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.

A Treasure Trove of Trovian Treasures: Collaborative Multiplayer

Last week I wrote a post on 10 reasons why you should consider playing Trove, however as my notes on what I love about the game or the details I find interesting continues to grow, I don’t think a “top ten” article covers the game well enough. It’s not that I think Trove is the best game I’ve ever played, but I do think it is underrated largely because most of us don’t know enough about the game to risk giving it a try. With a market as saturated as the MMO genre, it’s understandable that we all want a little more information be it from the studio or via word of mouth before we dive into a new title. So rather than a “10 more reasons” follow up post, I’m going to do a series of articles that will hopefully paint a better picture of what the game is like in order to give anyone interested the intel needed to decide if this game is for them or not. For today I’d like to point out some of the multiplayer-friendly features that give Trove a nice “we’re all in this together” feel.

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Gathering Crafting Materials

When you are gathering materials for crafting, any player close by will receive duplicates of those same materials. For those of you who have played MMOs without shareable nodes, you’ll understand why this is such a jewel feature.  It’s even better than shared nodes because so long as you stay close you can tag team an area. I like this approach to gathering because it encourages players to stick together and there is no animosity if someone gets to a node before you. For example, there are these giant sunflowers you need to harvest sunlight bulbs from for the gardening profession. It’s a bit of a pain to do alone, but a lot of fun with a group of players. Instead of a race, you get a community activity!

And while we’re talking about gathering, I’ll mention a couple of other noteworthy conveniences. First of all, unlike Minecraft, you don’t have to go pick up the materials you gather, they automatically come to you. So if that bit of shapestone you just blasted with your laser falls off the side of a cliff, it will rebound right back into your inventory. Additionally, for several of the crafting mats like mushroom chunks, sunlight bulbs, bottles (which grow plant like in the open world), and enchanted wood, as long as you are mounted you can run right over them to gather. Same goes for anything you plant in your cornerstone as a part of the gardening profession.

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Lairs and Dungeons

Similar to the group-friendly status of gathering, when you reach a dungeon you may find that a group of players has already reached the boss, however even if you don’t make it to the final chamber in time you will still receive the XP, loot, and dungeon completion credit toward the daily quest. You’ll still need to physically navigate to the boss in order to pick up the loot (which is unique to your character by the way, no fighting loot ninjas for your rewards), but you don’t even need to tag the boss to receive credit. Yes, this opens up options for players to abuse the system and simply follow others around while they do the work but functionally I haven’t seen that happen. You’d have to be pretty engaged to follow people around (so no AFK) and so most players do the right thing and help each other out for the kill as much as they can. Overall it’s another design decision that favors camaraderie over competition and I for one am a fan of that line of thinking.

Trade

One of the more surprising choices made by the developers was to omit an auction house or even a universal gold-type currency from the game. Instead, a lot of the crafting materials are tradable and the primary currency used to determine an object’s value (flux) is itself a crafting mat. Basically the economy is a bartering system. Some of you might find this to be an inconvenience; I know I tend to prefer auction houses and as such I haven’t made much use of the trade system. However what I have observed while reading trade chat is that this system encourages players to interact with one another in the same way that group materials gathering, group dungeon crawling, and group shadow arenas do.

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Shadow Arenas

Shadow Arenas are Trove’s end game for those focused on combat skill. They are group instances with a high difficulty level that are accessed by portals that must first be found out in the open world in the Uber 1-5 zones. Gameplay involves fending off wave after wave of monsters and ultimately defeating a final boss to earn loot and shadow shards that can be used to obtain a variety of desirable items. The portals require a key to enter and the keys can either be crafted (which takes some time to amass the materials) or purchased with real money. Initially I was concerned about the keys being purchasable from the cash shop, and some of you may still fine this a bit too much “Pay to Win” for your liking, however I have recently spent a little more time participating in Shadow Arenas and I find the cash shop keys far less problematic now.

My concern was that players who purchased the keys would have an advantage in earning powerful gear and crafting mats for upgrades, however in practice it’s not really an issue because the Shadow Arenas are a group activity. Just having keys of any origin is a benefit to everyone. For example, last night I grouped with seven other people for a string of Shadow Arena runs. Four of us had keys available for the group to share and I never did find out whether they were crafted or purchased; it didn’t really matter. Eight people were able to get loot four times regardless of whether any of us used the cash shop or not. Additionally, I could have continued to run SAs all night without spending a dime as there was a steady stream of requests for people to join groups. Had I been focused on gearing up through SAs I could have easily done it by using shared keys. Because Shadow Arena keys benefit more than one person, the importance of whether they were purchased or crafted is negated. What matters is that keys are circulating; big spenders and F2P players alike benefit from the general pool of keys available in the game at any given time.

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Club Worlds

Despite the fact that I have spent a little more time exploring club worlds and even joining a Club myself (although I don’t think I picked a very populated one), I still don’t know a lot about them. What I can say is that Club Worlds offer another form of group activity by allowing players to work together toward creating an environment all their own. Some of the worlds I have visited are thematically consistent. Others look like a buffet of nerdy pop culture references. Whatever the group’s intention, Club Worlds provide an avenue for joint activity that is about creation rather than destruction, a welcome change to the traditional MMO end game content.

As you can see there are a number of features in Trove that promote a wide variety group activities. Whether you want to craft, build, trade, or take on challenging bosses, there is plenty of opportunity to do so with friends and strangers alike. Based on the design decisions behind these group friendly mechanics and features, I expect this trend to continue as a core part of the game. I certainly hope it does, it’s one of the reasons I find the game so inviting. There is a solid community vibe once you get properly oriented in the game.

I hope that gives any interested persons a good overview of Trove’s multiplayer functionality. Next time I’ll be looking at some of the progression systems in Trove. While the game may be perfect for short, casual play sessions, there’s also a lot of character development providing deep gameplay with lots to work on over the long haul. Trove’s end game is not for the faint of heart.