This week, I want to expand on something I mentioned in last week’s Vague Patch Notes as an offhand thing that bears further examination. It comes up usually from the defense squad of any game whose predatory monetization is being criticized, and it’s a song you can find being recited word-for-word right now when discussions of Diablo Immortal crop up. Here’s a fairly standard version:
The game is only as pay-to-win as you let it be. If you spend hundreds or thousands of dollars paying for the game, that’s on you, not the game itself. You made that decision and it was a bad one, but that doesn’t mean that the game itself is pay-to-win, just that it gives you an option. It’s unfair and irresponsible to treat this as something the game forces on you when you can play just fine without paying any money.
It’s important to note that there are two variants of the argument from here – one where the defender points out “I haven’t spent any money on it” and another where the point is “I’ve spent $X but it was because I wanted to.” This is relevant because the argument – from the premise on down – is entirely wrong, but based on understandable logic.
First of all, I want to stress again that the term I am using here is very intentionally predatory monetization and not pay-to-win. Using the latter term here actually turns outright harmful because it provides a framework for arguing past criticism altogether. After all, if a game doesn’t have any competitive aspects, then you can’t really pay to win, can you? Checkmate!
This is, of course, hot nonsense. There is absolutely a desirable end state in MMOs that you can make progress toward even if you are never going to be tossed into a competitive game mode with another player. Getting hung up on the “win” portion of the term is basically arguing past the point, moving the goalposts so that “win” narrowly refers to a specific competition between players rather than its more general usage. But we’re going to just put that down and move on.
At its core, this argument basically appeals to the idea that spending is not mandatory. Sure, spending money on the game will confer an advantage; the defender in question isn’t dismissing that point. Instead, the dismissal is that you are not forced to pay for the advantages you’re talking about. You can go on and play entirely without paying a cent if you want to, a fact that is objectively true.
You can also beat The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess while collecting the smallest percentage of items possible by having Link stare at blue rupees repeatedly for a grand total of 17 hours. (Yes, really.) But no one would ever consider that a feature of the game. That is not how the game is designed or meant to be played. And while you can have debates about fine details when it comes to what designers want you to do within a game, it’s pretty obvious when some things are at best oversights.
Diablo Immortal is part of a franchise where the whole game is about smashing the heck out of demons in click-fest combat, letting you see things explode with loot, equipping that loot, and becoming even better at smashing demons in the next click-fest of combat. That is the core gameplay loop. If you’re making your payment model directly interface with that gameplay loop (and in this case it totally does), the game offers a direct link between money spent and game satisfaction.
Are you allowed to keep playing if you say that you’re not going to spend any money on it? Of course you are. But doing so is specifically accepting that you’re going to choose to have a worse gameplay experience with slower advancement and less enjoyment while all the time you’re being told that even just $5 will make things a little better for you. And even if you never spend money on it, it’s still right there, taunting and and maybe tempting you. You cannot separate these facts.
Not to mention that this is… like… what the developers want you to do in the first place.
Sure, there are people who are going to be immediately vulnerable to all of the psychological levers that the game pushes right away. That’s why it’s predatory; it grabs some people right away and latches on to them whether they want to be caught or not. (As a necessary reminder, the fact that you are not personally allergic to peanuts does not mean peanut allergies are not real, nor does it mean that you shouldn’t think about the safety of those who suffer from them.) But a lot of people are going to see that, say “well, I’m just going to play for free,” and feel very smart as if they’ve beaten and broken the system.
But actually, that is part of the system. Because now you have told yourself that you are smarter than the system, that you understand all the interlocking systems, that you’re not falling for the tricks! You know the odds, and you know the best way of playing the system. See, I’m getting out my credit card and spending $30 on the game, but I’m doing so in a smart way; I’m not being tricked! I’ve only spent $60 on the game, which is what I’d spend on a new game anyway, and I’m smarter than the game! Nobody tricked me!
One of the fascinating elements of most confidence schemes is that the participants often know they’re part of a scheme. The people getting involved in things like NFTs (which are a scam, just as your regular reminder) know these are scams even if they don’t say it outwardly. The only actual deception is that these people think they’re the scammers when they’re actually the marks. The best way to make any scheme succeed is to have the marks think they’re part of the operation right up until you skate off with their money.
This is why one of the key elements of predatory monetization is vague and obfuscated design. Some people will thus throw money at the game in hopes of getting what they want because they don’t understand the system. Others will do a lot of research and figure things out and use that as justification for now spending money because they’re now convinced that they’re not the rubes, that they’re spending as part of their choices!
Whether or not you are personally spending money on a game does not affect whether or not the game’s monetization is predatory. I haven’t spent money on Star Trek Online (an MMORPG I still love) in a long while. The game’s monetization is still predatory. It’s predatory in a lot of different ways, and that’s true even if you can get through the game just fine buying a lifetime subscription or a subscription for three months and this amount of Zen and planning ahead so it’s not that expensive if you think about it.
Framing the debate about the monetization as if it’s all about whether you personally spent money is like framing a debate about a game’s quality around whether or not you’re having fun. And if you think that you’re the smart one who cracked the code and don’t need to ask these questions because you’re too smart to be suckered in by predatory monetization… you’re actually just another mark.
You are not immune to these systems. Thinking you are is part of how they work.