Perfect Ten: Everything in MMOs that is pay-to-win

Pay to lose.

I have stated before that I have a complex relationship with the term “pay-to-win.” On the one hand, it tends to refer to something that isn’t actually winning but is gaining some kind of advantage, which means that by definition it’s kind of a ridiculous term to be using in the first place. On the other hand, what’s usually meant has less to do with winning and more to do with the idea that you shouldn’t be able to buy in-game power by dropping a few dozen dollarydoos on a game.

Are all of the items on this list genuinely pay-to-win? Arguably not. But the point here is not to accurately list all of the things which are pay to win but to identify the many places where people are eager to call something pay-to-win. And while there is a wide spectrum of different stances one can take regarding this stuff, sometimes it’s pretty accurate to be unhappy with being charged money for a thing. So let’s start there.

Pay me to play me!

1. Actual better gear

Remember the real-money auction house in Diablo III? That wasn’t just a fever dream. That actually happened. In a game that’s basically about getting drops that deal more damage and trying to maximize your damage accordingly, someone thought that the best option here was to also just let someone pay $20 for an axe you didn’t want.

Remember how I said that some of these actually have a point? Yeah. This was pretty pay-to-break-the-actual-game right here. Maybe not outright winning, but certainly getting a heck of a lot closer.

2. Action bars

Is it ever going to get tiresome to bring up that Star Wars: The Old Republic actually sold a basic UI feature in its cash shop? The answer is no. This is never going to get old, just like the Firefall bus. You did it and now you have to live with it forever. Sorry, not sorry.

It makes you go.

3. Spaceships

As much as I like Star Trek Online, I have to be honest and say that I don’t like how much the game leans in on selling its cool spaceships to players. Lockboxes are bad enough, sure, but I can live with weird and unusual spaceships being stuck behind a lockbox as a chase prize. But the vast, overwhelming majority of ships of the line that you would actually want to play in any serious content are also gated behind a price tag, and it’s not a small one! These ships don’t cost no three-fifty.

This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that there are ways to earn this currency without spending money… but it’s still not what I would call anything approaching an ideal situation. And that’s as a genuine fan of the game.

4. Older content

Missed a Living World story update in Guild Wars 2? You’re going to need to pay for it. This is apparently pay-to-win, despite the fact that you also can just log in and not even do the story within a time window and still get the thing unlocked permanently for free.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not ecstatic about how this is structured myself, but until GW2 masters annual expansion releases or something similar the game needs to maintain some kind of cash inflow, and this is a solid enough way to do so. If you don’t want to pay up, make sure to log in. If you don’t want to pay but also don’t want to log in, well, maybe the problem is more that you want to feel like you could play than anything.

How dare I have to play to get things!

5. Boosts (one-time)

Character boosts are controversial things whenever they come up. To be specific, the kind of boosts we’re talking about here are the kind that instantly set a character’s level to X and gives them certain benefits, rather than anything else. If you’ve ever been sitting in World of Warcraft debating on whether or not you want to level your latest alt or just force-feed her a token to get her up to the most recent expansion, you know how this breaks down.

Of course, you’re paying to win here because you don’t have to suffer through leveling, so that’s unfair. Personally I prefer to play a game where I don’t find leveling to be suffering and also don’t care how someone else reached the level cap, but you do you, fam.

6. Money

You want some gold in GW2. You buy some Gems. You convert them to gold. Now you’re much wealthier in-game and slightly poorer in real life. The actual economics of it work out all right, since it allows people who spend a lot of time playing and farming for in-game currency a means of getting other stuff for free, but to some people this is a pretty vile manipulation of the game economy from the word go.

Space needed.

7. Boosts (duration-based)

This would be the other side of the boosts mentioned above, when you buy something that makes your leveling faster for a fixed duration or gives you a mount for a little while or so forth. Basically, you’re paying for a temporary booster rather than a long-term investment for your character. This also breaks up the game’s experience curve and is thus paying to win.

Personally, it always struck me as being kind of a silly thing to buy in the first place. I mean, most of the items on this list are at least (digital) things you actually buy, which means they have some permanence. Here, you’re just renting an item. I don’t know if it’s pay-to-win, but it doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me.

8. Storage

Remember when I listed all of the things you could have when I quit this MMO? It turns out that some people are even worse at digital hoarding than I am, and thus have stacks and stacks of random garbage in their inventories. So what can be done? Well, some games will give you access to more storage space in exchange for a simple down-payment of a good chunk of money.

The other option, of course, is to stop being such a packrat and throw some stuff away. In other words, you are definitely screwed. This is exploitation.


9. Cosmetics with palpable advantages

I remember that there was a big to-do about the Ghillie Suit cosmetic outfit in Black Desert when the game first launched over here, just because it made it much easier for players to hide even in PvP-central areas. And you know? There’s a definite logic there, both to having this ability on the costume in the first place and why players were more than a little annoyed by it. This was paying for a distinct advantage you couldn’t get any other way. I don’t know if I’d call it winning precisely, but it was definitely within the same wheelhouse.

10. Cosmetic gear of any kind

On the other hand, some people consider any cosmetic outfit to be “winning” in some fashion because everything should be earned strictly through gameplay and it’s not fair to fashion mavens to be monetized just because their monetization overlap is the least destructive in the game. It’s certainly a take.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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People seem to expect us gamers to just pay them because they did something.

You’re creating a product that is meant to entertain.

You’re then putting in things that make it more difficult for that to happen, and turning around and putting ways to ‘get around’ your roadblocks by paying.

That’s the irony. That anyone would fall for your false business ideas to begin with.

(I don’t ‘pay to win’, I buy a product or a service that provides me entertainment, and when I find enough reasons like this that you’ve put in the way to STOP paying you, I QUIT doing so. If you’re bad enough about it, I also spread knowledge of what you do to others by talking about it in places around the internet, so you’ll have one less person to fall for it.)


“the point here is not to accurately list all of the things which are pay to win but to identify the many places where people are eager to call something pay-to-win.”
Then shouldn’t the article be “…what’s CALLED pay to win” instead of “…what IS pay to win”?

“… it’s pretty accurate to be unhappy with being charged money for a thing.”
Huh? In my world, “things” generally cost something in time or resources, so someone has to pay for them eventually. Well, I guess not a sense of entitlement, that’s probably free. Aggrievement, that’s free too. Although neither is without cost, curiously.


Man, #8 Just feels like an attack on me after that aforementioned Top 10.

Yes, I’m hording a bunch of 2.X Materials still. Yes literally 80% of what I have in storage is worthless junk. But dangit…

Look, I can meet halfway on this. I had like… 50 Craftsmen Materia of the III-IV variety, I sold those just recently. Let me Keep my stack of ‘Strength Materia II’. Can it be used? No, it literally has no stats associated with it. It’s a novelty item. I’ve been using my ‘Spriggan Chocolates’ for the XP buff when I run dungeons too. I only have like… 400 pieces left out of the 600 I had before. That is a 33% drop. That. Is. Something!

I know it is a problem, I am working on it. I got like… 15 faded Orchestrion rolls I’m holding onto at the moment though, just waiting for the right drops. Once I got those? Well… Blank Grade rolls are a scam to buy on my server, so I’ll have to wait on that. But while I wait, I got like… 5 pieces of gear to toss in my Glamour Dresser, but that is at like, 390/400 and I dunno…

Double that space, maybe? I’d pay for that. If Glamour Dressers hit 800, I can dump the 100+ pieces of gear my storage retainers are holding, which could free up space for my Flayed Mog Poms, and I could shift some of my Coagulated Beetle Dust around. Which means I could finally grab the rest of the lvl 80 class sets from Not-Gerolt and toss those in the dresser too.

Kickstarter Donor

If people won’t pay for the actual game, what else is there but appearance items that don’t influence outcomes?


P2W is
– Anything that gives you items, advantages, content, enhancements, etc, that you otherwise cannot get by playing the game.
– Anything that bypasses anything you can get by playing the game.

You will get it .. wait for it … wait for it .. Bing, Shop = P2W.

The only question is what types of things are ok for you in a shop.

I will always prefer a game without a shop, or those with very limited or simple shops. In general, I like to earn anything in the game by playing the game, and a shop is the same as paying for not playing the game .. which kinda defeats the reason for playing games in the first place. When you think about it, it is kinda ironic that developers design games in ways that encourages players to pay to not play their game.

Tom De Laet

So expansions are pay to win then?


No irony at all, it’s “predatory” and often capitalizes on basic human character flaws (aka “sin”) such as greed, avarice and pride.


I’m… mostly okay with cosmetic items being only available from a cash shop. Especially in games that offer some method for players to exchange the cash shop currency within the game. Warframe has a decent number of alternate looks for the signature Warframes (and also a fair number of skins for weapons, pets and Operator outfits.)

None of these items have any direct effect on gameplay. It is possible in that game to trade in-game items (relics and ‘frame/weapon blueprints mostly) to other players for the cash shop coins. Someone with a wealth of free time can grind those items and sell them to other players who are in a better position to buy the currency.

Tennogen items are kind of a weird edge case, only because they are *only* able to be purchased with real money. (Due to a bunch of complicated stuff that summarizes mostly down to “Because they’re actually being sold by Valve and not the game devs.”) At least on PC, Tennogen items are totally outside the normal trading ecosystem.

The advantage is that they have a displayed price in real money (not a vague abstraction like everything priced with cash store coins.) And a small share of the money spent goes directly to the artist(s) who created it. For the really talented few, this is apparently a steady enough income for them to have turned Tennogen creations into almost their full time job.

For most players it comes down to “That look for Mirage is $5.99, and you know exactly what that amount means to you. Do you think that look is worth the price of a meal at McDonalds? Then you’re good to go.”

I do agree that the pricing for ships in Star Trek Online is… not ideal. Tier 6 starships are unquestionably better than the Tier 5 ships you can get for free. There are a couple of events per year that allow players to earn some kind of T6 ship… as long as you don’t care that it’s usually going to be some kind of weird alien-faction ship and not something that was ever actually seen in the movies. (Some of them are actually quite powerful, last year’s Risan weather control ship is apparently part of a stupidly powerful Science ship build that is quite popular.)

But if you miss the initial sale on a brand new ship, they tend to h0ver at $35 each. The only upside is that they are an account-wide unlock, and with a recent update it’s possible for captains from any faction to fly any ship. So if you do plonk down for that nifty new Starfleet ship, your Klingon Empire and Dominion captains can benefit now. (IE, the prices are still really high, but it’s a slightly better value for players who like alts.)

Kickstarter Donor
Patreon Donor
Loyal Patron

I’ve seen it argued that expansions are PTW because you can’t access the new content and higher level cap without buying the expansion.


That is a common complaint on the ESO forums. The logic is…bizarre, to say the least.

Bruno Brito

It’s bizarre indeed because ESO’s expansions only increase your power laterally. WoW xpacs could be considered P2W, but you don’t really interact with 51+ players ( nor do you share a bracket with them, everyone at level 50 fights other 50s ), so that point is moot.

Kickstarter Donor

Buying a game is P2W, you pay for the game and you can win. Me, as a non-buyer can’t win the game since I haven’t spent money.

This grave injustice must be corrected!


11. If they could monetize bathroom breaks they would…


Um …I can sell you a “special” mmo bucket… sits neatly under your desk chair.


Eww! >.<

Bryan Correll

Don’t give them ideas!