Tobold's Blog
Thursday, January 09, 2014
The Pay2Win Scale

If somebody on the internet doesn't like the business model of a specific game, he is likely to insult that game as being "Pay2Win". And if you ask for a precise definition of when a game is Pay2Win and when it isn't, you never get an answer. The inconvenient truth is that even if somebody rants against Pay2Win, he most likely loves another game in which progress and winning is also in some way depending on the amount of money spent. At best we can talk about a hypothetical scale of Pay2Win-iness on which all games could be placed; but there are very few games that are either 100% Pay2Win or 0% Pay2Win, and most games are somewhere in the middle of that scale.

I can't find a better example for an 100% Pay2Win game than an auction. While auctions aren't usually considered as "games", they do share some characteristics with games, like having strict rules and a win condition. And obviously winning an auction is pretty much 100% depending on how much money you're willing to spend.

On the other end of the scale we already get into an argument about what money we are counting when we talk about Pay2Win. Because if we talk about computer games, most of them require some money to be spent to play. You need to buy a computer or console, and you need to buy the game. So you could say that you can't "win" such a game without "paying". On the other hand the cost is more or less fixed. You might have a tiny advantage in a PC multiplayer game if your computer is much more powerful than the computer of your opponents, but that effect is small enough to be neglected. Paying for let's say a second copy of the game wouldn't give you any added progress or chance to win. So we might as well bundle all games that are "buy once, play forever" at or near the 0% end of the Pay2Win scale.

If we now look at a typical MMORPG, and what game could be more typical than World of Warcraft, we find that it is surprisingly far from the 0% end of the Pay2Win scale. Just ask yourself how much money YOU spent on World of Warcraft or whatever other subscription MMORPG you played for several years. For me that is well over $1,000 spent on World of Warcraft alone. And that expenditure isn't independent of progress in the game: Since I don't pay for WoW any more, my progress has stopped. We talked yesterday about how getting to the level cap in World of Warcraft and even getting epic gear was possible without ever doing any challenging cooperative multiplayer content. But what it does take is time. And if you are just a normal person with a job / studies / family / friends / food / sleep occupying most of your time, it takes months to get a new character to full epic gear at level cap. Months which you have to pay for in subscription fees. That is even more extreme in some other games, e.g. skill progress in EVE is done in real time, offline, and thus solely depends on how much money you spend on the game. Which is why many EVE players pay for multiple accounts. The more you pay in a subscription game, the more you advance, so it isn't 0% Pay2Win.

The games most likely to be accused of being Pay2Win are those which are free to play and then have an "item shop" or something which allows faster progress or other in-game advantages in exchange for money. If you want to place those on our Pay2Win scale, you'll notice something weird: For many of these games it is extremely hard to correlate progress with the amount of money spent. In most of the cases it is a matter of "you COULD pay to win", which doesn't automatically mean that somebody who has progressed more than others is automatically the person who paid most. In many cases it is possible to arrive at the exact same point in the game by either spending more time or more money, or even by being more skilled. If you look at forums for games like World of Tanks, you'll always see people who are adamant that somebody who landed a good hit on them must have been using money for "gold ammo" to do so; but if you study the game mechanics a bit you'll realize that it is very possible to one-shot another player by simply being very good at aiming with a tank and equipment you can easily get for no money at all. The Pay2Win argument often looks like a lame excuse for players to explain why they have lost or didn't progress that much. It is easier to claim somebody else is a "wallet warrior" than admitting that he might just be better at that game than you are.

So I think that on the Pay2Win scale those games shouldn't be represented by a single point, but rather by a range: How much money do HAVE TO spend to progress in the game? And how far could you get if you played badly but spent a lot of money. For some games those bars could cover most of the scale, with both playing your way to a win less money spent than for a "buy once, play forever" game and paying your way to a win being possible.

Wouldn't it be even more likely to get a one shot kill if you were skilled, experienced, and had gold ammo?

There are certainly spectrums involved. Personally I tend to be ok with being able to increase the money spent amount to offset the time spent amount but I'm significantly less ok with being able to ramp up either time spent or money spent to offset skill spent. I haven't played WoW in quite some time, but I'm still most proud of the A Tribute to Dedicated Insanity achievement. It didn't matter how much time or money any given guild was willing to spend... You couldn't get that done without being good. (You certainly also had to spend a lot of time, and a good chunk of subscription fee money too.)

With the way WoW progress essentially resets each expansion (and even with each major content patch) I don't see it as being 'pay 2 win' regardless. Subscription fees are a constant across all players. Pay to play, absolutely, but not pay to win.

For me what you need to look at is what happens when you fix time/skill and then see what happens when you slide the money slider around. With a subscription game someone who doesn't pay doesn't play at all, and that's ok. Someone who isn't playing isn't disadvantaged. They can go do something else and everyone is happy. Then you need to look at someone who pays a lot extra... What do they get? If they get mounts and pets and skins and extra character slots then who cares? That's not power, and that's not paying to win. If they get powerful weapons or consumables then it likely is paying to win. It depends on how much time/skill would be needed to get those in the game without paying, and if the payers get to compete directly or indirectly with the non-payers.

What really gets me bitter are games with artificial paywalls. These are essentially subscription games trying to use obfuscation and subterfuge to trick people into paying them money. I don't like them, so I don't play them. But I have tons of other games to play so I don't begrudge their existence, I just get bitter if I get tricked into starting them to have the rug pulled out from under me.

I also won't play a game I see as being pay to win either. Not because I couldn't pay to win, but because I don't want to put myself in a position where I'll be tempted to do so. I don't want to win that way, but I _really_ like winning, and the temptation makes me unhappy. So I don't play those games either. I don't think WoW, LoL, or PoE are pay to win. I've paid them all a lot of money for various things but none of them were ever power over another player and I have never felt disadvantaged by another player having spent money either.

Contrast this to a CCG like SolForge where I absolutely feel disadvantaged when I play constructed against other people who have paid money. And I feel advantaged when I play against new players because of how much free stuff I've earned through time spent. Both ways make me feel bad. So I've stopped playing constructed.
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Since you need to play to be able to win, all pay2play is also pay2win, or, rather pay2play2win.
And since alls devs need to make money somehow, all games are pay2win following this logic ...
You didn't mention the old chestnut of the players time being worth money.

The position on the scale relates to whether you can acquire or outright buy something that would normally be acquired by a skilled task or a dumb time related task.

Max level toons and valor/raid finder gear in WoW was always the latter. That aspect of the game was just as much pay to win as if Blizzard put the gear in the cash shop.

They are dumb tasks where progress relates to raw player time input which has a value based on salary. The inclusion of weekly caps and lockouts means that they are also pay2win due to Tobolds point about subscriptions.
Tobold, aren't you contradicting yourself again? You wrote so many times that it's impossible to win a MMO, and now suddenly WoW is "pay to win". ;-)

Then the statement that "you must pay subscription to even play WoW so it's pay to win" is as true as "you have to buy chess board and figurines to even play chess, so chess is pay to win".
The problem is with business models that push developers towards a degradation of the gameplay experience, and F2P models tend to be susceptible to that.
I'm not familiar with how gold ammo works, but most "pay to win" mechanics I'm aware of don't have much ambiguity about whether paying correlates with progress.

Take paid exp boosts - the same player, with the same skill level, and the same amount of time played per day, gets more exp boosted than not. Unless you're being held in a sweatshop somewhere, nothing in these games is ever "necessary", but if I can't play with my friends because I'm not the right level and paying reduces or eliminates that barrier, I think you can make the case.
I don't know, I don't think WoW really counts as Pay2Win. I think a better definition would involve not how much you actually spend playing a game, but rather how much you spend compared to the "minimum" you have to pay to play it. Since everyone has to pay the minimum (subscription, Internet costs, buying the game, etc.) this leaves you with the difference between how much players paid, and you can compare it to whether or not they win. In WoW (not including pets etc.) everyone pays the same, but not everybody wins, so the money doesn't play a big role...
Great post. Every time the whole concept of Pay 2 Win is brought up, I instinctively roll my eyes, due to exactly the reasons you've specified. WoW isn't considered P2W, but yet if I stop throwing money at them, I stop making all progress. For those that yell at FTP games I usually tell them "Well, if you give them $15 per month, you might find a WAY easier time" and it's true. If every FTP player poured the same $15/month into a cash shop, they'd find themselves head and shoulders above other players. That, to me, is totally fair. Why do P2P games get a pass for doing the exact same thing (and then having cash shops offering convenience ON TOP OF THAT).

The ONLY time I would consider a game P2W is when the very top items are capable of being bought. But then, even if people take the store up on it... where's the real harm? They have their power and... does it really affect other people? They didn't work for it, and so they won't enjoy it as much. In the end, especially if it's a PvE focused game, they really still don't "win".
Heh. I love how many different ways and angles you come at this thing.

And this one's pretty good, too... but it occurs to me that no matter how many tacks you take with this, whoever you're trying to convince isn't going to get it.

Denial - not just a river in Egypt.
And of course people only count "progress" in areas they care about. Just because the 1337 raider does not care about pets or mounts does not mean that pet or mount collectors don't see them as p2w.

There is also some sense of proportion - if the $1 XP boost saves you an hour, then most people understand devs need income. But if $25 saves you 1,000 hours to get to max level or to get your 0.1% drop-rate legendary weapon, then the money is technically still only a time saver; practically not really.

All ethics have a real problem with probability - spending $1 million to save a poor child is one thing. Spending $10,000 for a .00001% chance improvement is where traditional ethics are strained. I see people arguing that selling a lockbox that has a chance of BiS/current gear (e.g. the WoW tokens sold in Asia) is different than selling the same gear - "it's only a chance..."

Let me get to my traditional "so what". I.e., say someone convinces us that sub is clearly the preferable way to sell MMOs. If that is not really economically viable in 2014, then I submit that the fact that sub is better is irrelevant. Studios are about maximizing profits not minimizing forum opprobrium. It is further along in mobile. One can make many good points about how paying a studio $10 or $40 for a AAA mobile game is better for everyone. But it is quite rare for $10. or $40. to be the optimal price. (Average Android ap price is $0.06)

BTW, having a second account in WoW is a considerable help in WoW, especially for AH PvP. Being able to swivel the Aeon chair and immediately start an AH scan or TSM run while the first toon is flying or waiting for respawns. Avoiding reading chat in LFR is a side benefit.
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