Dual Wielding: pay-to-win edition

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Don’t miss out on Ironweakness’ take on the subject.

Free-to-play as a business model comes in many forms. You’ll have the mostly free experiences of games like TERA and the free-to-play-but-we-really-want-you-to-subscribe model of games like Star Wars: the old republic. Whenever free-to-play is mentioned, there’s another term coming up: pay-to-win. Almost every developer that transitioned one game from sub to f2p will have the pay-to-win question in their FAQ. The answer is always the same: no, this game won’t be pay-to-win. The interesting part is, that when you think about it, this is both an impossible thing to state and true in every case. In the end, it depends on two things: the player perspective and the game design perspective.

What is pay-to-win?

Wikipedia has the following to say:

In some multiplayer free-to-play games, players who are willing to pay for special items or downloadable content may be able to gain a significant advantage over those playing for free. Critics of such games call them “pay-to-win” games.

I have to say that i agree with this definition but would add that gaining an advantage in most themepark MMORPGs isn’t something one should worry about. For the advantage you buy there has to be some impact on someone else who didn’t pay- this impact doesn’t really exist in most of the current MMORPGs.

What is winning?

This is another question you’d have to answer in order to really understand and define pay-to-win. In a recent “Perfect ten” column on Massively Overpowered, Eliot Lefebvre wrote:

[…]what qualifies as a “winning” advantage varies between person to person. If you really try at it, you can argue that paying for anything at all is winning because it involves getting an advantage you wouldn’t have playing completely for free.

That’s because (themepark) MMORPGs aren’t lobby shooters; in most cases, you don’t fight other players much and even if you do your pvp battlegrounds, it’s not an even playing field at all- players can join them when they are in a certain level bracket. A level 11 player will have trouble fighting- and winning- against a level 19 player. In times when World of Warcraft didn’t give out experience points for playing battlegrounds, there were “pvp twinks”, mostly level 19 and geared in a way that “normal” level 19 characters didn’t stand a chance against them. So if we’re talking normal battleground pvp and even open world pvp, it’s rare that every player is on an equal footing. And when/if they are- by game design- the devs won’t sell statistical advantage for their version of pvp.

In most other cases, it’s a matter of definition and what your own goals in a game are. If you’re an achievement hunter and a certain achievement will grant you some gear with just the look you want for your character, you could consider it pay-to-win if another player was able to just buy that stuff from the ingame store. If World of Warcraft sold flying in Draenor, plain and simple, you could consider it pay-to-win, as well.

Good MMORPGs are of the “Win. Your way.” kind- there are all kinds of goals to strive for. Since you can’t really define winning, “pay-to-win” is equally hard to define and, in most cases, both true and wrong.

Impact

On the other hand, there’s no impact. If you went out of your way to get that achievement for the cosmetic gear, that’s your experience and you’ll probably like the way to get there as well as feel rewarded when you finish it. It’s the experience, the journey, that counts here. Your journey wasn’t worse or less fun if “Killerrabbit1337” bought the same item in the store.

In most themeparks, there is no impact. Even if i were to buy a set of raid gear in Rift, all it would do is allow me to access content faster (or at all). In most cases, i couldn’t sell the gear on the auction house because of it being bound on aquire.

But, of course, there are ways to impact other players. And this is where, in my opinion, pay-to-win is a thing- and it’s a thing to be avoided. This is the case when it undermines fundamentals of how a certain game works. Let’s say you’re designing a crafting and economy oriented MMORPG- then selling crafting materials and/or the ingame currency would be a bad, bad thing, because if a player were to buy loads of crafting mats from the ingame store, he or she could hurt the price of these items in the auction hall. So there’s impact on all the other crafters who’d like to sell their goods in the auction hall.

So, in my opinion, for a game to be considered pay-to-win, there must be impact on other players either through pvp or the ingame economy. Using this definition, i can only think of two games i’d consider pay-to-win: EVE and ArcheAge.

In EVE, progress is measured in two ways: skill points and ISK, the ingame currency. While there is no way to increase skill point gain, you can simply buy ISK by buying PLEX and selling it on the market, giving you a huge advantage for instance in choosing what you fly- after all, one of the big rules in EVE is “don’t fly something you can’t afford to lose”- so skill point being equal, i could use this way of getting ISK to fly a better ship into battle- and that includes pvp.

In ArcheAge, a game i haven’t really followed up on after being disappointed by hacks and cheats, there are the labor point potions in the store. Labor points are used to craft and even to open up certain loot. As i wrote in another post, it’s a mechanic i like to a certain extent- by using up your labor points, you are encouraged to specialize/concentrate on certain aspects of the game/crafting. Labor point potions increase your ability to craft items- and while ArcheAge has somewhat moved away from being a crafting/economy centered game, it still is one of the huge qualities this game has. So buying labor potions allows the buyer to create more items, thereby influencing the ingame economy.

The future

Right now, there are several upcoming games i take a huge interest in. Namely, the Repopulation, Shroud of the Avatar and to a lesser extent Shards Online and Albion Online. Most of these games might be quite crafting/economy centered or allow for such a playstyle, at least. There are many ways to ruin these kinds of games when they are free-to-play or microtransaction based in general. Jewel has already voiced some of her concerns regarding the influence of free-to-play on Albion, and i agree.

I have seen how stuff like that, especially coupled with hacking/exploiting/botting can ruin a game experience for some players, but all i can do is hope the devs know what they’re trying to achieve with their games and try to keep the impact on the game design as low as possible.

Conclusion

Pay-to-win can be everything or nothing. Once again, i find myself agreeing with Eliot here, who also stated this.

When you can’t define conclusively what is or isn’t enough of an advantage to qualify as “winning,” you are using a term that you have to define before you make any use of it, which makes it inherently useless.

So the whole post is useless. The term is useless- in my opinion, as well, because we should talk about the business models in a more distinctive way. We can’t absolutely state that game x is “pay-to-win”, we always have to explain why we think it is. So the better way to say the same thing would be to state that “i don’t like the business model because they sell item x,y on their ingame store and it makes me feel like striving for the same goal ingame isn’t worth it, anymore”.

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