Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 22, 2013

There has been some heated discussion on win conditions and Pay2Win business models here and elsewhere. The core issue is that if you play a game competitively and believe yourself to be winning over somebody else, you don't want that person to be able to pull out his wallet and pay for an advantage over you that makes the richer person the winner. So far, so good. But very few games sell outright wins. Even the famous "gold ammo" in World of Tanks, which gave a small but measurable advantage to those who use it, has now been changed to be available for in-game currency instead of only for real money. Most games operate on similar principles, making sure that the same equipment is available either by grinding or by paying, so that arguably paying only saves you some grind and never gives you an advantage that somebody who doesn't pay can never have.

But multiplayer online shooters or MOBA games are relatively simple in that one game only lasts minutes, and the winner and loser are very clearly determined at the end. The matter gets a lot more complicated in a MMORPG, where outside certain forms of PVP battlegrounds there is never a screen that tells you that you won. Instead of that there is a multitude of personal win conditions, very often existing only in a nebulous form in the player's head. You feel good if you overcame some challenge, whether that was beating some raid boss or collecting 100 pets. You feel as if you "won".

The tricky thing in that is that in spite of your feeling that you won, this nearly never causes somebody else to feel as if he lost. And that is important when discussing whether a game is Pay2Win, because paying to win is not really a problem; paying to make somebody else lose is. If I could buy an unbeatable tank in World of Tanks for $1,000 and win every match with it, the problem would be all the players who lost to my tank, who now feel that the game isn't worth playing any more unless they'd be willing to put up an equal amount of money.

And that is how we should judge things that are being sold in a real money shop for a Free2Play game: Can you buy something which makes somebody else lose? Because otherwise, if everything can be a win condition, then everything can be Pay2Win. You might consider selling hats in an item shop to be perfectly acceptable, because hats do not figure in your personal win condition. But what about the player who collects hats competitively? Wouldn't he be complaining that selling hats makes the game Pay2Win? There are certainly people in World of Warcraft who collect pets and mounts competitively, and Blizzard does sell pets and mounts for real money, but does that make World of Warcraft a Pay2Win game?

Ultimately it comes down to a simple squabbling about "my win condition is superior to your win condition", where some people claim that whatever win condition they set for themselves is more important than the win condition some other player chose for himself. Thus Blizzard selling items that affect raids would cause more of an outcry than them selling pets, but only because there are more people whose personal win condition relates to raids in some way. But personally anything a game company sells that doesn't make somebody else lose the game is all right in my book. If a game isn't Pay2Lose, it's okay.

But haven't you just shown that *anything* they sell can make somebody else lose?
That depends on whether the developer had a role in that competition. So if they had leaderboards for most pets/mounts collected and rewards for being at the top, then creating a new buyable pet would be Pay. But not if it's something that the players came up on their own.
I would say that in 99% my "win condition" is not a "lose condition" for somebody else. In most cases the other people aren't even aware of the fact that I "won" by achieving a win condition of my own choosing.

Frankly, most people tend to choose win conditions they can't lose. It is "I want to collect 100 pets", not "I want to collect 100 pets faster than anybody else". The latter you could lose, and it would be bloody difficult to even find out where you were in that competition. So you go for the former, and do all the necessary steps in a quite competitive mindset, without it actually being a "competition" in the strictest sense of the word.
I think the difference here is the elusive "skill". Even the pet collector would accept that collecting pets only needs time. However raiding always need skill, even if you overgear it (you can still wipe on some lvl 60-70 bosses in lvl 90 gear).

The reason why no ones sets "I want to collect 100 pets faster than anybody else" is that winning would prove nothing but spending unhealthy time in the game.

The raiders believe (let's not argue over if they are right or not, it's their belief that matters), that they win by skill, the World top N position is a proof of their personal abilities. If you allow someone to buy such position, they are upset for losing this proof.
I don't want to rehash the points I made earlier on Pay2Win, but I do want to mention one other thing about buying stuff in a cash shop: if the cash shop sells things that can't otherwise be acquired in-game, seeing those items breaks my immersion. Much less so if the items can also be acquired in-game by my efforts (or "grind", though it's never feels like a grind to me to work for things I want).

In a virtual world, immersion is very important to us (or is it just me?). We want to suspend our imagination and allow ourselves to believe that we are killing stuff, downing dragons, saving villagers and so on. When I see somebody ride by on a cool mount, I wonder how I can get it myself. Unless it's a cash-store mount. If I see somebody on a Zhevra, it jolts me out of immersion. I know that there is nothing that I, Dàchéng the mage, can do to acquire such a mount. That other 'I', the customer paying a monthly fee, comes to the fore, and I'm brought back to the world wherein I'm sitting in front of a screen pressing buttons. That's often the point when I log off!

I don't want to just blame cash-store items for jolting me out of the flow: Blizzard and other players manage to do a good job on that by other means! Cash-store items are only one in a long list. But were those same cash-store items available in-game (if, say, there was a questline that would allow me to finally acquire a Zhevra of my own) then for reasons I don't understand, my mind allows me to remain immersed in the virtual world.
I think we should distinguish between schemes where you have to pay a fixed amount to be competitive and schemes where there is no cap on how much you pay but the more you pay the better you get.

As an example of the first type of scheme imagine if every serious player of WoT had to buy a $50 gold tank to compete. Some players might baulk at the cost but I don't really have a problem with it. That is the price of admission and once you pay it you have the same chance as any one else.

On the other hand many F2P games have lock boxes where you have a small chance of getting uber stuff. These tend to be a bottomless money pit and there are documented cases of players gambling hundreds of dollars on lock boxes just to try and get epic gear so they can be competitive. This I have a real problem with.
Let us consider that a game that costs $1 per person to build and run. People that play for free are effectively spending $1 for the game and $(1) for a negative boost. Pay to win might be punishing them, but in return they are being paid to lose.
The raiders believe (let's not argue over if they are right or not, it's their belief that matters), that they win by skill, the World top N position is a proof of their personal abilities.

Oh, I totally agree that raiders win by skill. But I have serious doubts that for example a "server first" is an accurate measure of that. For example some guilds "train" for raids in advance on the test server, others don't. Different guilds have different numbers of raid nights per week. etc.

Who has more skill? The guild who raids twice per week and succeeds on the 3rd try, which is in week 2? Or the guild who raids 6 times per week and succeeds on the 5th try, which is in week 1?
Its not about win and lose, but about "justice". When I play game and earn something, I want the other people earn it in the same way too, even if it is the ugliest cosmetic hat.

When I see someone next to me riding a mount or wearing an outfit I want to know that he earned it by playing the game. There's enough distinctions between rich and poor in real life and I don't want the same thing to my games..

this is my win conditions and is why I always play a subscription only games and avoid the f2p.
It's the exact same deal as the big fuss people make about people being able to get raid-level gear from dungeons or dailies.

I see it as a failing of certain mindsets. They don't want to just enjoy playing the game, or get better at playing the game, they want some sort of absolute declaration that they're ahead of others. They don't just want to be a good player, they want to be a better player than random other people. And they want those random other people to know it and feel lessened.

I think it's projection. They envy the people more skilled than they are, so they want lesser players to envy them also.

I think it's a failing of the game genre that it's possible to benefit from someone losing, or that your gain is sometimes someone else's loss. In a good mmo, everything you do should have a positive impact on you, and every interaction with other players should leave both of you better off than you were before. See something like GW2's PvE game.

They don't want to be better than a random player, they want to be EQUAL with the randmo player. And they enjoy the MMO game they play and they don't play it as a single player game, meaning they care about the "random" people. I don't know what MMOs have you played, but from the definition of "random" player I guess you played only wow, because in the MMOs I play there are not random playes, but known players of my server.

Also: "they envy people more skilled that they are"

are you aware that we talking about f2p game and about using your real money to buy stuff from the shop?What this has to do with skill?

"I think it's a failing of the game genre that it's possible to benefit from someone losing"

if someone feels that is losing because the game have no shop to buy things from, then he is a loser either way
That was one of your finer blog posts Tobold.

Coming from World of Tanks i must say, that making gold ammo just very expensive premium ammo was a great move on the developers side. Before that, gold ammo was in some cases indeed pay2win. (Even by your definition, since after every match there is a screen telling you wether you won or lost.)

So while I have no problem with the so called freemium model, there are implementations I really dislike.

It is not so much about pay2win or questions of fairness (some players getting stuff through money instead of through playing the game - how is that fair for those who have a job and a family and just not enough spare time?!) but the ability of this business model to target weak point in the consumers psyche: Paying a lot in frequents low amounts happens 'under your radar', becoming victim to the sunken cost fallacy (I already invested 50 Dollar, whats 10 Dollar more?) and stuff like that.

A lot of freemium games lack the transparency for the consumer to make informed choices - and this is by design.

I have no doubt that over the long run the market will sort these things out. But if I was a parent with teenaged kids I would be very much afraid that they might lose control over spending their money on these kinds of games...
The problem is that "competition" does not have to mean "PvP." A good example would be golf, where you play on your own and compare your performance. You don't do things like try to screw up another golfer's swing, or block their shot. But it is still a competition.

And it most certainly would not be okay with golfers if another player started paying for advantages. They would be incredibly offended if you told them "his score does not affect your score."
Gold might be the worst possible example to bring up in this context.

You can get a $6,000 set of golf clubs, or a used set from Goodwill for $20. Presumably there's a difference.

You can spend $5 a ball, or .75 cents.

You can certainly Pay 2 Win. Hell, that's true of damn near every sport. I'm going to be able to run longer in a $140 pair of Mizunos than $10 Walmart shoes. The Walmart shoes will fall apart in half an hour.

So people can and do regularly cope with the reality that you can spend money to boost your performance substantially.
At a local level with golf, absolutely. At the pro level, not so much. They have rules and restrictions on what sorts of equipment you can use. Tiger Woods wins golf tournaments because he's good at golf, not because Nike can afford to buy him better balls than Sergio can buy.

Which is the core issue, really. Some of the people who play MMOs are at a level well above the local level. These people want to believe that they're as relevant to MMOs as Tiger is to golf. So when their mental version of Sergio can pay a couple hundred dollars and beat them in the game, that's frustrating to them. They think they're at the point where skill should be the deciding factor and in a 'Pay2Win' game that's not true.

But personally anything a game company sells that doesn't make somebody else lose the game is all right in my book.

So you are fine with how the Diablo 3 AH worked out? Even though Blizzard wasn't selling items directly, it remains the best example of how bringing in real money can undermine everything about the game itself even without a strict "P2W" condition. The issue is not simply making other people lose, it's also about making certain game rules optional. You can either do X, Y, or Z to get the best gear... or you can pay $9.99. The integrity of the game itself becomes suspect.

And this says nothing about how cash shops warp the incentives of the game designers themselves. Pre-cash shop, the only way to increase revenue is to make the game more fun to play and thus spur box sales (or subscriptions). Post-cash shop, you get the most money by catering exclusively to the 5-10%.

So people can and do regularly cope with the reality that you can spend money to boost your performance substantially.

People cope with it because its reality and it sucks. That does not at all speak to games with which its possible to control all the variables.

Imagine playing a Monopoly game in which you can convert real money into additional Monopoly money. Would you actually feel any satisfaction playing that version? Even having the ability to ignore the otherwise standardized rules changes the feeling of the game, IMO, as the choice necessarily becomes a part of your inner calculus.
P2W and cheating teds to be judged by each person if it gives the other player an advantage **In something the judger cares about**

So the leet forum posters rage more about selling arena gear than pets not because RL$ for pet collecting advancement is much different than RL$ for pvp advancement, but that they don't care about pet collecting near as much.

Certainly this world-first WoW discussions were about time.

"After a recent WF guild disbanded a member blamed the time required.
We've basically been killing ourselves off slowly since day one," Killars wrote. "In the last few years we've certainly picked up the pace, but the 'hardcore raider' is a dying breed and it's certainly becoming a more difficult breed to be a part of."

Killars laments the time commitment and other costs required to get to the top and stay there. "Unfortunately we (hardcore raiders) pushed too hard," he says. "Tier after tier we just keep adding to the insanity in both farming preparations and actual progressing. It's almost as if progression itself never really ends after a end tier boss dies. "

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