Ethical Gaming The Game Industry 18 Comments

The Eternal Payment Model Debate: part 284

There was a pretty vibrant discussion between MMO bloggers on Twitter over the weekend on the subject of pay-to-win. I know I’ve already delivered my final word on MMO payment systems and I really intended to keep to that because, let’s be honest, F2P has won as the dominant model. But you guys, people are being so wrong on the internet.

To be fair the current discussion is less about free-to-play in general and more about the concept of “pay-to-win”. Specifically, I recently learned that to a growing number of people the P2W model is totally acceptable now. I dislike this.

What is best in life

I think some of the conflict between bloggers on this topic comes from the fact that MMOs don’t have a consistent win condition. It varies wildly from game to game, and from player to player. Perhaps you feel that you’ve won an MMO by completing the hardest group content, or maybe you’re an ArcheAge player and you “win” by being dominant in PvP.

I like collecting cosmetic items, and I evaluate my gaming success by getting the “best” hats and mounts and such. For me, the common practice of locking the premium cosmetic items in a cash shop is already “pay-to-win”. RIFT did this shortly after going free-to-play, and it was the primary reason I quit playing. The game went from having quest chains and reputation grinds and time-sensitive holiday events to .. lockboxes. It wasn’t even pay to win, it was “pay to gamble and maybe win”. Ugh.

And I guess that’s my underlying problem with the P2W model: it encourages predatory shenanigans by publishers to separate us from our money without us even noticing. I mean, that’s the fundamental principle of free to play, right? We’re supposed to make so many little payments that we don’t notice that we’re spending more than we would with a subscription. Over the entire playerbase, free to play is more expensive than subscription. If it wasn’t, then these huge companies with very well-educated finance departments would look at the numbers and go back to the subscription model.

A common reply at this point is something like, “well I don’t pay anything so who cares if that player over there pays twice what I do”. And I guess that’s fine, but .. for me personally I just am not comfortable knowing that some of my fellow players are getting screwed over by lockboxes so I can play a game for free. That doesn’t seem very neighborly, and being neighborly is one of the reasons I like the MMO genre in the first place.

(Amusingly enough I saw one supporter of pay-to-win say that those against it border on.. GAMING SOCIALISM. Check under your bed, folks!)

“Who gives a shit?”

The “who gives a shit” counter-argument seems to come up a lot in these discussions, and I’m not sure why.

I mean first, I’m an MMO blogger. Having opinions about game mechanics is kind of my gig. Not caring about stuff sounds cool I guess, but it doesn’t make for a very interesting post.

But primarily I care about this topic because what we do now will influence the games of the future. The audience is not the sole pilot of the game industry, but we do get to contribute to its trajectory. Think about this: three years ago when people were talking about Guild Wars 2’s F2P model the dominant line of thought was “free to play is fine as long as it’s not pay to win”. Now it’s changed to “pay to win is fine as long as I can pay”. What a difference a few years makes, huh? I wonder what we’ll be so accepting of next year.

And listen, I’m not saying that I want to burst through the walls of anyone who likes pay to win, Koolaid Man style, and smash their computer or something. Have fun, play your games, rock out. There is room for different opinions here, on both sides of the aisle.

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  • Reply
    June 1, 2015 at 9:21 am

    I work as a municipal planner and one thing we’re told to watch for is erosion of service caused by over-promising. Basically the elected officials will promise everyone everything, find there isn’t enough money for it, and then cut back on the services the municipality provides as needed.

    The key thing is that people will, universally, accept lowered service levels over time. They will likely complain, but you can slowly and methodically degrade service provision over years/decades and people just get used to it. Part of my job is to try to make sure that the long-term planning doesn’t support that cycle.

    To be clear, it generally isn’t a deliberate plan (at least not in Canada, where I work) to degrade municipal service provision, it just happens as money gets tight.

    However, I see the same thing in MMOs all the time. Except it’s harsher because it honestly looks like a deliberate action by the companies to increase profit taking/push a specific agenda regardless of player preference. And I think Bloggers should talk about it because it creates a historical record. Which is invaluable for people making an informed decision (which is why so much effort is made to obscure and obfuscate it when an agenda is being followed).

    Fun fact: Blizz introduced lockboxes in Pandaria (Black Market Auction House containers). But it was “for gold” so it didn’t matter. Fast forward and suddenly you can buy gold for real money, but I haven’t seen one person talking about the way Blizz snuck in lockboxes. My personal conspiracy theory is that Blizz is banning flying in WoD primarily as a misdirect so people aren’t paying attention to token.

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      June 3, 2015 at 9:05 am

      This is an excellent comment. Thanks for writing it!

  • Reply
    Wilhelm Arcturus
    June 1, 2015 at 9:33 am

    But… but… you cannot come up with a universal definition of “pay to win,” so it cannot exist! Or so says the local pedant.

    Not that I am a strong believer in “pay to win” in the PvE sense you’re getting at. I’m fine with whoever selling the best cosmetic gear for real world money. It is when we get to lock boxes that I get spitting mad and refuse to hand over any money.

    Seriously, at the dawn of F2P the idea was pitched as being able to buy a pile of virtual currency so that we could turn around and buy all sorts of cute/silly/whatever things that would be priced so low that it would not make economic sense for the company to sell them individually. You know, the whole “microtransactions” utopia that was promised way back when.

    Instead we ended up with something like a $5 minimum for most items… at which point you could just straight up sell them via individual, real world credit card transaction… and RMT currencies that try to obscure their real world value (what is a Turbine Point really worth?) and then lock boxes when companies realize that their F2P plan doesn’t work unless you add an element of gambling to it.

    That is not the F2P vision I have any interest in supporting. And I try to put my money where my mouth is. I end up playing some games where lock boxes are part of the plan, but I’ll be damned if I’ll invest a nickel in that sort of thing.

    As for actual pay to win… by whatever definition you choose… I have always found that to be like a cheat, only the person you are cheating is yourself in that you end up bypassing some aspect of the game you are playing for the easy win. I don’t really see the point in that. But then I have an alt in WoW wearing all heirloom gear… so maybe I do. Am I cheating myself there?
    Wilhelm Arcturus´s last post: The Revenant Kill in JU-0WQ

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      June 3, 2015 at 9:04 am

      Great point, Wilhelm — I remember when microtransactions were pitched to the consumer as truly micro. The prices were literally .10 or .25 or basically whatever change you have in your pocket at any given moment.

      Lockboxes are truly the worst thing to be put in MMOs possibly ever. They are so scammy, it’s appalling.

  • Reply
    June 1, 2015 at 9:36 am

    I guess people have very different concepts of winning. I mean, collecting hats? Who knew? :D

    Seriously though, I find it hard to relate the concept of winning to most of what goes on in MMOs. It seems about as relevant as “winning” at reading a book for instance.

    However as an F2P fan I do derive a certain satisfaction in earning things through effort or ingenuity that I could otherwise buy. Not hats though. Never hats.
    Pasduil´s last post: NBI 2015 Screenshot Safari – Lothlorien

  • Reply
    June 1, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    I think the problem is the disconnect between what we mean by pay-to-win in various circumstances. It kind of depends on whether the “winning” is a trophy type of state or whether it’s a permanent advantage over others.

    Using your hat situation as an example, the trophy is obtained the moment you buy it. You can’t really use it “against” other players except in regards to having it when they don’t but your possession of the hat does not make it more difficult for other players to “win” or obtain one. I suppose there is an argument that you are winning by showing it off.

    On the other hand, if we’re talking about a pay-2-win mechanic like buying the highest tier of PvP gear or special shells/tanks we’re talking about a situation where the power that you paid for is directly leveraged against other players. Now it’s harder for them to win.

    As a transmog/mount/etc myself it does annoy me to see people with the cool things I don’t have, but it doesn’t necessarily make it harder to get them. But then if I go play something like a PvP game and end up against players who clearly bought their power(certain tanks in WoT, etc) it is more frustrating because now I am now facing a tangible gameplay disadvantage.
    Clockwork´s last post: Talkback Challenge #3: What Made You A Gamer? #NBI2015

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      June 3, 2015 at 8:56 am

      I think the pay-to-win concept is much easier to define in a PvP environment because it’s obvious who is winning and who is losing.

      The thing with hats though.. see, in Ye Olden Days, if I had a pink protodrake, people knew that I had completed the year-long holiday achievement in WoW. If I was wearing the crazy hat slash noseguard (yes!) in RIFT, people knew that I had completed the Emerald Isle meta-achievement. If the same cosmetic items are available in the store, then you can no longer assume that and my hat or mount becomes distinctly less awesome.

      Yes, I am a hat achiever.

  • Reply
    June 1, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    I don’t believe the term “Pay to Win” can have any meaning without a generally agreed “Win Condition”. If a game was about collecting hats and popped a Game Over screen when you got the final chapeau then, yes, you could potentially have a “Pay to Win” situation on your hands. If, however, individual players make individual choices to set their own win conditions, known only to and recognized only by themselves, such as owning all the “best hats”, then I don’t see how either other players or the companies making the games could be expected to take that into account.

    My issue is with calling these things “games” in the first place. They are, by and large, entertainments not games and you can’t pay to win entertainment. You can, though, pay to have preferential access to it. If we were talking about Pay To Experience instead of Pay To Win, then we’d really have a debate on our hands.

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      June 3, 2015 at 8:54 am

      I totally agree about the lack of an agreed-upon win condition in MMOs. It makes this conversation complicated, at best.

      I think it’s reasonable for a company to expect players to complete the content they lay out, though. If they add a costume system, for example, they can expect people to collect costumes. They create fancier costumes to represent greater achievements or more expensive purchases.

  • Reply
    June 1, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Yeah I’ve found that, now that I’m not literally living hand-to-mouth, I can’t play F2P games. Their marketing _works_ on me, and I’ll blow $20/week on it, minimum, and rationalize that it’s less than going to a movie and getting a popcorn (nevermind that I do that maybe 3 times a year most years).

    When I stop playing the F2P game I feel bad and regret the money I’ve spent, and then start playing the next game. (I’m a verified 3-monther now, although I’ve mostly quit MMOs entirely). I suppose it’s not all bad – I went to Dave and Buster’s and blew $50 in a single night hanging out with this friend, too, and that’s not counting the drinks.

    But seriously, I’ve definitely moved to single player games because of payment model. Sometimes there’s DLC, sometimes there’s not, and I can more carefully control my purchases. If I were still in grad school and trying to play any MMO these days, I’d be sunk, I just can’t handle it.

    • Reply
      Jessica Cook
      June 3, 2015 at 8:52 am

      Yeah, I have to watch myself with F2P because it is soooo easy to spend $2 here and $5 there and suddenly I’m paying $30 a month for a “free” game. Plus as you mention once I look at how much money I’ve spent, I just feel really gross and angry with myself. When I play a sub or single player game, I don’t have to worry about controlling myself so much.

  • Reply
    Link dead radio: Design, Debates and Demographics - Healing the masses
    June 2, 2015 at 2:53 am

    […] Herding Cats steps up with the age old Monetisation debate […]

  • Reply
    June 2, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Those gangs will *be* MMO Bloggers – the PeeWees will have a blood feud with the Subbies, and nobody else will have any understanding of the byzantine politics involved.
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  • Reply
    June 2, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    I would have to respectively disagree. I love this argument, but I don’t see people actually like having to pay all these microtransactions. In my experience, and what I’ve observed, we play the game and have fun, and in return, support the developer with how they setup their monetisation.
    I would prefer devs not cut stuff from the game and hold it for ransom behind a cash shop. But I’m not subscribing much any more, and buy-to-play doesn’t seem to be the full answer either (but the best I’ve seen). So I play what I can and support them as I go.
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