The “crate” depression

Hats, keys, unusuals, crates? The background information:

Team Fortress 2 (TF2) is a first-person shooter multiplayer game developed by Valve. TF2 players can customise their characters with cosmetics which can be obtained by buying from the in-game store; created by combing hats and items together‘uncrated’ from crates (a loot box with the chance to obtain different items with differing probabilities for each item based on rarity); and most importantly, traded amongst other players.

This ability to trade with other players formed an economy where some hats were sought after more than others. Initially, trading involved bartering and required a double coincidence of wants whereby both parties must hold an item the other wants. Then, an in-game item, ‘keys’ (used to open crates), became an accepted currency. Keys were a suitable currency because they were hedged to the US dollar (US$2.50), and as a result, this formed the foundations for trading unusual hats. 

Unusual hats, also known as ‘unusuals’, are cosmetic items that have moving particle effects. Players want unusuals because it makes their characters look cooler and can speak out about one’s status. Unusuals can range in price between 14 keys (US$35) to 6400 keys (US$16,000)[1] depending on the cosmetic item and are a great example of conspicuous consumption where agents purchase them to display their wealth and status publicly in the game. The only problem is that unusuals have a miniscule chance of being uncrated from loot crates.

What is the “Crate” Depression?

The Crate Depression started on July 25th, 2019. It was an event where many players exploited a bug in the game code to acquire unusuals in every crate opening. A small group of players had abused this situation and obtained many unusuals[2]. Some players had traded or purchased the hats, unaware of the bug. For those who acquired the unusuals, there were incentives to sell at a competitive price before others could flood the market with their unusuals. This led to panic selling resulting in a market crash (figure 1), leading to the price of some unusuals plummeting.

(Figure 1: Cosmetic item titled ‘Hat with No Name’ price changes[3])

The implications

While some happy traders traded for their dream unusuals for suspiciously cheap, they discovered that their unusuals became worthless overnight. Automatic trading bots and players with buy orders for unusuals were the primary victims of the panic selling. Players looking to capitalise on the bug fulfilled all the orders with unusuals acquired by exploiting the bug until the prices of unusuals dropped to record low prices.

The game’s developers (The TF2 team) stepped in and directly intervened the market. Their role was akin to that of government. They had placed a trading halt on unusuals obtained through the bugged crates, which effectively reduced the unusuals value to zero2. Without the ability to trade the item or sell it on the marketplace, players were carrying useless items.

While the prices of affected unusuals dropped, there was an opposite effect for that of the bugged crates (figure 2). As soon as the news spread, many players wanted to obtain an unusual for themselves, which led to the mass purchase of bugged crates, temporarily increasing their prices. 

(Figure 2: The prices of crate #18, one of the bugged crates dropping guaranteed unusuals[4], over time on Steam Marketplace, a platform to sell in-game items and collectibles)

How did it end

TF2 team implemented several strategies to minimise the impact of the Crate Depression on its community2. Unusuals obtained through the exploits remained permanently untradable except for the first unusual obtained. Those unusuals that were tradable and allowed to be exchanged on the market represented a typical month’s worth of unusual unboxing. A full refund was also offered to those who would prefer not to have these untradable items in their inventory. The developers had also created a ‘refund support page’ to assist with the debacle. 

What we can learn from this

Being released in 2007, TF2 is a game still standing the test of time. Its community and player base are the main driving force behind its active player counts, even besting some newer multiplayer game releases[5]. The TF2 economy is entirely player-driven, and the Crate Depression could have damaged or even reduced a part if not the whole player base.

As newer games are being released with bugs as a given, game developers who intend to maintain a healthy player base and in-game economy should look to the TF2 team and their response[6].

As a priority, inhibit trading to avoid panic selling and buying as soon as information arrives. Secondly, allow players who acquired items illegitimately a choice of refund. Then, Allow those who unknowingly traded their valuable items for any affected unusual to keep them and allow them to be tradable. For game developers with full powers to control the assets of its players, it is important to handle the rate of acquisition of items and policy around assets so that there is confidence in the economy of their games. 


[1] Backpack.tf. (2022). Unusual Item Pricelist. Retrieved from backpack.tf website: https://backpack.tf/unusuals

[2] Team Fortress 2. (2019). Update on The Crate Depression of 201. Retrieved from Teamfortress.com website: https://www.teamfortress.com/post.php?id=53025

[3] Stopskeletonsfromfighting [@stopskeletons]. (2019) Team Fortress 2 had an update this week that made unusual Hats drop from crates at a rate of 100%. Retrieved from Twitter: https://twitter.com/stopskeletons/status/1154958174971019264

[4] Steam. (2013). Steam Community Market : Listings for Mann Co. Supply Crate Series #18. Retrieved from Steamcommunity.com website: https://steamcommunity.com/market/listings/440/Mann%20Co.%20Supply%20Crate%20Series%20%2318

[5] SteamCharts. (2022). Team Fortress 2 – Steam Charts. Retrieved from Steamcharts.com website: https://steamcharts.com/app/440

[6] Schreier, J. (2020). The Hottest Video Games Have Better Graphics and More Bugs. Retrieved from Bloomberg.com website: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/newsletters/2020-12-11/the-hottest-video-games-have-better-graphics-and-more-bugs