Dual Wielding: Pay-to-Win? No Problem.

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?”

Make sure you don’t miss Kunzay’s take.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written anything and to be honest, I’m struggling to do so now with this week’s Dual Wielding topic. Kunzay and I decided to write on the subject of “pay-to-win” which on the surface appears simple. Pay-to-win is bad; play-to-win is good. Typically the argument is that in a free-to-play MMO, cash shops should not sell any items that give an unfair advantage to paying players over those who play for free. That seems right on the surface, however it overlooks the obvious injustice to the developer—why shouldn’t they favor the audience buying the product? Historically, that’s what video game studios have done and it wasn’t criticized then.

Back in the early days of gaming I owned a console and would buy a cartridge or disc for the privilege of playing a game. I suppose that was the start of pay-to-win in the video game industry because I certainly had an advantage over my friends who didn’t own the game. Free-to-play has admittedly complicated the matter a bit, because gamers are now able to experience at least portions of a game without paying. However instead of being appreciative of what I view as a generous “try before you buy” mechanic, there is a vocal group that wants to take the moral high ground with regard to competition and fairness by accusing developers of designing games that sell advantages of one sort or another. Think about that for a moment though; the people crying out “unfair” at the top of their lungs are those who refuse to pay for the goods and services they currently enjoy. Who’s being unfair to whom in this scenario?

Much of the problem lies with the specific way content is gated by developers through monetization, not the act of gating itself. Gating content behind DLC, an expansion, or a subscription is culturally acceptable while placing the barrier behind gear obtained by way of the cash shop is taboo, even if the pricing for access is roughly the same. It’s really just a matter of window dressing.

Look at Star Wars: The Old Republic for another example. F2P players who want to participate in end game raiding will need to purchase an unlock that allows them to equip epic quality gear. There is no way to compete on the same level as subscription players without this unlock, as you will be unable to raid for long without upgrading your gear. I’ve heard grumbling over this but never an accusation of “pay-to-win” because the gear isn’t being purchased, rather the ability to equip it is for sale. But is that really any different than selling the epic gear on the cash shop? You could argue that no skill was required in earning the gear if purchased with real world currency, but most entry level raiding gear doesn’t require skill, only time. And if someone is terrible at their class, all the gear in the world won’t compensate for challenging mechanics. Buying gear is not engaging game design in my book, but neither is it some moral evil, it’s simply another way (albeit tactless) for studios to entice players who enjoy their game to actually pay them for the opportunity to play.

I spend most of my time these days playing Trove and were someone to argue that the game has pay-to-win items in the cash shop, I wouldn’t disagree. I wouldn’t care either. You can buy some of the crafting materials required to improve your gear and for some players that’s tantamount to selling the gear itself but personally I take no issue with it. I’ve even purchased some of those materials myself when I was a few items shy of an upgrade. I could have earned them in the open world in another day or two but I chose to buy them instead and I can’t imagine anyone in game being negatively affected by that decision. If anything it benefited the population by providing it with one more player with gear capable of U4 shadow arenas.

I think many of the arguments against features such as this rely on fringe examples or hypothetical situations. For example, in Trove I’m sure with enough real world cash you could buy your way into the highest level gear via trading cash shop items with other players. But even if that happens it’s rare; certainly not frequent enough to affect the wider population of players. And I guess that’s what I don’t understand with how upset some players can be over this issue, how does this negatively affect the game overall? If you’re enjoying earning the gear in game and another person enjoys the content they have accessed after making a purchase of gear you’re both paying a cost—time or money— and having a good time with what you’ve earned. If you don’t enjoy the grind and are upset because someone else bypassed it, then maybe you should be playing a different game (to be fair, in some instances developers should stop relying on tedious grinds as progression).

There are some exceptions of course that I am unfortunately less familiar with. From what I understand ArcheAge is one of them due to the nature of the gameplay and it seems to be an example of using the wrong business model for a particular game. I can’t say that I understand what makes the pay-to-win features so offensive in this game but it does sound like the very design necessitates a subscription or buy-to-play model. However I think ArcheAge’s situation is unique because the game itself is unique. For most pay-to-win accusations, the issues are tied to player perception and not an actual moral conundrum.

I’m not saying I prefer this method of monetization over all others; personally I would rather buy a game outright and have access to it as much as possible without a subscription or micro-transactions. As new content is produced it can be sold to me as DLC but in big chunks, not piecemeal. However I would not refuse to play a game on moral principle simply because the developers chose to monetize by selling levels, gear, skill points, or something similar. Might that give some players an unfair advantage in a competitive environment? It might, but so does having eight hours a day to play an MMO when the average person does not. At the end of the day I want an MMO with gameplay worth paying for; that’s far more important to me than how the content is gated and sold. How a company chooses to monetize is up to them and we can let the market decide whether it is effective or not. Sure, there are examples of monetization schemes that have ruined games, but from my experience most outcries of “pay-to-win” are the result of players who want all the benefits of owning a game without any of the cost. Calling a game pay-to-win is a means of justifying that behavior, and I find that to be the greater offense.