Massively Overthinking: Considering pay-to-win MMO peripherals
MOP reader and commenter Sally Bowls recently sent along a link to an insanely awesome 34″ monitor that costs more than a lot of PC rigs in their entirety. “UltraWide For A Gaming Advantage,” LG’s sale page says in a huge font. It even touts a pro e-sports team using the monitor to “get an edge on the competition.” The idea is, shell out for expensive gear, and you’ll dust those scrubs still peeping through their tiny 16:9 portholes – that’s if they can see at all between the screen-tear, stutter, and input lag! You sure showed them, and it only cost ya $900!
Sally is not amused and wonders why people aren’t enraged at pay-to-win coming from this angle of the market. “This is not subtle. More expensive mice trying to justify their price with more buttons/resolution/tracking has been a thing. As Dr. Bartle points out, it is not that people don’t like P2W; it’s that they dislike other people being able to buy power. Is this a new trend or have I not been hanging out in the competitive end of the pool?”
So what do you think? Is better hardware pay-to-win, or is this just overblown marketing fluff? Why don’t people discuss this more? Have you ever taken advantage of pay-to-win hardware and peripherals? Should this be a thing modern gamers worry about? Where do you stand?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think one reason we don’t talk a lot about pay to win hardware in the MMO-verse is that MMOs tend to have a low cap on how competitive they can be. They’re social games. “Winning” either means getting the max ladder-based-pvp-rank prize or a server first. MMOs are hard to turn into e-sports, and the fact that they have such a huge time investment just to get to endgame where you can be competitive really creates a barrier to prevent this.
That isn’t to say hardware doesn’t matter; it just matters less. Most MMO combat feels like it’s more about understanding rotations and avoiding telegraphed damage than hardcore twitch skills. If you’re able to play with little to no lag, you’re good. If you figure out a good way to map your keys so you can easily reach everything, you’re doing excellent. If you’ve got those, done your reading homework, and can apply it, you’re golden. If you’ve got pixel detection software etc, well, then you’re cheating, and other players will remove you from the social structures generally required to “win” because, again, MMOs are a time investment and most people don’t want to lose their account.
Not only have I never bought into these kinds of peripherals, but as a freelancer, it’s actually hard to sell reviews of these products to websites, especially MMO-focused ones. I may be allowed to check in with the companies, but most editors tell me that (beyond not wanting to seem like they’re doing advertising), product reviews generally don’t get enough hits to be worth it. VR is probably the only exception to this, and beyond creative use of software, people seem to be getting over it.
Brendan Drain (@nyphur): In the same way that a rookie artist isn’t going to produce better work with expensive supplies, the vast majority of gamers don’t perform better with a lower latency mouse or display. Better tools are only efficacious if you’re already hitting a performance barrier and the tools move the barrier in some way. Are you really so far at the top of your game that the only way to improve is by shaving a few nanoseconds off hardware response times?
Regarding the monitor, it’s all marketing fluff. I would bet on a larger size of monitor actually being a slight disadvantage as you’ll have to move your eyes more, and competitive tournaments will likely remain standardised to 16:9 for the foreseeable future as that’s the aspect ratio literally everyone uses. Competitors can ofren bring their own peripherals and settings but they’re not going to let competitors bring their own monitors or PCs. What it should say is “Get an edge* on the competition (in games that support ultra wide resolutions); give yourself a weird handicap you’ll never be able to take into the pro circuit!” *not a guarantee
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Yes, tech makes a difference. This monitor doesn’t, but other tech sure can. Back in the ancient Ultima Online days, access to a top-of-the-line university internet line meant I could literally run circles around sad little gankers on their sad little dial-up. My PK head trophy collection was vast, and it was largely thanks to simply having my boyfriend’s keycard to swipe myself into the best PC lab on campus. It was a huge advantage. It wasn’t just nanoseconds. And while most of us don’t deal with dial-up anymore, where you live and what kind of internet you have access to still determines your ceiling for winning in a lot of global, competitive games, and yes, that does include some MMORPGs.
I think most people know this, they know it’s unfair, and they also know that they can’t really change it – internet quality and accessibility is an infrastructure problem that varies from city to city and country to country. Same goes for trying to make the economy fair: You can afford a 20-button mouse and ergonomic keyboard when import taxes on it for somebody in Australia or Eastern Europe are higher than your base price – or they can’t get it at all because of import laws. Yeah, we all know that’s unfair too. But it’s not actually the fault of games and game studios.
Pay-to-win crappies in the cash shop, however, are. So I think that’s why we as a genre don’t talk about it much; it’s a problem so much bigger than gaming. We can affect how the games lean into it, though, and we can try to influence how they control their own internal business models. “The MMO Genre” is not coming together to ensure that my guildie in Florida has access to only one internet company offering a garbage internet connection that can’t handle WoW, but “MMO Companies” sure as heck are colluding on making P2W inside their games the new normal.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The funny thing about this question is that it’s one of those either/or questions where the answer, whether being snarky or serious, is “both.” Because yeah, there’s definitely a certain degree of paying for advantage when it comes to hardware… but a lot of it is more or less impossible to balance against, and even more of it is a case of strictly diminishing returns.
Let’s start with an example: where I live there is exactly one source for cable internet. One company! Lucky for me, it’s a company that has generally proven to be good, reliable, and reasonable. But that also means that if my connection bites, I don’t really have any options about switching providers. And that’s going to mean that I’m a disadvantage compared to Darrin McLivesNextDoorToTheGameServers (it’s a common name in Dublin) and at a distinct advantage compred to Sally Unreliable4GPhoneHotspot-Goeller (it’s a common name in upstate New York).
Yet pretty much no one would argue that Darrin is part of a pay-to-win scheme with regards to local real estate prices. There’s a certain amount of hardware non-universality that we just accept as part and parcel with the process. Some players are going to have better computers with less lag; some players are going to have setting turned up too high with slower machines; some players are going to have better keyboards and mice.
More to the point, a lot of the “helper” peripherals are only “helpers” based on skill and familiarity. My Naga is a pretty integral part of how I play games, and I play better with the mouse whilst hitting the thumb buttons… and yet when I was playing with Red Mage at the Final Fantasy XIV pre-Stormblood event, I managed to do respectably in a dungeon I’d never seen before with a job I’d never played before and no Naga whatsoever. Hardware improvements let me capitalize on things I’m already good at, not creating skill where none exists.
The core issue with pay-to-win as a concept (and what’s always kept me leery of even using the term) is that what’s really being decried as an advantage, not victory. Except even that strikes me as not entirely true. If you’re really into your favorite game, aren’t you likely to spend more money on it? The guy who has a simulated Street Fighter cabinet running a custom emulator with arcade sticks is probably going to beat me in a fighting game, but the arcade cabinet isn’t why; the arcade cabinet is a flag saying “this is someone who really loves these games and thus has probably practiced a lot.”
So yes, to a certain extent, these devices do give you an advantage. Having a mouse with thumb buttons definitely means that I can do certain things more elegantly than I would otherwise. But I think it’s more about giving me advantage against myself, making me better able to do the things I would otherwise be doing. Any claims of it turning me into an expert are the sort of thing where someone wants to sell me something.
Matt Daniel (@Matt_DanielMVOP): I think that better hardware can definitely make a difference, but I’d hesitate to call it “pay-to-win” as such, and I definitely think there’s a point at which buying more expensive hardware provides severely diminishing returns. If you’re a competitive FPS player, you’ll probably benefit from a nice gaming mouse with a quality optical sensor and a solid monitor with a decent refresh rate, and if you’re into MOBAs or MMOs, you might get a slight edge out of a mouse with additional buttons for ability keybinds or a keyboard with programmable macro keys. However, there are plenty of hardware and accessory options that meet those criteria without breaking the bank, and I’d argue that the in-game advantages of having fancy hardware aren’t gamebreakingly significant. Like, I own a reasonably nice gaming mouse and keyboard, but neither of them have magically made me a better player, and I imagine I’d perform more or less just as well without them.
Ultimately, I think that most gaming-focused products–particularly the super-high-end stuff like that insanely excessive ultrawide monitor that Sally linked–are just, as Bree put it, “overblown marketing fluff.” For my part, I think I’d actually play considerably worse on a 34″ ultrawide monitor than on something more reasonably sized – my tunnel-vision is bad enough as it is, thanks.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): That is an interesting question! Do people who pay more for gaming equipment have an advantage over others? In some games, maybe. In some other games (especially PvP), yes! Beyond the rig and gaming peripherals, even those who have access to better internet get an advantage. (have you ever died before being able to load in? I have!) But this really doesn’t seem to bother folks as pay-to-win. Why? Perhaps it just isn’t significant enough a difference to matter. Maybe it is just because you can’t see it: How do you know who has what computer equipment when you only meet them as pixels in game? You more-or-less assume you are on a level playing field with others unless folks actually tell you their specs. The key then is the feeling of an even playing field in game. The rage comes when people can blatantly see that the playing field is not even as demonstrated by devs putting pay-to-win items front and center. So maybe the illusion of an even playing field is fine, but the knowledge of an uneven one is unacceptable.