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.

Dual Wielding: Precision of Language, Please

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.

Whoever came up with the phrase “Free-to-Play” is an idiot. Not the business model itself; there are some excellent examples of games that monetize by providing the gamer with some content for free while charging for other elements. However the phrase “Free-to-Play” is problematic. Seriously, who thought it was a good idea to advertise a game as free when generally speaking, it’s a partial truth at best? With the announcement of WildStar changing business models to one that is “Free-to-Play” and with so many other bloggers writing on the topic, Kunzay and I thought it was a good time for Dual Wielding to tackle the subject. Personally, I don’t have a favored model; I’ve enjoyed games of every kind. However I do have some strong feelings about the overall atmosphere created by the Free-to-Play market specifically. First of all, I’m tired of studios playing the semantics game with their business plans and I believe the phrase “Free-to-Play” is largely dishonest. I would love to see studios be more upfront about what is being offered. On the other hand, those of us who are consumers need a splash of reality with regard to our expectations in paying (or not) for games. It is unreasonable to request “all the things” and be unwilling to pay for good content.

First of all, at some point in time MMO studios began marketing their games as Free-to-Play. I’m a little ignorant on my history here, I don’t know who first coined the phrase or when the business model was introduced into the MMO genre but I suspect that it had something to do with publishers realizing that no one was going to duplicate World of Warcraft and a new monetization plan was in order to keep their games afloat. Free-to-Play has allowed many MMOs to survive much longer than they would have been able to in a subscription only environment and that’s a good thing. Population is important to creating a virtual world and providing a game with at least the illusion of health. Free-to-Play provides this for games that cannot drum up the player base on a subscription model alone. With Free-to-Play the virtual world feels full and players can subsidize the game according to what they feel the content is worth. Or at least that’s how I think it should work. When studios are developing quality content, many players will pony up more than $15 a month while others may settle into $5 or less. So long as it’s enough to continue development and pay the bills, everyone wins.

WildStar was good, it just wasn't enough to compete with other subscription games for my money.

WildStar was good, it just wasn’t enough to compete with other subscription games for my money.

Take WildStar for example. I played this title for a total of three months but did not enjoy it enough to warrant a monthly subscription, certainly not with so many other options on the market. Nevertheless, I would be saddened if the game was closed down all together. It’s a beautiful world with an intriguing story and combat mechanics that I personally enjoyed. The game is good enough I hope that Carbine is able to continue production for years to come in order to build on the current foundation. However the subscription model would run them into the ground (and possibly already has); there’s simply not enough people willing to pay the fee for WildStar to feel like an inhabited world let alone to provide the necessary population for group finder tools to function properly. There’s also been a need for further iteration on the game, but that takes time and money. Free-to-Play, if done well, may infuse the studio with enough income to buy the developers’ time in order to take the game where it needs to be to succeed.

Adapting the range of available business models in order to broaden the market is a good thing. The problem I have is with the phrase “Free-to-Play” (as well as some of the sleazier implementations). The term “free” insinuates something  provided by the generosity of the developer without compensation on the part of the recipient. That, of course, is only partially true. Generally speaking, F2P titles are more of a trial, the purpose being to hook the potential consumer and then convert them to a paying customer at which point the “real” game becomes available. President Satoru Iwata of Nintendo referred to the model as “Free-to-Start” earlier this year and I think that’s closer to the truth. These MMOs offer an extended trial, they are not truly “free.” Sure, some gamers manage to play without ever spending a dime, but it’s clear from the way these games are designed (and from the obvious need for studios to make money) that this is not the intended outcome. As an industry, MMO developers and video game studios in general need to come up with a better way to communicate the intentions of their business models and game design such that there is more integrity between what we the consumers are told and what we actually experience.

This is pretty much how I looked when I found out how much I had to pay to access

This is pretty much how I looked when I found out how much I had to pay to access “hide head slot” account wide in SWTOR.

However studios are not the only guilty party here. The problems associated with the Free-to-Play business model may have been initiated by the MMO publishers who egregiously misused the word “free” but the atmosphere has been made decidedly worse by the overall mindset F2P has cultivated in the wider gaming community. In the mind of the average gamer, Free-to-Play has devalued gaming software. If you’ve ever participated in an MMO economy, you’ve experienced this first hand. If someone grossly undercuts your product it hurts the overall market value; suddenly everyone has to start dropping prices lower and lower to try and compete. With Free-to-Play it is worse because the notion of “free” is false—you’re not actually trying to sell a product for less, only appearing to— nevertheless it functions similarly to undercutting in an MMO economy in that it leaves the consumer questioning why other developers are charging when the F2P studio is “giving it away.” We start to expect free and purchasing content becomes the outlier. Video game development is a business, games survive or die depending on whether the development is subsidized by paying customers—just look at Infinite Crisis. If we as consumers play hundreds of hours in a Free-to-Play game without spending a dime and it goes under, it is partially our fault for expecting to continue to receive goods without compensating the provider. Nevertheless, the blame still rests primarily on the publishers; it is precisely their insistence on the phrase “Free-to-Play” that has devalued the worth of a game in the average consumer’s mind.

Ultimately what it comes down to for me is that I want studios to be honest about what they are offering. Unless they are pro bono, the product they are offering is never truly free. However as consumers and players, we need to reengage the reality that games do not make themselves out of rainbows and wishes, they require cold hard cash. I think this will correct itself over time, in fact, I believe it already has begun to do so. I have a lot more faith in the current F2P/ B2P market despite the erroneous name due to some of the more recent business models including ESO, WIldStar, and Trove. All three provide a quality game with complete features either for free or for a base price and then monetize in a way that for the most part does not devalue the game nor the buyer’s intelligence. With respect to Trove and WildStar, you genuinely will be getting “the game” for free. While I still detest the phrase, at least both titles appear to be taking it seriously using cash shop items as an extension of the base experience rather than a means to sell back to the player core systems required for a full feature experience.

Trove is an excellent game, but will players pay for the quality content Trion is producing or simply take the freebies while they can?

Trove is an excellent game, but will players pay for the quality content Trion is producing or simply take the freebies while they can?

Still, I worry that all of this will hurt games that would otherwise be successful. The damage has already been done with regard to devaluing video game content in the collective mind of the consumers. Take Trove, for instance. It’s an amazing game but I fear that given the market the developers have already felt pressured to be overly generous just to stay competitive. This is the result of needing to keep up with the competition that has already bottomed out the market value and will lead to too many people playing the game without paying a dime regardless of quality. In the end, “Free-to-Play” as it has been marketed was short-sighted and self-defeating. The business model that the phrase represents within the MMO genre is often fine, but the damage the phrase has caused to player perception with regard to game value has already corroded the marketplace. Yes, I believe the free market will eventually correct the issue, but how many good games will become a causality simply because the word “free” was so badly misused?

MMO developers and publishers, I have one request of you in your marketing endeavors: precision of language, please.