Sunday, May 22, 2011
Time vs. Money
If somebody who had never played World of Warcraft before were to buy an account with a max-level character equipped with the best possible gear, he still wouldn't be any good as a raider, because he would be lacking the skill. This example is widely used to show how getting a strong character by playing is good, while getting a strong character with real money is bad. Unfortunately the example is completely spurious: Somebody who had never played World of Warcraft before would feel no desire at all to buy an account with a maxed out character. The reality looks very different, and the moral questions aren't quite as black and white as some people would like.
By playing a game you get better at it. Somebody who played a lot more chess than me is probably better than me at chess, and very likely to beat me. But then my pawns haven't been upgraded with the Sword of Uberness or a Kalashnikov. In games with any sort of "character development", your overall power is a mix of skill and stats. The most skillful level 1 WoW character still can't harm the least skillful level 85 character in PvP. By how much exactly skill can make up for lack of stats depends on the game, but clearly skill isn't everything. Furthermore the learning of skills is very much a matter of diminishing returns: A few hours of play easily get you to 80%+ of the skill of a true master in most games, especially MMORPGs. In most games it takes considerably longer to get your character to maximum stats than it takes to get to a really good skill level.
When I last wrote about World of Tanks I mentioned that you could buy level V tanks for $5, but that this wasn't a very good option, because those tanks aren't very good. Meanwhile WoT has been patched to v0.6.4, and now you can buy level VIII tanks for $25. I still don't plan to buy any of these, and they still have the disadvantage that they are outside the tech tree, and can't be upgraded. But a n00b with a level VIII heavy tank has a very good chance of beating me (or even a more skilled player than me) in my level V Russian KV heavy tank I got from working my way up from the bottom.
Now World of Tanks players suffer from the same sort of jealousies than the players of other games and thus tend to dismiss people in these bought tanks as bad players. But again it is unlikely that somebody who never played World of Tanks before would feel any desire to buy a $25 tank before knowing whether he actually likes the game. And I can very much imagine somebody like me, having played WoT for 50+ hours and having played up to the first heavy tank in the regular way looking at 100+ hours it would take to get from there to a level VIII tank and deciding to take a $25 shortcut to there instead. That would probably still make him less skilled than somebody who put in those 100+ hours with heavy tanks to get to level VIII, but not by much. And if we are brutally honest for a second, we all know that in any MMORPG or other game with levels you can always find a way to "grind up" to a higher level without necessarily getting more skilled in the process. As much as we would like our level/gear/stats to be an reflection of our superior skills, in reality we are very well aware that this is at best a flawed image. We might not want to admit that about ourselves, but as soon as somebody else claims he is better than us because he has for example a higher gearscore, we immediately dismiss that notion as ridiculous.
So if time spent in game isn't really all that related to skill, is it really so bad to have the option to advance faster by paying real money? I didn't buy any tanks, but by taking the "subscription" option for about $8.50 for a month I'm advancing 50% faster than somebody not paying. I would need to seriously split hairs to argue that this is morally superior to buying a level VIII tank. I just decided to not skip ahead because I find leveling up to be fun (which appears to be a strange idea to many players in many games). Whether you get to a high-level tank or character with time or with money is ultimately no difference at all.
I would like World of Warcraft to have the option of buying level 85 characters with full iLevel 333 blue gear (the stuff you get from normal dungeons). Not because I necessarily would like to buy one. But because I feel Blizzard has tuned the leveling speed to a compromise between those players who level for fun, and those players who want to get to the "real game" at the level cap as fast as possible, and ended up making both groups unhappy. If players were able to skip ahead for $25, the leveling speed could be cut in half and be a lot more appropriate for people who enjoy that sort of leveling content. There will always be people complaining about the ability to buy your way up to the top, but behind all that acting morally superior there is often the simple fact that they just can't afford the money alternative. If your main advantage in a game is that you can spend a lot more time in it than the next guy, you don't want him to have the option of advancing by an alternate route.