Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 01, 2015
If you can't define, you can't discuss

Apparently there is yet another discussion about Pay2Win in MMORPGs. "Pay2Win" is quickly getting to the top of my list of least favorite terms, because nobody has a clear definition of that term. My personal opinion about Pay2Win in MMORPGs is that it is technically impossible: You can't possibly "win" a MMORPG, there is no universal win condition; thus you can't buy a win either. The alternative is to allow *anything* as a win condition, which includes for example mount collection, so a game that sells mounts is a Pay2Win game, and pretty much every MMORPG becomes Pay2Win. So what's it to be? Everything is Pay2Win or nothing is Pay2Win?

As I stated previously I think this is a case of everybody having a different win condition in a MMORPG, and many people wanting that *their* personal win condition doesn't involve money. And that is impossible. If you list all existing MMORPGs, subscription games now make less than 10% of the games on offer. And even subscription games like WoW and EVE Online have ways to buy in-game currency legally with money, and offer other things in an item store. Anybody still know a game which doesn't sell anything at all?

In economic theory there is the concept of Utility. Basically people only ever spend money on something that satisfies their wants. Even a donation to charity has "utility", because it makes a person feel better about themselves. Under this theory it is obvious that everything you can possibly buy in a MMORPG has "utility", even if it is just a hat or mount. The most common utility sold in these games is ways to save time. That could be a "double XP scroll", or that could be buying gold in WoW to buy a rare pet with on the AH which otherwise would have required hours of farming. But there are many forms of utility which are only of utility to a niche of customers, and considered to be "fluff" by others. Nobody minds if the guy next to him buys "fluff", but some people do mind if the guy next to him buys something which would also be of utility to himself.

But utility isn't a "win". There are some items in some PvP games which do in fact increase the probability of the buyer to win, for example gold ammo in World of Tanks. But frequently the possibility exists to get exactly the same item by grinding in-game currency. The guy on the receiving end of that ammo probably doesn't care whether his opponent bought it with money or grinded for it, but considers both to be an unfair advantage. And in a game where you can buy better equipment for in-game currency, does it matter whether that in-game currency was earned by playing the economy, by buying the currency from the game company, or by buying the currency from another player in exchange for game time? I'd feel very uncomfortable splitting hairs here, because to me either all of them are Pay2Win, or none are.

Ultimately the current definition of Pay2Win is "something sold in the item store of the game which I don't like". And that is very subjective and not very helpful at all. Right now nobody could possibly make a list of games and say which of them are Pay2Win and which of them aren't, because there is absolutely no common definition.

This is a issue with legacy language. It's the same point I've been making for years, which is that one of the biggest drag-anchors on the growth and market penetration of MMORPGs is that they have the word "Game" in them. One heck of a lot of the activities in most MMORPGs that consume most of the time of those who enjoy them have no connection with playing a game whatsoever and if that was more widely understood the opportunities for marketing the hobby, the entertainment, would be much greater.

You almost come to the nub of the "P2W" problem when you talk about advantage. That is exactly what people mean when they talk about "Pay To Win" - something that Player A can buy for money which gives him a perceived advantage over Player B. Since these entertainments are not in any meaningful sense "games" then you are right, there can't be any way for consumers to Pay To WIN them but there are countless forms of entertainment in which consumers can pay to get an advantage over other consumers: better seats at the opera, executive lounges at the airport, outside cabins on a cruise etc etc etc

Those advantages are what rankle with some people, in MMOs as in the rest of life. Fundamentally it's a political position. Gaming has nothing to do with it.
It's not the first time you mentioned this and I already suggested a proper definition (using no opinions, just observable facts) and I wish to hear your reply:
Surely you don't need to define these things so specifically, its obviously a perception of fairness based on the general environment / context of the game / sport you are partaking in.

If you are forced to partake in such a way as its not possible to avoid the impact of someone else paying to get a massive advantage over you, when you want to try and compete on generally equal terms, then this can be perceived as pay to win, and essentially means you'll either accept that as reasonable and follow the same approach.

Or you'll decide you can't or don't want to pay to get the same advantage, and potentially with an extreme feeling of frustration decide you cannot partake and enjoy doing so.

Its as simple as playing a game of football against someone, in what you think is an amateur friendly game. You get a bunch of regular mates to come and play, whilst your opponent pays some professional players to join his side. You get trashed and lose.

you might be happy to play another time if you feel this won't happen again or very often, but if its happens more often than not, then you'll not play again, or find a different league to play in.
Pay-to-win is less of a concern to me as opposed to pay-to-not-lose. For me, that line gets crossed when someone is at a competitive disadvantage because the cash-shop offerings beat any relatively available in-game alternative.

For non-tradable collecters their game is single-player. Since you cannot be at a competitive (dis)advantage to yourself I cannot include that in my P2W definition.
I think you defined it right there, and rather handily: Pay2win is a case where a game offers purchase of some virtual commodity, goods, service or edge which artificially advanced the game for an individual to give them a competitive advantage outside of the game's actual play process. It doesn't have to be P2W for everybody (i.e. the mount example you provide) just for somebody.

If you buy a pet, it doesn't impact my ability to collect pets. So I don't care if you can buy a pet.

If you buy a PvP weapon better than one I can realistically earn myself, it does impact my ability to beat you in a battleground. So I do care if you can buy an awesome weapon.

If you buy a PvP weapon equivalent or worse than one I can realistically earn myself, it doesn't impact my ability to beat you in a battleground. (You could have just spent time or skill the same way I did.) So I don't care if you can buy a decent weapon.

I don't mind if you can buy time, so experience scrolls don't bother me at all in general.
I'm trying to think of a reason for me to even care about "Pay to Win." And I think about it a lot, not because it affects me or I want to do it, but as a developer. And in that side of things, I have to say "Don't mix direct competition with unrelated PvE aspects." As a player, I'm not in "direct competition" with anyone.

The reality is, people want to compete. So if you have a measurable metric, like "DPS" or "GearScore" or "How much isk your ship cost" people will compete. You have to separate the competition into "amateur" and "competitive" leagues and then gate the players in the competitive leagues.

I wish to hear your reply

I am not convinced of your convoluted argument why buying epics in WoW would be Pay2Win even in PvE. As you demonstrated yourself, you can raid in blues. In PvE you are never in direct competition with anybody. And if you count indirect competition, the need to "keep up with the Joneses", then I don't see how buying mounts for mount collectors is different from buying epics for PvE content. Especially if you consider how many people mostly solo, so what gear they are wearing has absolutely no effect on you.
In my experience, P2W just means "I don't like the game." EVE allows me to buy a pilot, with skill points I will never lose, that would otherwise take me to 2021 to learn. Or Star Citizen sells $3500 ships. But the passionate fans accept that and love the game.

You were so right about sub/b2p/f2p not that relevant. If Sub or b2p certainly no longer precludes a cash shop and most allow selling RL$ for in game currency.

+1 to Bhagpuss and MMOs are not games.

There's always the definition battle :) I guess we need to differ between games that make you pay for progress versus exclusive progress/access versus a clear upper hand within a competitive environment?

That aside, my main argument was with those that cannot seem to accept that p2w is a market.
There is clearly no pornography in the world since there is no agreed upon definition. Glad we got that cleared up.
Well, for you Botticelli's Venus is pornography, so saying there is no pornography probably makes more sense than regarding every bit of naked flesh as such.
Tobold: "I am not convinced of your convoluted argument why buying epics in WoW would be Pay2Win even in PvE. As you demonstrated yourself, you can raid in blues. In PvE you are never in direct competition with anybody. And if you count indirect competition, the need to "keep up with the Joneses", then I don't see how buying mounts for mount collectors is different from buying epics for PvE content. Especially if you consider how many people mostly solo, so what gear they are wearing has absolutely no effect on you."

Buying epics in PVE is P2W since the goal of PVE is not to have the best gear but to beat the hardest boss as fast as possible. Being able to buy better gear or get better gear faster than grinding it out gives you an advantage in the race.

If collecting mounts is the goal then buying all the shop mounts does move you closer to that goal but it gives you zero advantage when farming up all the others.

If buying gear would completely lock you out of doing competitive content, then it would not be P2W.

The way I would put P2W is whether it impacts the effort you have to put into the game and if it you are able to trade money for skill.

That is only relevant to the tiny minority of people who actually race to be world's first. Everyone else is unaffected.
Your trouble is that you are trying to define it by simple "yes/no." I think in any competitive environment you could divide the factors determining the outcome into something like skill, strategy, time (grinding), luck, and real money. None of these will 100% determine the outcome. The real question is to what degree each influences the outcome.

In my view, a game (or element of a game) becomes "Pay2Win" when the real money element is the largest influencing factor. So to take your example, if more than half of the mounts for mount collecting are purchased with real money, then yes, that part of the game is "Pay2Win."

On the other hand, Gevlon has accused League of Legends of being "Pay2Win." While real money purchases can have some effect on the game, I can't see that being anywhere near the largest influencing factor, so I don't think this is accurate.
In PvE you are never in direct competition with anybody.

Yes you are. Aside from the world first race, another example: imagine two players beginning with WoW, both experienced players of many a MMO, both reaching 100 at the same time. They want to start mythic raiding and there is a guild with an open position.

One of them buys and spends a lot of gold on the AH to get his ilvl to 680 instantly. The other has to get there via normal and hc raids, he will need several weeks to get to 680. Guess who gets the mythic raid position.
"... both reaching 100 at the same time. They want to start mythic raiding..."

At which point any Mythic raiding guild would laugh in both of their faces.
I suppose if you have a definitive position on an issue, then established definitions become quite important. If someone has an agenda of swaying people towards their way of thinking, then definitions be damned. It can't mean that! I can't demonstrably support my position if the definition means this! I know..I'll change the definition!

Does this mean that MMO, F2P, RMT, Timesink, Grind or Gold Farmer are up for redefinition also? Where do I get in line for the redefinition committee? I have an agenda I want to push through, and I can only do that if we can change a few of these definitions to suit my arguments.

Tobold, you are being somewhat disingenuous with that argument that Pay2Win cannot be defined. It feels like make a nihilist point "we can't define it so it is not a problem"

As a US supreme court judge once said when asked to define pornography (which is probably as difficult to define as Pay2Win) "I know it when I see it". Pay2Win, as pornography, is difficult to describe and various people will different opinion. Some people will be be offended to see a breast while others will only say its starts when very graphic acts are displayed. This is not a reason to say "Pornography doesn't exist because no one can agree to define it the exact same way", same applies to Pay2Win. It's hard to define but it exists.
If a game starts to offer +300% damage buf bonus in a PVP game available only the in the cash shop, that would be obviously pay to win. A black hat in the cash shop in a vanilla PVE again is probably not Pay2Win.

The argument "some people define win conditions are having cosmetic items" is not logical either. To define Pay2Win in a generic sense, one has to look at
(1) objectives of the game that most players *reasonably* have in the game. Gaining level, killing other players, etc..
(2) whether the item offered for sale gives a meaningful advantage over people who do not buy this item (and that concept should over ability to grind for the same item; if grinding requires 5 mins or 5 hours, this will not be as valuable)

The argument that a minority of players have crazy hobbies or obsessions such as collecting hats shouldn't be deterring this view.
I'm not saying it can't be defined. I'm saying that the people complaining about Pay2Win won't define, because their argument in reality is so weak. For example on the "I know it when I see it" scale, EVE Online is one of the worst Pay2Win games out there, a pornographic image of EVE getting ravaged from behind by a centaur. But EVE is a hardcore game, and the people complaining about Pay2Win are hardcore players who generally love EVE. So they come up with convoluted explanations why EVE is not Pay2Win, but all the games they hate are Pay2Win.

I'm perfectly happy with a definition saying "Pay2Win means buying items/characters that give you an advantage in PvP". It is the people who hate Pay2Win who won't agree with that definition, because it doesn't make silly exceptions for their favorite games.
Actually there's a very clear definition of the term, but you, like the players you talk about, don't agree with it because it doesn't suit you.
@Helistar: I gave you my definition. You just claiming "there is a very clear definition", but refusing to give it doesn't make you statement appear very believable. Please enlighten us, what is the "very clear definition" of Pay2Win?
You are in competition with others for raid spots. If you are a "get some gear n00b", you aren't invited to raids, so locked out of content.

Just because you could theoretically do it in blues, it doesn't mean the team lets you in. My blue experiment had an extreme organizational overhead.
Also, I'm avoiding the "win" definition. I'm using the P2W = "pay to negatively affect another player" definition, which works because people consider it losing or even griefing to be negatively affected by another.
Actually there's a very clear definition of the term, but you, like the players you talk about, don't agree with it because it doesn't suit you."

Yeah, I'd love to hear this definition too.

This is turning into a "No true Scotsmen" debate.

The problem of the "True definition" is that it doesn't exist outside of some Asian games I've only vaguely heard of. Any local interpretation paints Eve Online up like a Seal Team 6 target right before an air strike. And that's the bastion of hardcore, so it can't be P2W.
I play EVE Online but I would like to have an objective view of the game and not make convoluted arguments.
Clearly there is part of EVE which is Pay2Win if you think about the simplistic scenario of a duel of a basic ship vs a bling ship. However many (I would argue most) fights in EVE are more over-numbering (/ganking) your opponent than a fair fight where ship modules will make a difference.
It's actually pretty funny to see 2-3bn ISK T3 being rapped against a few ships worth a fraction of their price. With all his billions spent every months again Goons, Gevlon is having a minimal impact on the game.

Hence I would say that though EVE has some Pay2Win elements, it's still quite different from World of Tanks where having gold ammo make a difference in a 15v15 battle. In EVE the 15 gold-buyer players will meet 30 "normal" players and still loose.
Plus it's easy to become very rich in EVE if you know how with limited time investment (I would agree with Gevlon on that at least). Buying ISK is more for people who are dumb or just very lazy so eventually it feels more like an even playing field :)
Very clear definition = 2 players, same time investment, same general skill level. If in comparing the two (match, progression, performance) the one with the thickest wallet has an advantage, then the game is P2W.

Example 1: Chess. Bringing a VISA at a chess tournament will not give you any advantage.

Example 2: Archeage. The one who dumps 1000E in APEX will steamroll the other.

WoW has officially become P2W with the introduction of the Token. The impact may not be as big as in your typical Korean MMO, since the gear differential will not be as pronounced and WoW provides periodical gear resets (so you have to buy every tier), but it's still P2W.

So you would agree that EVE Online is a Pay2Win game?
Example 1: Chess. Bringing a VISA at a chess tournament will not give you any advantage.

If it is a multi-day chess tournament the guy with the fat wallet with sleep in a nicer hotel room, enjoy a relaxing spa treatment and eat well, while his poor opponent suffers from bad food and interrupted sleep in his cheap hotel next to the railway station. :)
So you would agree that EVE Online is a Pay2Win game?

Probably. But I don't know enough of EVE combat to see if cash actually has an impact.

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