Tobold's Blog
Thursday, March 22, 2012
What exactly is an unfair advantage?

Game developers sometimes say things which come back to haunt them. Like Mark Jacobs defining the exact conditions for WAR being considered a failure, and then promptly fulfilling them. I believe that Mike O’Brien of ArenaNet just wrote such a thing that will come back to haunt ArenaNet when he defined their philosophy of microtransactions:
"Here’s our philosophy on microtransactions: We think players should have the opportunity to spend money on items that provide visual distinction and offer more ways to express themselves. They should also be able to spend money on account services and on time-saving convenience items. But it’s never OK for players to buy a game and not be able to enjoy what they paid for without additional purchases, and it’s never OK for players who spend money to have an unfair advantage over players who spend time."
Emphasis mine, because that is the part that will boomerang. The statement itself is one that a lot of people might be able to agree with. But those people will never agree what exactly constitutes an unfair advantage. And thus they will compare the reality of what exactly Guild Wars 2 sells by microtransactions with their personal definition of "unfair advantage", and pronounce ArenaNet to be in breach of promise.

That starts with things we already know about. Guild Wars 2 will have a system which resembles EVE Online's PLEX system: You will be able to exchange real money for gems, and trade those gems for in-game gold. Thus you can buy in-game gold. With which you can buy gear. Or in WoW terms: You will be able to buy "epics" for real money (as, btw., you can in WoW). Probably not the best-in-slot ones, but nevertheless. Any gear that is tradable will also be buy-able for real money. And a lot of people will consider that to be an unfair advantage of somebody spending money over somebody spending time.

The very principle of microtransactions is that anything which isn't pure fluff is going to save you time. You exchange money for time, and ArenaNet clearly says they want to sell "time-saving convenience items". But where exactly does "time-saving convenience" stop and "unfair advantage" begin? Lots of games for example sell items that give you a buff for a certain time that doubles your experience; is that a "time-saving convenience" or is that an "unfair advantage"? We will never get everybody to agree on questions like these. Some people will think being able to buy faster advancement and better gear to be perfectly acceptable, others will think it totally unfair that somebody can get to the same result as he did in less time by spending money.
It's only unfair if they have more money than I have time.

If it's the other way around, it's totally fair.
It will depend on how they handle items in GW2. If they had have had microtransactions for buying equipment in GW1 it would have made pretty much zero impact as gaining items with the best stats was easy. Therefore being able to buy "best-in-slot" items would have had minimal effect.

Sadly it looks like GW2 might be significantly more WoW-like than GW1.

Gobble gobble.
I think the common-sense standard is currently set by LoL and ArenaNet follows that example (many times they have admitted being inspired by this MOBA game).

in LoL you can buy boosts that give you double XP, so you can level faster; you can buy IP boosts that increase your ingame currency gain, so you can unlock content faster (Runes and Champions); and you can buy some content directly with money - Champions and skins for them.

This is where I think currently lies the demarcation line. The only think that remains is those "standards" to be properly translated in MMO space.

Currently ANet provides things like XP and IP boosts (IP equivalent being guild Influence and PvP award points). I assume skin-like content - costumes and customization options - are a given too.

But basically I agree with you - it doesn't matter much as for some people nothing will be totally fair until the game is completely free and maybe comes with a complementary scoop of ice cream too :)))
as long as everything that's bought for cash, can also be bought for in game earned currency? there's no unfair advantage. in other words, no cash only exclusive items. and it seems, there are no cash only exclusive items planed.
It seems that the only items that will be sold are costume items, armor and weapon skins.

So it won't be the equivalent of selling "epics" in WoW, but more like selling transmog gear.
If 'Best in Slot' items are Bind On Equip and can be bought and sold, people are going to be gearing up and clearing content very quickly.

Without any gear grind,it may be that they move on quicker too, however this is no bad thing for Arenanet as it reduces their costs.

Endgame PvP will separate into two tiers - those with sufficient money/time and those without, with the former 'farming' the latter in WvWvW.
time is a major thing in an MMO...everything a player can do faster than me because he put in real money I think it is unfair.

Is it gamebreaker?probably not but it is unfair for sure
It should be noted that if GW2 plays out anything like GW1, the context with which you guys are used to (of WoW + generic F2P) doesn't really apply here.

For the most part, in GW1, armor is all vanity after a certain point (a point which isn't hard to reach). So the idea of "buying epics" would be nothing more than buying a better skin. At most, you'd be able to buy skills straight out with cash to save you time, but again, these skills are things you could get by spending a little time out in PVE/PVP.

It's also important to note the differences in how GW2 will generate revenue. GW1 mainly generated revenue through the box sales, and I don't see that changing much into GW2, meaning that there is much less pressure on ArenaNet to force "unfair" microtransactions into the cash shop to generate more revenue.

All in all, ArenaNet already has a history of providing fair microtransactions for players, and although there's always the possibility this could be a self fulfilling prophecy, it doesn't seem like it'll happen that way.
I was very pleased to see you post this Tobold, because I had been amused by the serious chin-stroking that accompanied ArenaNet's obvious declaration that GW2 would be MTX-based (worse, actually: B2P *and* MTX).

Usually, announcements that game X is going F2P/ MTX are met by hurricanes of outrage; but this time, the announcement that, yes, the B2P business model is totally dead (even though it has been used by fanboys to attack proper MTX models for years - 'GW is F2P done properly, nub!') was met only with serious chin-stroking and 'why, it wa elementary, dear Watson'-type pontifications from the people usually lighting the pitchforks at the *slightest* suggestion go 'buy-2-win'. It is extremely amusing to see The Usual Suspects arguing that 'this time it's ok'.

As it happens, I'm a BIG believer in MTX business models, and have been arguing their case for years: why should a casual or infrequent player subsidise my heavy play time? Why should I not pay for what I use? Why should a business NOT provide mechanisms for me to give them more money if that's what I want to do?

The news that WoT is making 10s of millions of dollars revenue *per month* for; that WoT has more concurrent users than EVE has total players; that MAUs for WoT exceeds WoW's total subscriber-base (even accounting for all those Chinese WoW users not, y'know, actually subscribing) makes clear both the business-case AND the player-case for MTX (because if the players really *were* wielding pitckforks about F2P, they wouldn't be playing in such huge numbers). ArenaNet's decision is thus not surprising, but given the strong correlation between 'F2P = bad!' and 'GW2 will save MMOs' opinions, can we conclude that all the pitchfork-wielders were, all along, not being 100% truthful about the evils or otherwise of MTX?
Leah has it right, above.

The problem that many people (including me) have with World of Tanks is that it is impossible to match those with gold ammo. Players using gold ammo simply need fewer hits to kill an enemy tank. Gold ammo is only available for actual real-life money. No amount of in-game skill or grind will get you it. It really is a pay-to-win game.

Seanas suggests that the business case for MTX is clear from WoT's numbers. I think really that they show the business case for pay-to-win, which seems to be very much stronger than I suspected or would like.
Players using gold ammo simply need fewer hits to kill an enemy tank.

Frankly I have never been able to find out with certainty who exactly of my opponents is using gold ammo. With or without it, sometimes you get lucky and every shot bounces off you, sometimes you get insta-killed by a lucky shot.

I'm not using gold ammo because I looked at the stats and found that it doesn't make all that much of a difference. Between two equally skilled players in a one-on-one duel with exactly the same tank it would probably be a deciding factor. But that situation is so rare as to be irrelevant. In the far more usual situation that one side has a local superiority of tank levels, they win even against gold ammo.

So in the end gold tanks and gold ammo is a bit like buying a big battleship in EVE with PLEX: Your money doesn't help you much if you don't have the skill or team to use the material you bought to maximum efficiency.
I agree with Pzychotix - we'll have to see if they use the same thinking as they did with GW1. If that is the case, max stat items should still be easily obtainable in-game and real money would just speed up skill collection and getting more/"better" skins.

Also in GW1 skill completion speed would only be important for starting PVP players (use any build you want right off the bat) or completists. Skills were also easily obtainable.
Regardless of what time=money formula is used, I think that any option to allow players to skip content and time online via purchasing advantages is bad game design. It removes actual play experience from the game and impacts things like community and economic interactions.

If one is to allow micro-transactions, then two rules of thumb should be followed: 1. offer players the choice to get the item from normal play and 2. Don't allow purchasable items to enable players to skip content (ie. combat gear or skill ups).
Until a universal definition of the term "unfair" is defined, then the whole discussion becomes somewhat redundant.

What's unfair to you may be water off a duck's back to me and vice versa.

Also it seems odd that people seek a meritocracy in gaming when it is absent in pretty much every other area of life.
I agree with Leah's comment:

"as long as everything that's bought for cash, can also be bought for in game earned currency there's no unfair advantage."

Sure, people with money can then get that item right now, but if you get enough ingame gold you can get it for "free". I consider that fair.

Some games are totally bastards at this though. Take Mabinogi for example. Want a steed? Sorry, you need real money. Want a potion that can let you summon a goddess to ressurect you each time you die? Oh, that's only available via cash shop. Furthermore these items are untradable ingame so, either you fork out the dosh or you miss out.

Now that's what I call an unfair advantage.
One of the most important aspects of microtransactions is that you should never be able to tell that the other person won because of spending money - plausible denability works wonders.

This is done well in WoT - imagine the outrage if there were a gold icon over a tank that uses gold ammo.
I think the use of Gold Ammo is being overstated here by the other commenters. I play enough WoT to get the impression that overall use of Gold Ammo (at least on NA Servers) isn't all that high.

And if someone wants to "waste" actual cash, then "Lol at them" when they miss cuz I'm hiding behind hard cover or zipping around them in a small, fast tank.

Even if some people are using Gold Ammo, there's a pretty good chance the next game, the next group of opponents aren't. Boo hoo, you one-shot me in one battle. I'll just queue up and play again.
Gold ammo is an almost entirely hypothetical issue that has little real world relevance.

Some people are paranoid and every time they get hit hard they think its gold ammo; probably not. They probably just know where to hit your tank. Are you exposing your tanks weak spots? Not angling your armor? If someone is just shredding your ass the most likely answer is that they are either getting lucky, which absolutely happens, or they are placing their shots well, or both. I one shot type 59s on a regular basis, not because I use gold but because their ammo racks are insanely delicate.

Very few people are going to be willing to spend .50 to 1 dollar a game, which is what it costs to run gold ammo unless it's in clan wars. I just don't think it happens nearly as much as people thing. There's only so many times you can spend .20 cents bouncing off some goddamn Maus even though you are putting the shot in exactly the right place before the idea of wasting gold on a pub match doesn't really even occur to you, and seriously, if you play enough WOT you will not respect your teammates in pub matches enough to waste money trying to support them.
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