Massively Overthinking: Is every MMORPG with a cash shop pay-to-win?


This week’s Massively Overthinking comes to us from one of our dear Patreon Patrons, Duane.

“There seems to be an ever broadening attitude towards what is pay-to-win. Recently I was in a conversation with a few other MMO players who insisted that if players could purchase max gear with in-game currency, then the game was pay-to-win, especially if the game in any way allowed players to pay money to assist in acquiring in-game gold (level boosts, cash to gold, speed buffs etc.). This stance puts the vast majority of MMOs into the “pay-to-win” category (including Guild Wars 2 and TERA, apparently?). So what gives here — are they right? Is the average MMO pay-to-win?”

Pay-to-win is one of those nasty terms that plagues the genre, and overusing it seems to ignore the subtleties and gradations of pay and win. Let’s hash it out! I posed Duane’s question to the MOP writers this week. Is every MMORPG with a cash shop pay-to-win? Are cosmetics the only way out? Are there any pure MMOs left that some people wouldn’t toss in the P2W pile?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): If players can pay for the best gear or buy currency that allows this, then I personally feel the game is pay-to-win, even if there’s a skill requirement. I say this knowing that having the best stuff doesn’t guarantee a win, but it provides a noticeable boost in win chances. A skill factor does decrease that perception, but not by a lot. You especially see this when a new item/hero/ability pops up that’s overtuned and the people suddenly winning are those who could afford it, while average players suddenly struggle a lot more.

At least for me, pure cosmetic is the only way to go, but admittedly, part of this may be due to both being cheap and having limited play time.


Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I think that Duane is correctly illustrating the absurdity of the pay-to-win argument: It’s become a slippery slope we can’t climb back up. There are people on every notch on the spectrum, from the people who believe that it’s only pay-to-win if it influences PvP to the people who believe the mere existence of a cash shop denotes pay-to-win. Yes, there are people who genuinely argue that every single game that sells even something as benign as speed buffs is P2W, which in my mind requires you to stretch the meaning of “win” into inanity. I think in reality very few MMORPGs are truly P2W in a game-breaking way, even the ones with a few questionable or annoying cash shop bits that create “pay to go faster” or “pay to skip” or “pay to look cool” incentives. Few of them actually create game-winning scenarios with money alone.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t call out predatory or problematic cash shop tactics in general, but personally I’m tired of the P2W hyperbole itself, especially when cries for “fairness” are so often coming from people who are not themselves contributing to the finances of the game and are therefore part of the problem.

Let me also just say that I remember the days before cash shops quite well. I remember legal and tacitly accepted RMT, account selling in the open on Ebay, and multiboxing with multiple paid accounts. P2W isn’t new. Money is never going to not be a factor in who has the mostest and the bestest in a multiplayer video game. The best we can hope for is to mitigate the damage.

All we are, we are.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I was going to say that I should write an article about how useless “pay-to-win” is as terminology, but then I remembered that I already did. Short version: If you have to define what you consider to be “pay-to-win” before you can determine whether or not a game actually fulfills those conditions, your term is not actually helpful. The whole reason we have terms like that is so we don’t have to explain these things every time.

Heck, if you want to torture the definition enough, you could argue that subscription games are pay-to-win because you can’t even get in the door without paying. That gives you a real advantage over players who aren’t playing at all.

For my money, in order for a game to even come close to actually being pay-to-win, you need to have things that offer you a significant advantage in the game which you can acquire in no other way and have no possible alternatives. Star Trek Online has a bunch of ships that you can buy at higher tiers… but you can always use other equivalents, and the Zen currency needed to purchase those ships can also be acquired via in-game Dilithium farming. More slowly, yes, but there’s still a method in there to acquire it with no need for dropping real money in the bucket. That’s disregarding the fact that most subscribers can buy a ship or two reliably by the time one is required. Sure, I might not like the many ships gated behind lockboxes, but getting exactly what I want in the manner I want it doesn’t qualify as “winning” in the abstract.

Boosts, then, fall under that same header. I can drop $60 to bring my World of Warcraft characters to the level cap! Or I can just take the time to level the characters for free. Boosts are among the least inimical options in any cash shop because they also get you literally nothing you can’t get on your own. You still have to go earn whatever is being boosted; you just earn more of it.

If you’re really ethically opposed to boosts, however, there are still games that don’t offer them; you’d be hard-pressed to call anything on offer in Final Fantasy XIV’s cash shop a boost, and Final Fantasy XI doesn’t have one. But I’m honestly not worried about that. Everything is going to qualify as a win condition to someone, and while there are definitely options that serve as rather unfair power boosts (Black Desert’s ghillie suit springs to mind), the term has become useless through overeager application.

A whole new wait, no, not doing this song, never mind.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): This topic never fails to give me a tremendous headache, because while it’s certainly worth discussing and watch-guarding, we’ll just never come to any sort of widespread consensus on what is and is not “pay to win.”

For me, it comes down to the major goals of an MMO and if money can pave the way to get to those — or provide an instant trip right to the top. Any time you’re going to spend money in an MMO, you’re going to get something that others either won’t have, will need to pay for, or will have to work for. That’s going to brew resentment in the have-nots, especially if that money exchange creates an unfair advantage. Even cosmetics could be seen as pay to win if the goal of players is to sport the snazziest outfits. The studio has to ride the line between making attractive offerings for sale without breaking the game or the community’s spirit.

MMO cash shops are here to stay, whether you like them or not. We simply must be vigilant without being oversensitive, sifting the truly misguided cash shop offerings from the ones that don’t matter in the long run. If a studio is crossing a line, then yes, we should call them out on it. But if we’re doing that all of the time with every piddly little thing, the studio isn’t going to listen or care when the pay-to-win barrier is breached in the store.


Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): This one has always been tough for me. And I’m not sure how to quantify it. Can I make a baseball comparison? I know, it’s a sportsball analogy, but I think it’s apt. Every outfield in Major League Baseball is different. There are no hard and fast regulations on what is considered a home run. Originally, there was no outfield fence at all. And so that the Boston Red Sox would not have to rebuild their stadium completely, there never has been any regulation on the location of the fence. Some field designers have attempted to give players temporary home-field advantage by making the fence different distances and shapes, but ultimately, it didn’t really change the game. I believe the same applies to pay-to-win.

I don’t think there is a line that needs to be drawn that encompasses every game that says that this is where you enter the pay-to-win territory. However, I do believe that if you go far enough out, there is a point were it’s too far for every game, but where that zone begins is very different for every game. Unfortunately, I cannot speak to TERA and GW2, but I can say that I think anything above the base-level raid or PvP gear should never bought in an MMORPG, not because I think doing that is pay-to-win per se, but it does lessen the drive of the game. Part of being an RPG is progression, and to remove that could kill that side of the game. But that’s not to say that just because you make endgame gear available to buy that the game instantly becomes pay-to-win. Maybe there just isn’t enough people playing your game’s endgame. Therefore, the developers make the endgame gear available to purchase so that gathering the gear isn’t a grind, thus opening up endgame to more people.

As I said, there isn’t an easy answer for pay-to-win, just like there isn’t an easy answer for the length of a baseball field.


MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I don’t believe every MMO with a cash shop is pay-to-win, but I am afraid that stigma is here to stay. And I think nothing can escape it now! It doesn’t even matter if the cash shop only carries cosmetics; some people will still hurl out that accusation. I’m afraid even subscription-only games without cash shops are fair game for this overused argument. “OMG you can pay for three accounts and harvest more resources to sell than I can… pay-to-win!”

I think the whole point is that the entitled crowd that can’t stand that others have something different than it is noisy. Very, very noisy. Those folks start screaming P2W just to try to make the world see some terrible injustice has been inflicted on them. Obviously the MMOverse should be catered to The One. Someone beats The One? Omgz that dude paid to win! Someone has a better outfit that The One? P2W! P2W! It’s the only explanation that accounts for why The One doesn’t have everything he wants when he wants and isn’t the ultimate best all the time, right?

Now that does not mean that there isn’t an actual situation of blatant pay-to-win out there; there are MMOs where you can’t have any hope of even playing the game let alone be fairly competitive without forking over bundles and bundles of cash no matter what your skill or time investment. Unfortunately, this label has been so misused and slapped on everything so much now that it has become background noise. It’s pretty useless as a term, given that it has devolved into nothing more than a tired insult used by those who find that in reality, they really aren’t The One.

Your turn!

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