Vague Patch Notes: The MMO term ‘pay-to-win’ is a red herring

Play to wlin.

It probably hasn’t escaped anyone who has been reading my writing over the past several years that I have something of a vendetta against the term pay-to-win. (If you’re in that particular group, incidentally, thanks for helping to keep the lights on and reading; it means a lot.) I’ve mentioned several times that I dislike the term, I talk about not wanting to use it, and I don’t really like talking about it or use it when discussing games.

And it occurs to me that I’ve never really talked much about why, which is actually an interesting discussion because the idea behind the term makes sense. I’m not trying to shield games that have pretty nasty monetization or ones that are in some way exploitative, and I’m also very willing to call games out on using their various monetization methods as a cudgel. So why do I dislike the term itself so much? What is it about specifically pay-to-win as a concept that bothers me?

Well, it’s complicated. But a lot of it comes down to a question of values.

Here’s the thing: I have absolutely no problem with the idea that a given game wants me to spend money on it. That’s fine with me and doesn’t bother me in the least. I’m not offended that Guild Wars 2 wants me to buy things from its cash shop (which I have done) or buy gems to convert them into gold (which I have also done). I don’t mind that Final Fantasy XIV has a subscription (which I pay) or a cash shop (which I occasionally buy things from). It does not bother me that there are ships for sale in Star Trek Online (which I have bought) that are not covered by its optional subscription (which I have paid). All of this stuff leaves me fundamentally unbothered.

You know what does bother me? STO’s lockboxes and selling you the keys to open them. That bothers the living heck out of me, and when I’m leveling criticisms against the game, that is what I focus on. Because that is something I actually consider harmful, and that’s despite the fact that there are no shortage of ships just sold in the shop.

Why does that bother me? Because the ship in that lockbox is there to entice you to buy more keys, open more boxes, to chase after this one prize you really want incessantly and spend a lot more money to get it. You’re not paying to win. You’re not even getting a sizable advantage over other players by doing so. But you are paying not to get something you want but to get a chance at it.

And to me? That’s predatory.


Herein lies my major issue with pay-to-win as a term. You can massage it into meaning almost anything you want it to, which is why basically every single company bringing out a game can take a bold stance and promise “no pay-to-win” and then sell whatever the executives want to be sold in the cash shop with nary a trace of cognitive dissonance. Sure, part of that is that it’s not a legally binding promise in the first place, but it’s also such a fuzzy term that there’s really no way to point to something and say, decisively, that the game is pay-to-win.

This is why I used STO as an example. I love STO. I think it’s a great game, and I think that anyone who would argue the game is pay-to-win is wrong. You could really argue about whether it’s even substantially paying to gain advantage with what you can get in the game otherwise. But those lockboxes are definitely something, and what they are is predatory.

Predatory monetization is much easier to understand. It isn’t about just whether or not something makes you win or gives you a sizable advantage or even an advantage at all. It’s about when the monetization for something is set up to extract money from you for less value. It’s something like World of Warcraft releasing a cash shop mount during an unprecedented mid-expansions content drought, expecting you to keep subscribing and then pay more money on top of that for no actual content or development.

You know what game I used to play for a while? Granblue Fantasy. That game is indisputably a gacha game, which means that under most standards it is pretty definitionally pay-to-win. And yet it never bothered me because the whole thrust of the game’s systems was that there were not only ways to get new characters for your parties without paying but specific ways to get the very specific character you wanted without paying. The game makes its money on selling random draws, yes, but you have other options to get the stuff you need.

Compare that to Genshin Impact, which I also played for a while; it features multiple ways to pump money into the game for advantages and no way of assuring that you would actually get the characters you wanted. These are both gacha games, and both of them could easily be described as pay-to-win. But one felt predatory and the other didn’t. One I was willing to spend money on as a result.

Full disclosure, maybe this game is bad or not, I don't know.

By flattening the discussion down to “pay-to-win,” we ultimately do a disservice to talking about what actually matters, which has much more to do with when a game’s monetization slips over into being predatory rather than when it starts giving you substantial in-game advantages. I think there’s definitely a discussion to be had about subscription games like FFXIV having a cash shop, and that’s from a game where any claims of the game being “pay-to-win” are laughable. Pretending it’s not important to talk about these things because it’s not pay-to-win is missing the forest for the trees.

It also does us no good to ignore the reality of what these situations mean for games and how they affect mechanics and the overall experience of the game. There are titles that you could convincingly argue or demonstrate to be pay-to-win according to a certain standard but are still good games aside from that, and there are games with predatory monetization that are still good titles at their heart. I think Warframe’s gameplay loop for getting new frames being so slow isn’t quite predatory, but it definitely makes me give the game some side-eye, especially given how much your frame influences your playstyle.

The problem with pay-to-win as a term is that it requires you to first designate a win condition and then make the case for how paying brings you closer to that, and it’s very easy to get lost in the weeds of countering that you can technically get there without paying or the like – and it’s also much easier for studios to obfuscate. It’s far more useful, at least to me, to focus instead on games where the payment scheme is itself predatory and unhealthy, based on extracting money from you in an underhanded fashion – because that’s just a more interesting and relevant discussion.

And that’s why I don’t like calling things pay-to-win.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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