MOP Patron Avaera has entreated us to debate the problems of pay-to-win and cosmetic gear, and indulge him we shall.
“The idea that good MMOs will diligently avoid ‘pay-to-win’ item shops is almost universally accepted these days by both devs and players,” he posits. “However, I feel like this zealous insistence that only ‘cosmetic’ upgrades be allowed for purchase with real world currency is actually a fundamental misstep, and one of the clearest symptoms of what is deeply wrong with the direction of our virtual worlds.
“It’s no coincidence that the gameplay systems considered sacrosanct from any sort of pay-or-play tradeoff are heavily skewed towards motivations that are often more popular amongst younger, male demographics – using Nick Yee’s categories I’d consider ‘combat/PvP upgrades’ to affect the competition, destruction, and challenge motivations most heavily. On the other hand, putting the most extravagant, expressive, and unique customisations behind paywalls in an item shop belies far lower value placed on the fantasy, design, and completion motivations, which are apparently most favoured by women, non-binary genders and older players generally.”
Avaera is just getting started.
“Why is it that as gamers we still value hand-eye twitch and reaction time in combat as a ‘skill’-based activity that can’t possibly be performed on anything but absolutely mechanically-level playing field (ignoring the very real physical advantages that exist in the real world between gamers), but we don’t value the complex cerebral ‘skill’ that might be involved in designing a home instance, expressing a roleplayed story, or constructing a nuanced identity that plays off the characters around us? How is this not a sign of our genre (and corporate studios particularly) constantly targetting yet again the straight teenage boy demographic, at the expense of mature or women gamers that are desperately needed to make our worlds feel more like a rounded civilisation and less like a toxic schoolyard?
“Obviously I’m not suggesting that item shops are the ideal economic model for MMOs, and nor that every sort of combat advantage should be solely purchaseable with real-world cash. However, if we have to monetise or develop games that have systems that can be ‘won’, let’s at least consider that combat beatdowns aren’t by any means the sole appeal to players of the MMO genre. Can’t we invest in other motivations just as equally? What do you all think?”
It’s a lot to chew on, but I bet the staff has some opinions for Massively Overthinking. Let’s dive in!
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I’d argue few games aren’t pay-to-win, and I’m not just talking about ones with item shops. I know a few people on staff had/have multiple accounts to make their crafting lives easier (and richer, haha).
Sticking with the point though, if there’s any item shop, you can bet there’s an XP boost at the least, or some way to blow past grinding something boring to access something that’d make you stronger. Yes, cosmetics might be a bigger draw and where we see most of the debate, but as a bit of a min-maxer myself, I can tell you that those things in the item shop that’ll reduce the grind are usually what I’m fighting to not buy. I’ve mentioned it before, but Fire Emblem Heroes is a game I’ve walked away from in the past because it’s gatcha-pon system isn’t just giving units we may want, but all kinds of currencies that lead to additional power. Heck, I’ve played a little Walking Dead: Our World solo and I’ve been tempted to throw down cash for access to more of the building stuff, even though I don’t think anyone near me plays (seriously, I’ll cover it someday, but the game’s mechanics really do it make the most MMO-like ARG I’ve played on mobile yet).
The fact of the matter is that cosmetics have broader appeal, while reducing grinds that lead to power is easier to ignore for most people.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I want to start with the sexism/ageism angle because I think it’s going to be the thing that trips up some folks before they get to the heart of the problem: I don’t think that the majority of MMOs intend, even obliquely, to take a piss on women and Olds, by focusing on combat, emphasizing twitch gameplay, and ignoring non-combat content. I’m not saying that studios never do that purposely (plenty of toy/food/car/etc. companies do) or that the end result doesn’t drive Olds and ladies from the field, just that I don’t think most MMORPG studios, and MUD studios before them, design with that end goal in mind, which is why there are so many older players and female players in this genre to begin with.
I honestly believe that we’re looking at a money-first problem more than a culture-first problem. It’s cheaper, by far, to pump out a combat-grinder than a virtual world with dozens of varied non-combat activities. It’s easier to think of, build, illustrate, and market games where fighting is the thing. Easy wins. Over 20 years, the virtual worlds with their creative content have melted away to leave mostly just the murder sims (and a few old worlds and old soul devs that refuse to give up). It is frustrating and depressing and a huge loss for the whole industry, no question, and it does result in demographic shifts – just look at how many gamers over 40 won’t play action-MMOs.
I do agree that cosmetics in the cash shop represent a key symptom of these interlinking problems. Because MMORPGs have become so heavily focused on combat above all else, studios – with varying degrees of success and cynicism – insulate it from the influence of the cash shop, and therefore from pay-to-win. If combat is the “real game,” influencing it is anathema for “fairness,” which doesn’t leave much else to sell besides cosmetics, whether those are hairdos or clothes or houses, which do influence the game – just not the presumed “real game.” And that’s just as much a problem with modern business models as it is combat, since it happens in games without combat too. It should matter, of course; playing dress-up is just as valid as killing pixel rats, and selling anything in a cash shop has the potential for pay-to-win within an MMO’s PvP economy – but then again, when was the last MMO that cared about economy play?
I suppose I’m still here because I remember when the genre was messy but better than all this, and I still believe it can be better again.
Pay-to-win is one of those terms I avowedly hate simply because there’s no such actual thing. No one who rails against “pay-to-win” is really arguing against anything beyond “pay-to-gain-quanitified-advantages” in the long term, because we all know that the only way to “win” an MMO is by having the most public possible ERP session until you get banned by a GM. If Lord of the Rings Online sold a potion that doubled your damage permanently for $40, people would scream that it was pay-to-win not because that enables you to beat the live game forever, but because you have a distinct and permanent advantage over people who never buy it.
When we get to stuff like experience potions or “grind less for the same result,” those generally are accepted to not give a long-term advantage. Sure, you reach the level cap sooner, but that’s it; otherwise you’re just as strong or weak as anyone else. We accept temporary or partial advantage, simply because we accept that there has to be some reason to buy these things in the first place; conferring no advantage means there’s no incentive, and conferring huge quantifiable advantage means that there’s too much incentive.
So let’s talk about cosmetics. How can you quantify those? How can you point to something and say “that look gives me a distinct advantage over someone else?” The reality is that it is, in fact, really hard to do that; you can edge in some corner cases, but the most quanitifable advantage you gain from cash shop garments is “looking unique.” And even that is debatable because it’s a look anyone can have, not one tied to any sort of in-game achievements whatsoever!
As a result, I tend to disagree with the premise of “players who like cosmetics are the ones being charged.” As someone who spends a lot of time in FFXIV trying to assemble character outfits, I’ve never felt as if I lack options in-game to look fantastic; most of the cash shop stuff is stuff that, well, honestly makes no sense to be provided directly in game. Looking good is not monetized; there are just supplements there. And supplementing that is something which is easier to do without providing a quantifiable advantage, since if there are already hundreds of cosmetic options, two more in the cash shop isn’t a big deal.
Some games definitely lean a bit far over into “all the cosmetics are from paying money,” which is one of the things that bothered me about Star Wars: The Old Republic. But as a rule, I don’t tend to agree with the idea that having outfits and cosmetics available is devaluing the skills of people who want to dress up, decorate, and so forth. So long as the game itself provides a wide spread of cosmetic options available without the cash shop, it doesn’t bug me. If it fails to do so… that’s another discussion.
(Full disclaimer: I have actually accepted piles of gil from people on occasion to decorate their houses, so while the game itself might not have rewarded my skill for that, it definitely has some rewards attached to it.)
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): I’ve never thought of it that way. To be fair, I really don’t think of it too much period because I don’t care a whole lot about pay-to-win. I don’t play any games to dominate, and I really don’t care if that’s the goal of some others — as long as their dominating doesn’t infringe on my ability to enjoy my play. I don’t mind so much if an item is obtainable in game but people can shortcut using the cash shop; I am used to working hard for what I have. But it is interesting to think about how monetizing cosmetics and things like housing is very much aimed more at my wallet. No, no, the hordes yell — cash shops can’t affect gameplay. But this idea: Isn’t house decorating and all that gameplay? Oh, it isn’t the combat gameplay… oh well then it isn’t really gameplay, or it isn’t important gameplay. Looking at it this way it does feel a bit condescending to those who engage in this gameplay.
Or, I could look at it a different way. Maybe I just always tend to see the good in things (truth), but marketing to the crowd that prefers things like decorating and cosmetics is a crowd that seems more likely to have disposable income as well as staying power within the game, and those are people you do want to market to. Then again, with the lack of robust systems in games for this crowd, maybe not.
Maybe we can just stop the massive influx of player-must-dominate-other-