The Soapbox: Can MMOs eradicate pay-to-win?

You know what sucks about getting old? Apart from the adult diapers and the dying? Yeah, it’s the seeing things you love retconned into things that you don’t love. That’s basically the opposite of fun, and so it goes here lately with me and MMORPGs.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m still playing them in the hope that they’ll dial back the casino stylings in favor of fun gameplay and ambitious feature sets.

But really, why would any for-profit development studio do that when a generation of gamers thinks that gamble boxes, cash shops, triple-dipping business models, and pay-to-win are not only acceptable but preferable?

tunnelsArcheAge is, of course, one of the genre’s most notorious pay-to-win games. It’s not relative or debatable, either, since XLGAMES and Trion are literally making money from whales who think that spending thousands of dollars acquiring top-grade armor and weapons via the game’s RNG-powered equipment treadmill is a good idea. Unfortunately for me, ArcheAge is also one of the MMORPG genre’s most feature-rich games, which means that every few weeks, I think about returning to it even though I know that all such attempts will end badly.

Distressingly, some (most?) of ArcheAge’s population is OK with its pay-to-win nature! How do I know? Well, the game still has players, for one thing. For another — and admittedly it’s anecdotal evidence — but a quick perusal of the ArcheAge forums invariably turns up posts by thirtysomething I’m-too-busy-to-play types admonishing their anti-P2W counterparts for daring to suggest that games should be played through instead of paid through.

From my perspective, paying for your gear or any sort of character advancement is an extremely short-sighted way of approaching MMORPGs. But I’m seeing it accepted more and more often in games, on forums, and in the blogosphere, and it boggles my mind to see just how many people are falling in line.

You can’t lay the albatross of P2W fully at the feet of players, though. The monetization-before-gameplay culture currently infecting the MMORPG space started with developers.

convoLook, I’m going to say this as delicately as I can: Most game developers are not your friends. I don’t care how personable they are on Twitter, how many drinks they had with you at that PAX open bar, or how much they purportedly value your forum feedback. You are a number to most of them (or if you’re a journo, they think you’re an unpaid extension of their PR department). And you’re a potential exploding piggy bank to the ones who have sold their souls in the midst of the ongoing monetization revolution.

Few if any of them will tell you the truth unless it benefits their bottom line in some fashion, and it certainly doesn’t benefit a developer to admit that his game is principally designed to drive its users to the item mall. But don’t take my word on developer duplicity. Take a look at what a former Turbine staffer had to say about his experience working on F2P pioneer Lord of the Rings Online.

“There’s a very strong culture of secrecy there that becomes ingrained, especially amongst the rank and file […] This same culture extends to marketing and community relations: never tell the truth, never admit a mistake, silence criticism, contort the facts even if it means blatantly insulting the intelligence of your customers.

The take-it-as-you-can-get-it nature of the industry means that frequently people aren’t necessarily working on the games they would ideally want to. If I were to say a fair number of LoTRO devs and QA would have preferred to have been working on something else, this wouldn’t be some attempt to malign them. It would be a simple statement of fact. Generally you take the work where you can find it, finish the title, and then move on.”

In other words, gamemaking is just a job to a lot of these guys. Some of them may be genuinely passionate about it, but it’s becoming harder to tell given the incessant focus on business model innovation and metrics. Some of us have been saying as much since the start of the whole F2P thing, which inarguably incentivizes publishers to prioritize monetization design over gameplay design. I mean, “convenience” items? Really? What could be more inconvenient than paying extra to sidestep mindless grindbot mechanics that shouldn’t be there in the first place? But we’ve been drowned out by the contingent of MMO players and MMO bloggers who love free shitaki mushrooms and who believe that all progress is forward progress.

ladderWhile the MMO industry’s move toward pay-to-win saddens me, I can at least understand the motivations behind it. For developers who make less on average in the game industry than their skills command elsewhere, it’s about putting food on the table.

And gamers are OK with P2W in large part because they’re getting older and they’ve outgrown gaming. They have mortgages, multiple jobs, kids, and a dozen other excuses for circumventing game mechanics with real money.

It’s no longer about the fun or the escapism of gaming; it’s about capturing a bite-sized piece of those bygone days when they had time to play, and of course it’s also about satisfying those psychological skinner box urges that MMOs so expertly and insidiously trigger. The need for that next level ding or that next piece of gear supercedes the need for a balanced, immersive virtual world where acquiring those things take time, effort, and cooperation, and this leads directly to the acceptance of P2W.

A while back, MOP reader CazCore posted one of the most insightful comments in Massively’s long history. I’m going to reproduce it in part here both because truer words have never been written about the MMO genre and because it helps explain why pay-to-win is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

“A fun game is its own reward. Having fun is sticky for healthy individuals. The problem MMOs have is that they have lots of unhealthy addicts who don’t play for fun. They get satisfaction from their virtual work ethic, and doing virtual chores, and amassing virtual collections, because it’s so much easier to do than real life chores/work and amassing real life valuables.

Just stop taking advantage of unhealthy people. That’s all MMOs need to do. Quit targeting that audience and contributing to their problems. What those people need is real progression in their real lives to be proud of. Not some easily quantifiable dings and number increases and virtual item collecting, which gives them a hollow sense of reward for wasting their life away doing mindless busywork.”

When you combine this joyless, exploitative design ethos with an aging playerbase that has more disposable income and less time to engage, you get an environment that’s ripe for pay-to-win. When dinging is the only goal, and when players have demonstrated an obsessive willingness to slog through months or years of repetitive grinding in order to get that ding, of course devs are going to monetize it and in effect sell virtual bridges over the virtual river of crap that they designed in the first place!

So what’s to be done about all this? Nothing much, I suspect. The first step in correcting a problem is admitting that you have one. And MMO players, by and large, are firmly in denial about the long-term benefits and drawbacks of both pay-to-win and F2P. Hell, most people can’t even agree on the definition of the former, so good luck building any sort of consensus for eradicating it.

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247 Comments on "The Soapbox: Can MMOs eradicate pay-to-win?"

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Basvalo
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Basvalo

Minitroopers is a small but great mmorpg.Completely free and still not p2w.
http://army-of-chocolat.minitroopers.com

MinionDave
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MinionDave

We are in the age of greedy company’s like Trion AA they will scam people anyway they can in the name of profits while totally running a game into the ground , a great game that could be so much more if handled correctly .
While ever people roll over and let the Trion’s of this world get away with it , the ” I’m allright jack ” attitude we will be stuck with shallow pointless games like we get now .
Another pet hate of mine is Paid for opinion but that’s for another day .

Cosmic Cleric
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Cosmic Cleric

LindaCarlson “Players are just numbers? This is just a job to us?”
Its how I felt.  Its why I left AA.  /shrug

LindaCarlson
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LindaCarlson

Not your friends? Players are just numbers? This is just a job to us?

Seriously, Jeff. I expected better from ya. We ARE players. We’re in the gaming industry (as opposed to ones that pay better) because making games is our passion, not just a job.  In our spare time, we PLAY and experience the same challenges, annoyances and joys that everyone else does.

This time, I am answering the thread as a veteran PLAYER with the scars to prove it across dozens of MMOGs.

There is a perfect solution to counter the new model. It’s called a subscription, or perhaps we should call that “pay to have fun.” 
Back in the day of subscription games, I could afford to play one, maybe two games at a time. Now, with the advent of F2P, I keep more than six installed at a time and have a blast in a different game every night, spending money only when they have something that I really fancy, instead of on a set date every month.

There are a number of games where money CAN earn an advantage.

For the most part, this is through convenience (time) vs. money, and it follows this logic: years ago, when we were young, we had plenty of time, but no money; now that we’re older and fully employed we have more money, but hardly any time.  Time is money, as the sages tell us, and so we trade off, each according to our own preference and budget.
Some power gamers will use convenience items to help them get to end game faster. Some players never touch an xp buff, health potion, res scroll or crafting enhancement (which I call pay-to-win-fasta!). Most people are somewhere in between.
I remember a game not so long ago that offered the first ever mount with a speed boost faster than other mounts in game. Screams of pay to win were subsumed under the rational lot that decided it just wasn’t a big deal.
Now, I get that “pay to win” is usually tied to the ability to spend more than other people. Visa warriors is one of the terms bandied about. I’m not one of those, but I could care less if someone else wants to buy fifty (or five hundred) lock-boxes in hopes of getting something awesome that I can’t get in the regular game or marketplace. I also don’t care if this means they get some valuable armor.  All other things being equal, “winning,” especially in PvP, is still predicated on skill more than anything else… well, skill and a robust computer system partnered with excellent internet connection. 

Hmmmm.

Wait a minute… does this mean that people who can afford the awesome PC rigs and Fiber-Optic cable connections are paying to win over me? YES, ’cause I can tell you they have a HUGE advantage over my laggy arsed, hand-me-down PC and my feeble wireless connection from some vague pole across the valley.  Someone ten levels below me can kick me around the curb when I’m having a particularly laggy evening.
So save me the pay to win argument. The entire world is pay to win, or at least it was, the last time I looked.  Maybe one day no one will ever have to pay for anything. I look forward to that altruistic state of being, but it ain’t coming any time soon.

And you’re right. Most people are like me and don’t really care if someone else buys stuff. There are a hundred play-styles out there.
I do spend money in games because I want the developers to keep them going. 

Finally, if I don’t like what a game company has done with a game, or if it stops being fun… I. Stop. Playing.
That’s pretty solid feedback to the company, even if I never post to a forum or social media site.

Now get offa me lawn.
;-)#

Ehra
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Ehra

Bonnenuit Ehra Mark Jacobs 
I just wanted to clarify that I wasn’t saying that buying new content is the same as buying access to a merchant. I was attempting to help make it clearer what I meant by expansions typically enabling “pay for access to power.” People tend to overlook this fact because you have to put some amount of ingame effort into acquiring that power, which is where the merchant example comes in. You’re paying money for access to potential power (the merchant), but you still have to put ingame effort into actually acquiring it.

The way to separate the purchasing of new content from the purchasing of power would be to release your paid content expansion, and add in systems to gain that power in a free update that doesn’t actually require doing the paid content. But then this doesn’t add as much incentive for players to buy the new content, and it requires a lot of thought put into how players acquire gear in your game and how progression is even handled. So I understand why it rarely or never happens.

Thanks for the reply.

Bonnenuit
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Bonnenuit

Ehra Mark Jacobs You bring up some great points here, but I think comparing new content (with a higher level cap) with a merchant, both behind pay walls, is… well, not a strong argument, to put it lightly.

While I completely disagree that an expansion, with new PvE content, higher level cap, etc., should be considered P2W, I fully admit you have a valid argument there. Comparing that to putting the same things behind a merchant, though, weakens your argument. At least with the expansion, money was spent on development and new content. (I’m with you, however, that often it’s a matter of a VERY short period of time to hit cap, at which point all that content is through.) 

There are people out there who take their time and relish that content, though. The same will never be said of a merchant behind a paywall.

That aside, I no longer play WoW, or any of the games that followed, (as always, for other old-timers, through in EQ in place of WoW if desired) because I’m sick of the heavily vertical progression. I’m looking forward, like you, to CU, which at least claims to be trying to avoid that.

Multiboxing is another great example of what could be considered P2W.

Overall, then, I have to say that while I disagree with some of your conclusions, and certainly with the comparison of new content to a paid merchant —
you bring up a LOT of great points. Hopefully some devs take notice, and start trying to figure out some solutions.

Great post, @Ehra

BrianSleider
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BrianSleider

Estranged BrianSleider Knuxson NebHatesYou I use the mythic carries as an example, because I hear people say buying BoEs of the AH isnt ptw cause a bad player will still never see current mythic. 

Well thats just not true a new player with the tokens could proly buy a blackhand kill week one.

Cosmic Cleric
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Cosmic Cleric

Nreff “h t t p://www.gdcvault.com/play/1016417/-100-000-Whales-An”
Wow.  Just, wow.  The majority of the video is informative.
For those who do not want to watch the whole thing, just start at 21:55, and go for a minute or two.

Cosmic Cleric
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Cosmic Cleric

Mark Jacobs RagnarTheDrunk “We are among the minority of MMORPG teams using Nvidia’s PhysX system on
the server and not the client which makes it a lot harder (you never
want to say impossible) to cheat.”
Its too bad you can’t use all the freely available CPU power on the clients for that.  Your poor servers must cry under the physics calculations load (or not??).
Remember reading some of Raph’s comments in his blog series about SWG and how a planned feature got affected by the servers not being able to be powerful enough to support it (think it was z-axis related?).
“I’ll be hanging around here if you have any other questions.”
Thank you for sharing!  :)

Cosmic Cleric
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Cosmic Cleric

EatCandy Estranged The problem is that P2W isn’t just “a certain aspect of the game”, it alters the gameplay in fundamental ways.
Why would anyone play a game where your opponent has an advantage over you that you yourself cannot have (because you make less real-world money than they do).