I had some thoughts after the most recent bit of news we got from Star Trek Online about how, you know… the game costs money and making it is expensive. On one level, it was filled to the brim with “no duh” moments. Oh, the developers are selling us ships because the game costs money? No duh, we all knew that, no one was upset about that!
Except… well, people kind of were. Usually those comments were followed by assertions that the ratio of content-to-ships was skewed in the wrong way, or lockboxes weren’t popular, or something along those lines. And that stuck in my head because I have absolutely zero doubt in my mind that if that ratio could be stacked differently, it already would be.
That, of course, led me down the same rabbit hole that ultimately led to my tongue-in-cheek column about the idea of pay-to-win the other day, and that in turn led to some thoughts about the side of this business none of us really like to think about. Yes, I’m talking about money, and yes, it makes the world go round. But that works beyond what you might be thinking as a “no duh” element of the whole thing.
See, the reason I ultimately wrote that pay-to-win column was because I was having a bit of snarky fun about the people who were very, very upset at the idea that New World might sell boosts to players for a few dollars. This, obviously, was pay-to-win in a game that was otherwise buy-to-play because there is nothing worse than the idea that someone somewhere might get to level a bit faster than you do because they were willing to drop a few bucks during the process. All right. But then we had Ashes of Creation’s Steven Sharif drop in to sound off on his own thoughts on this, and…
Well, Ashes is selling access to alpha for a lot of money. I don’t think it’s necessarily a disingenuous stance to take, but it is not, as the kids say, a good look. One might even go so far as to call it a bad take. It creates this bizarre scenario where charging money for a slight increase in leveling speed in a released game is way worse than, again, selling access to an early test version for a whole lot more money.
The thing is? Neither of these things bothers me overmuch. I don’t actually care at all if someone else levels faster than me because of dropping some money; I don’t actually care if someone levels faster than me, period. If I’m liking the game, history has shown I’ll go plenty fast by itself. Similarly, I don’t think there’s inherently anything wrong with selling access to a test phase for money. If people are willing to pay it, hey, your money, your bliss. I won’t pay it myself, but other people’s money is theirs to spend.
Where this gets messy is an issue of perception, value, and worthiness. More accurately, it comes back to the problem of what the objection over “pay-to-win” is actually supposed to be in the first place.
I’ve said before that we kind of need to retire the term pay-to-win because it ultimately doesn’t have an actual accepted objective definition any longer. This was, obviously, the whole root of the tongue-in-cheek nature of that piece before. After all, if everything is pay-to-win, nothing is, right? But beyond even that, it’s focusing on the wrong thing.
The whole point of an MMO, at least to me, is supposed to be that you don’t win.
I have been playing Final Fantasy XIV since launch. I have been playing World of Warcraft since launch. I have been playing both of these games a lot since launch. I definitely have not won at either of them. I have not accomplished everything I want to in either game. And while I’m going to be waiting a while for the next content update for both of those games (longer for the former than the latter), in both cases there is more stuff coming to accomplish. More stuff to do.
This is, at least to me, one of the advantages of these games. I want a game I can pick up and just keep playing, a place where I can build out my character and my outfits and my fun for a nearly endless expansion of same. If I want to win, I play a single-player game. I have a finite amount of stuff to do and the world is placated. There. Simple. Fun, done, finished.
The problem with pay-to-win as a term is that it’s focusing on the wrong part of these games from an actual design perspective. It’s treating the persistence as a side-effect rather than part of the purpose. Why do I care if someone levels up faster? That’s not winning; that’s getting through the leveling portion of the game a little bit faster. What I’m here for is the persistence. It’s like skipping the commercials on a broadcast.
What strikes me as far more detrimental is when the persistent and fun part of the game is locked behind a cost. When you have to pay through the nose to even get access to a game in the first place. When you’re being charged for concept art that isn’t yet usable. When you’re asked to drop real money just to get a house (one of the peak examples of persistence).
Therein lies the problem. We’ll complain about, say, the fact that STO puts out more ships for players to drop real money on than than it puts out new content, and you know? That’s fair. I completely get being annoyed about it. But the real problem there is the fact that the game is balanced around spending money on these ships. They’re not cosmetic options; they’re core gameplay. And while there are gameplay options, they’re extremely limited, and even subscribers are going to be stuck waiting for a long while before they can start flying a Tier 6 ship properly.
By complaining about pay-to-win, we easily focus on the least important and least relevant part of when business practices get shady and untoward in MMOs. There is much, much worse stuff out there than just a leveling boost. Plenty of games sell boosts while still being compelling. Boosts are, in every way, one of the most innocuous options for microtransactions. It just makes you level a little bit faster. You’re trading money for time, not money for things you can’t get without money.
Moreover, it creates a warped design incentive set where are focus is on whether or not something is sufficiently differentiated from the dreaded pay-to-win… but not whether a game should be charging money in this state, or whether or not the business practices are fair, or what should be considered valid grounds for charging money.
By focusing on the pay-to-win bugbear, we wind up deferring all of the actual discussions we could and should be having about business practices into an argument over definitions and nonsense. And not only is that counterproductive but it allows studios to keep on draining our wallets while we quibble over “fair.” Not where we probably want to be.