fists of Steel, which give Heavy bullet resistance. Often this is paired with a Medic using the Vaccinator with bullet protection as well. Through teamwork and grit, this combo can keep several bots in check for a whole match.

As I suck at the team part of Team Fortress 2 (and I often find myself alone on servers with bots), I use Soldier or Demoman. My strategy relies on the fact that your explosions can go places where the bots can’t see you. This is more true for Demoman, but depending on the map and where the bots are, you can land some rockets with Soldier, too.

Different maps make killing the bots easier or harder. Maps with less cover make it harder to counter them. You need to find places to hide and spam the explosives at them. (Sniper bots will shoot your sticky bombs, but spamming them will still get damage in over time.)

Why not community servers

Some people advocate for community servers, which is good. In the old days I played on community servers, and I like them. But they aren’t a replacement for Valve servers. Most official maps are available on Valve servers, when there aren’t any community servers running a good portion of them. And you play with a broader set of the world on Valve servers, rather than the limited numbers you’ll see on community servers.

Why it’s up to Valve to solve

Ultimately, this is a problem that can’t be fixed by players. We can only try to get better at kicking bots and making the best of a neglected game. Valve, for whatever reason, hasn’t made this problem a priority. But it will take Valve to end this sad era of Team Fortress 2.

What Valve could do

The most obvious change would be to add a CAPTCHA when clients queue for casual mode. Valve probably views this as an extreme solution, or thinks they would be mocked for doing so. On the other hand, their own feedback form on their own website uses a CAPTCHA to block spam, so maybe they should take a cue from themselves on this one?

There are other things, like reworking Sniper and Heavy to make them less abusable, or implementing some of the tech they use in Counter-Strike to improve the experience there.

But the most important changes are ones I can’t speculate on. I don’t have access to the source code or resources Valve has. What they can do to fix the problem is something they know or can find out. It’s beyond my reach.

Why Valve might not care or might not want to fix the bot problem

I think the ultimate reasons Valve doesn’t fix the problem are simple enough:

  1. They don’t catch enough heat for allowing this problem to fester.
  2. They don’t have what they perceive is a workable solution.

If there were more outcry, they might pick a solution they don’t see as optimal but would still reduce the problem. If they had a better solution available, they would also implement it. But lacking either of those, it’s easy enough for them to ignore the problem.

What Valve could do regardless

Even if they don’t care to, can’t, or don’t want to fix the bot problem, there are still things they could do to make players have a better time. They all center around making it easier to identify and kick bots with less trouble.

  • Fix the avatar bugs mentioned above.
  • Make it harder for bots to namesteal.
  • Allow concurrent votes.
  • Show the opposite team’s votes.
  • Show parties and mutes on the scoreboard.

Making it harder to namesteal

There are several ways to do this, but again it’s Valve’s game.

Disallowing some characters is possible. Or limiting how frequently you can change your Steam profile name. Alternatively they could let you change it as often as you like, but only show the in-game name as your profile name from some time ago.

There are better options, including adding a player number to all in-game activity (think sports jerseys). A non-player-input identifier would remove all ambiguity. The funny thing is that they already have this! It’s just not displayed in the relevant places. It only shows up in the output of the status console command. (This would actually serve other purposes, as well. For example, some people use names that are mostly blank, or are punctuation, or in non-Roman-alphabets that most of the players can’t type. Being able to refer to them by a jersey-number would help all of these cases.)

And, obviously, changing the code so that players can always see the invisible characters that bots use to conceal the differences in their names from the real player. There is at least one HUD that does this: Github: andy013: “votehud custom font” It handles the problem by using a customized typeface that makes those characters visible as boxes.

Allow concurrent votes by both teams

Currently only one vote can be active at a time, so if bots join both teams, only one can be kicked while the other may start causing problems.

Show the opposite team’s votes

It’s common to see an opponent ask for you to kick a bot when the vote’s already started. This would eliminate the question. It would also help in knowing when you can call a vote for a bot on your team, if they can’t allow concurrent votes by both teams.

(If this were added, it would be appropriate to allow people to turn it off if they want less vote noise.)

Show parties and mutes on the scoreboard

When they added the unfortunately-disused competitive system, they also added parties. This lets a group of players join a server together. But there’s no indication of this to others. While this ignorance makes it easier to find yourself getting rolled by a group of well-coordinated opponents, it also makes it easier for bots. Bots can join together. It’s not clear how common it is for them to do this, precisely because there’s no in-game indication!

Knowing that bots are in a party together would make it easier to kick them all. (Whether it would be useful to add a kick-party voting feature is beyond my knowledge.)

Mutes, for those who use them to help track bots and in general, could be shown on the scoreboard. It would make it easier to see if you have anyone muted on joining a game, rather than relying on the mute menu. The mute menu works okay, but it has to be accessed from the main menu, and it doesn’t update as players join and leave the server.

Bots are an added layer of complexity to the game. The bots are a kind of spam. We have to take out the sentry and kick the bots. We have to steal the intelligence and kick the bots. We have to block the cart and kick the bots.

Valve should respect their customers and themselves by fixing the problem to the best of their ability. Their neglect and lack of communication speaks quite loudly against their reputation. That is key: you should blame the people who make and maintain the bots, but you also should blame Valve for failing to take ongoing action about the problem.

Valve has taken steps in the past to make things better, and hopefully they will give it more effort in the future. The mute and vote dialogs used to be barer, without avatars or time-on-server included, for example. Most bots are on free-to-play accounts, which are no longer allowed to chat (a double-edged sword, as new players can’t chat either). Whether Valve has more updates planned to help isn’t clear. Only time will tell.

But until then, keep kicking the bots! F1! Wait, no! F2! Wrong one, that’s me! Bye! Disconnected.