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.

Movement Progression in Trove and the Value of Flight in Draenor

Character progression in Trove is varied, from class leveling to club world developing to mount, pet, and recipe collecting. Perhaps my favorite type of progression in the game involves movement. It’s an odd concept, but I think it’s a suitable way to express one of the more novel aspects of Trove; how you maneuver through the world changes over time as a type of progression. However before I talk about movement progression in Trove, I’d like to give a little context as to why I think this is such an important feature that is quite relevant to the recent “discussion” between WoW developers and disgruntled players with regard to flying in Draenor.

This week a couple of blog posts caught my attention, one directly addressing the topic of flying and the other more tangentially related. The first was published by Azuriel at In an Age and it convincingly argued that the world of Draenor is in reality one big developer-directed dungeon. The restrictions on flying, the artificially created corridors that restrict movement through the zone, and the linear quest chains drive players in a very specific direction predetermined by the development team. The other article that got me thinking was written by Shintar at SWTOR Commando on the funneling of alts through the same content post 50. Shintar points out that after the conclusion of the class stories, the same story is played through over and over by every alt, leading to a narrow content experience. What both posts are ultimately discussing is the “on rails” aspect of both games so common to theme park MMOs. It’s not a new criticism, but it’s one partially resolved by the progression of movement found in Trove.

Did I mention there were boats as well?

Did I mention there are boats as well?

If you’ve been playing MMOs for a while, you’re probably familiar with the claustrophobia these narrow experiences evoke.  Recently in Star Wars: The Old Republic I was on Ilum going into several mineshafts to save the world. Literally. The planet was going to crack if I didn’t turn off these mining machines which sounds really exciting except in reality I went through the same map twice and encountered the same mob clusters twice. It got boring pretty quickly but there was no alternative for advancing the story; I had to press on and endure the grind. Imagine doing that on 15 other advanced classes, a situation that is very real for SWTOR veterans due to the 12x XP. Even a more open world environment like World of Warcraft can feel just as closed when questing determines your movements in much the same way. I think this might be one reason players enjoyed flying in WoW. It wasn’t just about efficiency, it was also about approaching familiar situations in a new way. At the very least it allowed you to reduce the time it took to play through those repetitive, “on rails” situations.

Compare my SWTOR experience to the way I move through the environment in Trove. As a new player I started out with a double jump and a slow mount. When I would approach a dungeon I would search for the entrance, follow the path created by the developers from beginning to end, and then hopefully defeat the final boss. Because all I had was a double jump, it took time working through the platforming required to maneuver through the dungeons and reach the end boss. However as I played through the content more and more, my movement options started to expand. First I found gear with “Jump” as a stat. This increased the number of times I could jump before having to touch ground. As of this writing, my current gear has +23 Jump. That’s right, I can jump twenty-three times before I have to land. The additional jumps allow me to avoid certain platforming perils or even to find alternative ways to enter a dungeon.

The Dark Dracolyte watches over Neon City.

The Dark Dracolyte watches over Neon City.

As I continued to progress through the game I realized I could use craftable bombs to further change the way I moved through my environment. Rather than searching for the front door, I began blasting my way through walls, roofs, and floors. When my mastery rank reached 20 I received my first pair of wings—which function like a glider— opening up even more options. You might argue that I’m “skipping content” by playing this way, but I’m not. I’m creating content, and I think that was the developer’s intention. The same dungeons appear in Trove repeatedly as you level. If you’re in Candoria, you’re going to see the same cake tower, gingerbread house, upside down ice cream cone, and gumball machine a lot. However as your movement options progress, you get to experience them in new ways. At first you’ll battle through them the “correct” way. As you gain more jumps, craft bombs, and earn wings, you’ll find all sorts of ways to engage the same experience.

Here’s how it might look once you have all these advancements: you’ll use your extra jumps to scale the outside of a gumball machine, avoiding the flame throwers inside. Then, you’ll blast your way through the glass and directly engage the boss. Once the cupcake or licorice man is dead, you’ll toss another bomb at the ceiling and jump up to the roof of the dungeon. Finally, you’ll leap off the top and glide your way to the layer cake tower next door, tossing a bomb at the side and using your extra jumps to clamber into the random entryway you’ve just created. It’s always a little different and vastly extends the life of the dungeons.

SWTOR, for all it's beautiful landscapes would be so much better with open worlds to explore and exciting ways to traverse them.

SWTOR, for all it’s beautiful landscapes would be so much better with open worlds to explore and exciting ways to traverse them.

Now imagine my experience in SWTOR but with similar options for movement progression. Perhaps I would have pushed through the first mineshaft the traditional way, burning through mobs to reach the end of the tunnel in order to defeat the elite at the end. Then with the next shaft, I might use a pair of rocket boots to jump over the entrance and onto the top of the cave, riding my mount until I reached the point where I thought the back of the cave was located. I would then pull out a timed explosive, set it, and blast a new front door through the roof. Leaping down through the hole in the ceiling I land… right in the middle of three mob clusters. Crap. I’ve misjudged where the boss was located, and now I have to either engage three groups at once or use some other movement option to escape the deadly situation. That sounds a lot more exciting than playing through the same narrow map in the same narrow way, doesn’t it?

I’ve used SWTOR as an example due to my own recent experiences, but the same ideas could be applied to World of Warcraft. Blizzard’s assumption that corralling players through a predetermined pathway will improve their enjoyment of the content is short-sighted; it works once, then it’s a grind. Instead, with future expansions they should follow Trove’s example and push alternative ways of exploring and moving through the environment even further. For now, just add flight back into the game, preferably without a petty grind.  Flight isn’t something that has to hinder the player’s experience of the content, it’s a way to expand the life cycle of what the developers have created. And with the skimpy gameplay offerings of Draenor, Blizzard needs all the artificial longevity it can get. That’s what Trove has done, and that’s why I see movement as an integral part of character progression in the game. If you’re playing Trove, keep that in mind as you level up your character and expand the way you move around the world. It’s not just a matter of convenience, it’s there for new means of exploring the world and maneuvering through lairs and dungeons.

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Also mag rails. I believe I forgot to mention those as well. This one plays music, and yes, I’m riding a moustache.

Dual Wielding: 12x XP in Star Wars: The Old Republic

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.

After taking a look at what makes for ideal leveling, this week I will be sharing my thoughts on the latest round of 12x XP in Star Wars: The Old Republic. When the return of the XP buff was announced the timing could not have been better. I had purchased the “Choose Your Path” promotion in March which meant my 60 days of sub time would run out shortly after the XP buff had begun, the perfect incentive for remaining a subscriber. I’ll admit, I was excited about the increase in leveling speed. One of my biggest pet peeves with leveling in MMOs is when it is extended unnecessarily in order to retain subscribers or to encourage the purchase of XP boosts. Or both. With the 12x XP buff in SWTOR, characters can be leveled by playing exclusively through the class stories. Not only does this make the process quicker, but it also emphasizes one of the stronger elements in the game: story. However there is a dark side to the XP boost, one that became readily apparent after a few days of playing at the accelerated rate. So today I’d like to list some of the pros and cons of having such an accelerated leveling experience and suggest a better solution.



Let’s start with the good stuff. One of the things I look for when leveling in an MMO is for the pacing to be set by the story rather than by a need to prolong experience gains in order to keep players in game. So many MMOs have a ridiculous amount of filler content while leveling. As a result I often lose sight of the main storyline because it can be hours of gameplay stretched out over several days before I get back to the primary narrative. With 12x XP, the class story matches your leveling speed almost perfectly. Currently I’m level 50 and not quite through with my class storyline so it actually appears to outpace the story a little. I’m not sure if that’s because the buff outpaces the questing eventually or if I’ve participated in enough side activities (Flashpoints, Warzones, etc.) to have pushed myself ahead, but whatever the case it’s close enough. Because of the XP multiplier I could navigate from one quest to the next without needing any filler projects to move forward. As a result I was actually able to follow (and enjoy) the Smuggler class story.

Secondly, the accelerated pace of 12x XP works well with the time I have available to play MMOs. Normally I would have to play a game exclusively for weeks on end in order to make any kind of progress toward end game however with the buff I am able to play SWTOR 2-3 days a week and still feel like I’m moving forward at a fair clip. This may be a personal character flaw, but there have been times when I have moved on from a game because the leveling process simply took too long and I began to feel like I wasn’t accomplishing anything. With a limited amount of time to devote to gaming and an interest in two or three titles at a time it is in my favor to make tangible progress with short play sessions.



There’s really only one problem with the XP boost, but its significant enough I may turn it off when I start leveling a second character. After a couple of days of speedy leveling I grew disinterested and started playing far less. This was partly due to the fact that I started playing Marvel Heroes and Trove again, but it also had to do with the lack of variety in my play sessions compared to when I first started playing SWTOR. For the first 35 levels of SWTOR I spent my time in Flashpoints, Warzones, Galactic Starfighter, and questing equally. Yes, this broke up the questing and storyline a little but it was at my discretion and kept the gameplay interesting. However once the XP boost was in place I avoided these other activities because the XP rewarded was marginal compared to the class story.

Yes, I could have continued to pepper my play sessions with the occasional Flashpoint or Warzone and perhaps the second time through I will, but it’s hard to argue with efficiency when your goal is to reach the new Shadow of Revan content. For now I’m going to press on with the class quests and mostly ignore other activities so that I can get to Yavin, Rishi and Ziost but with subsequent characters I am going to either turn off the XP buff or try breaking up the class quests with other activities and not worry about out leveling the zones. I may also I try turning the buff on at times and off at others and find a happy medium. Regardless, I don’t think I could level another character using only class story quests.


Concluding Thoughts

Instead of the semi-permanent 12x XP boost I would prefer the double XP that Bioware has offered in the past for short durations. What I like about the double XP event is that every activity gets a small XP boost which means you can continue to play diversely but a little more quickly than usual. For the most part you are able to play through the planetary quests, class quests, and a few other odds and ends without drastically out-leveling content. Even if you do get ahead you can easily get your character level back on track because of the short duration of the event. In other words, I prefer things the way they already were, though perhaps with more frequent double XP events.

There’s one other alterative, one I don’t actually expect to happen in SWTOR or any other traditional MMO. That option would be for studios to make a drastic shift away from vertical progression and introduce new content that is playable by characters of (almost) any level. Lately I’ve been playing a lot of Trove and Marvel Heroes and the feature I appreciate most in both of these games is that “end game” or the equivalent is introduced midway through the leveling process and scales in difficulty with your progression. The whole reason I am in a rush to reach 55-60 in SWTOR is because I want to see the most recent content while it is still current. If I could somehow participate in the latest patches while I level I wouldn’t be in such a hurry.

World of Warcraft made an attempt at this with the instant level 90 boost. SWTOR is using an XP boost as a means of catching up players. But neither is the best solution; yes, they allows new players to experience current content rather than waiting months to reach the appropriate level but it devalues all of the old content in order to do so. Personally I like leveling as a benchmark of character growth, so I don’t want it to go away all together. What I would like is for characters or content to scale so that after a few tutorial levels (like the first 10 in Trove) I can continue leveling anywhere in the world. Unfortunately that’s just not possible with a linear, story driven MMO like SWTOR.

So is 12x XP a good thing or not? I would argue that it serves its purpose so in that sense, yes it is beneficial. However I think it’s a fix applied to an outdated system; the system itself should be better. The issue isn’t whether players should have the option to bypass so much content by leveling quickly, the problem is gating content by level in the first place. Some gating is necessary in order to give players time to familiarize themselves with a class (tutorials) or to allow studios to do some linear storytelling. However both should be done sparingly so that players can move more freely from zone to zone, story to story, expansion to expansion, growing their characters in power without being limited to a single linear path that takes a hundred hours to complete. 12x XP is a wonderful band aid, but it’s still a fix applied after the fact. I would rather see more games like Trove and Marvel Heroes or even Guild Wars 2, where character level is still a mark of progress and relative power but not a gate restricting players from new content. Remove the gate and there will no longer be a need for XP boosts.