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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.