Massively Overthinking: Who’s really paying for MMOs?


Two years ago, we did a piece on dark patterns in MMO design, and in the comments, a reader named Shadex De’Marr penned a rant that raised interesting points – so interesting that when I bumped into it again, I had to make it the subject of a Massively Overthinking. Shadex essentially argued that social gamers are subsidizing everyone else, and games are getting away with it because of some players’ obsession with avoiding pay-to-win at all costs.

“The one that drives me nuts is the mentality of, ‘Hey social gamers, if you could just pay all the upkeep on the servers and our salaries so that the power gamers can play for free that would be great…’ The very pillars of the heavens would crumble if anyone ever thought to charge a player for a stat item as it would evidently unravel reality as we know it and cause every molecule in our bodies to explode at the speed of light. However, if you don’t give two cruds about getting your hands on the Vorpal Wombat Mallet of Mutilation and are more concerned about hanging out with friends, looking dope, and having a cool house/castle or whatever, then it is perfectly OK to gauge you for $50 a pop for the things that you enjoy about the game. Cosmetics in cash shops are no better than stat items. They just piss off a different crowd. […] Pay-to-win depends on the ‘win’ condition. If winning to one player is getting the phattest uber stat stick then having to pay for that will make them mad. If, however, winning to another player is making their character look super amazing and setting up a really intricate house for all of their friends to hang out with, then charging them for the new cool crossover outfit is going to piss them off.”

This is one of the things that irritates me about the modern MMO industry, and so you know we’re going to talk about it this week. Is Shadex right? Is it a problem? How did it happen? Why are so many people OK with it? What’s the solution in the short- and long-term? Who’s really paying for MMOs?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Well, Shadex isn’t totally right, nor totally wrong. In the west, at least, yes, we tend to frown on pay-to-win, but as Carlo mentioned in one of his columns, there are differences in audiences and the way to monetize to them. Just look at gambling mechanics. Japanese games have to disclose odds so they aren’t labeled as such, even though they basically are, but western games, even those that launch in other countries, sometimes are able to avoid that until they get too much attention, and sometimes even then they break the rules (see Overwatch).

The assumption that social gamers are the only ones footing the bill is a bit presumptuous. Powergamers like to look pretty too. Just look at any gacha game. Lots of top-ranked players are gambling not just for high stats items/characters but for rares to show off. I knew one guy in Pokemon GO who spent so much time and money trying to get a shiny variant of a raid-only pokemon that he deleted one of his perfect ones in a superstitious act of sacrifice to the poke-gods. This guy was spending at least $100 a month on the game, and he knew guys who spent even more.

I think part of the reason some people are OK with cosmetics being sold is that it’s often less competitive. We don’t often care about the swag unless it confers status. World of Warcraft players especially remember some of the “server first” items, but when transmog came along, people were dressing up in lowbie gear sometimes just because they liked the look. As long as you can’t pay for prestige, most players are fine with monetization. It’s just where you draw the line, as some items that may look neat sometimes don’t feel like they “belong” only to hardcores, or charging too much for a social item can make it too obvious why the devs are using a certain monetization model.

The “problem” is that devs these days, especially in certain industries like MMOs, need low barriers of entry to amass players who also function as content. Keeping the price down is the easiest way to do this, but then the wealthiest real-world players (or ones who may be spending more than they actually should) keep the lights on. I’d very much prefer it all games had some kind of “free access” version and then “paid” version that unlocks the rest of the game, either whole sale or bit by bit, but even that’s rough (see Star Wars: The Old Republic).

It’s not a popular MMO, but Istaria’s got some interesting choices. For example, you can essentially play for free, but with severe limitations on levels, character slots, auction house slots, and no housing. But you can pay a small monthly sub for an extra slot, or to unlock all the races, or even just for housing, and yes, naturally you can unlock everything for a traditional $15 a month and lower for multiple months. In the long run though, I think devs need to swing back to asking more players to pay their fair share while also avoiding the money pit/money tree model they generally create with gambling mechanics that are blurring the line between real games and gamified casinos.

Andy McAdams: I told Bree to expect a novel from me on this one. My short answer would be: Yes, this is a problem. Devs, do better, thanks. P2W is a logical fallacy when playing a game without a win-state, and the number of developers kowtowing to assert they are not P2W is at best lipservice and at worst a calculated piece of non-sensical marketspeak intended to manipulate a particular demographic of folks into playing their games.

I’m sure there are some armchair sociologists who will come out of the woodwork to explain how being able to buy power in the game harms the community and the harms the yadda yaddda yadda, firm in their belief that “thought experiment equals hard data.” But we haven’t really seen that in any of the games that offer that option. It’s not like there’s a graveyard of games whose deaths we attribute to buyable power.

My gut reaction is that “buyable power is evil” – and I think it comes down to how I expect the player who buys those things to behave. I worry that buyable power will make me, the person who’s not willing to buy things, a second-class citizen in my virtual world that is more egalitarian than anything in meatspace can ever hope to be. So I think my aversion to the whole thing is less about “it hurts the purity of the game!” to “I don’t trust gamers to not be completely toxic about how their purchased items make them better than me.”

I’m not likely to spend money on a power-item. For me personally, and a lot of others, the fun of the MMO is in the growth of the character – through points, levels, abilities – whatever it happens to be. The whole “I’m going to pay money to skip the game part of the game” feels weird to me? I think the only time I could see myself buying a “power” item is if I’ve already tried in-game and RNGesus had smote me repeatedly, and it’s not even a guarantee I would shell out then.

The “buyable power is a sin” argument also seems to run afoul of the reason to buy it to begin with. In most cases, buying a power item is going to be done with a single purpose – “I want to be able to raid X boss, I want to be top DPS, I want to be top heals” or something along those lines. But the group of people who would want to buy that stuff to enable those things is also the group that grouses about how important it is for them to clear difficult content. So in this case they would brag about clearing difficult content by… paying for gear that makes the content easier?

So is the question really about clearing difficult content if someone is worried people are going to willingly shell out money to make that content easier when they could… just not do that? Or is it rather about someone else having something that you don’t want them to have? We can extrapolate beyond this as well with another common argument: “A bad player in good gear is still a bad player.” But some folks are concerned that a bad player will get good gear and suddenly become a good player.

The whole argument that buyable power is bad and that only buyable cosmetics are OK falls apart if you poke at it too much. The only valid concern here would be in a PvP scenario, but meh. That’s a solvable (and solved) problem. The folks who pay for the tryhard hardcore cupcakes to be able to keep their “purity” are the people shelling out for cosmetics, which isn’t fair. Arguably, the casual folks contribute far more to the game in play, population, interactions, community – more than the tryhards or hardcore raiders do. I think the burden of who pays should be balanced amongst all the communities the game appeals to. I think it’s unethical to expect one group to subsidize another group so the second group can talk about some moral purity.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I find myself unable to equate casual “win conditions” (whatever that is) with the obvious and objective victory associated with defeating another player or felling a group boss or completing a dungeon. Maybe that makes me small-minded, but I don’t think I’ve ever been teabagged after losing fashion show or in-game concert.

I’m fine with selling cosmetics. It’s not P2W; it’s just a smart way to keep the servers running.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I have already tipped my hand here, but I pretty much agree with Shadex. While it’s true companies would happily charge everyone everything if they could get away with it (and they do in East Asia), they can’t in the West, so they’ve chosen this path instead, particularly free-to-play titles. I suppose we’re lumping a lot of players together here – social gamers, casuals, roleplayers, decorators, homesteaders, crafters, whatever – but those gamers simply aren’t as loud about supposed fairness as PvP and PvE endgamers, and they tend to have more money than time. So they’re the ones being gouged in most games, which subsidizes the rest.

As of this morning, for example, Conan Exiles has just done away with its pay-for-content DLC system; Funcom’s post encourages players to buy its anti-pay-to-win battlepass for cosmetics “to help [it] support the game.” They just… come out and say it. Granted, this is not an MMO, but it’s significantly closer to MMOs than some of the pure PvP/arena games my colleagues refer to. Fashion Wars pay for MMOs – and in full-fledged MMORPGs, Fashion Wars are focused on a specific group of players. That’s not to say hardcore PvE/PvP players never buy cosmetics, only that they carry far less of their fair share of the burden in our genre.

I don’t particularly want pay-to-win crap in the games either, but I hope people can see that prioritizing the “win” for dungeon-crawlers and duelists over the “win” for everyone else just because the former is more conveniently quantifiable is not only fundamentally unfair but also a marker of poor health when it comes to the very non-combat systems we’re talking about. Every purchase of a house, a stack of food, a potion, a decorative object, or a dress from a cash shop is one fewer purpose for a crafting system, one fewer item to craft, one fewer reason to seek resources, one fewer player-to-player trade in the game itself. Frankly, every purchase of a cosmetic or decor is one fewer reason to do PvE in MMOs where those are drops, as well as one fewer reason for the devs to put pretty gear and decor into the loot tables.

So yes, this is one of the two big reasons most modern MMO economies are trash, and it’s absolutely absurd to pretend that letting someone pay cash for a better sword is a bridge too far but letting people open their wallets for the best house in the game is a great plan as long as Sword Guy can play unhindered. Both of these things represent the character’s status and power in the game. Both are toxic. At least charging for both would be honest!

All of this was a bigger problem before lockboxes became so much more acceptable. Now, companies are gunning for a very specific intersection of casual and hopeless gambler when they stick the cosmetics behind slot machines with undisclosed odds. That’s… not better, guys. That’s significantly worse.

I love my colleagues dearly, but I do remind some of them that they repeatedly vote games like Elder Scrolls Online as the best business model in the genre, when it’s actually one of the worst offenders when it comes to gouging casuals and social players. Funding games by charging casuals hundreds of dollars for houses isn’t a good business model just because you didn’t want that house anyway.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): This argument reads a bit like the “you can’t be mad at x because y is also happening” kind of counterpoint, though there are also some appreciable points in there; whaling is whaling whether it targets the social gamer or the prog-minded gamer. It ultimately stems from the idea that power is earned while cosmetics are not.

Getting your character to higher power levels through efforts and victories makes a greater impact and is pretty much the whole thing that powers MMORPG gaming and grind, so whipping out the wallet to circumvent that can feel kind of like buying a Game Genie for an MMO. Conversely, snapping up a snazzy new dress from the cash shop or dressing up a weapon in a skin is more about self-expression, which is just as vital as power gains. Naturally, selling expression is probably going to piss off less people than selling power.

And if that’s the cost of keeping the game’s lights on, then so be it. These things have to make money some-damn-how.

Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I don’t think this is an either/or scenario in the games I have played. Companies are happy to take money from everyone. Powergamers are hardly ever standing around in default armor, and a lot of games have items to purchase that make gameplay easier or faster for every kind of player. Games like ESO that have paywalled content are going to get their pound of juicy, succulent wallet-flesh out of social and hardcore players alike.

There are a lot of players that circulate between groups too, depending on their available time, personal circumstances, and the particular game. Personally, my own spending has been most correlated to how much time I have been spending in a game and how much time I expect to spend in it going forward, rather than how I am playing the game.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I suppose I’m one of those free-to-play gamers that refuses to deal with stat boosting pay-to-win gear, but I’m totally cool with buying cosmetics.

In most of the games I play, combat is basically central to the gameplay loop. While other activities are available and players can often make those activities their core game, it isn’t going to affect another player if my house is prettier or just bigger. Although often in these games if someone has a stat advantage they can compete at a higher level. So that directly affects other players.

I think that’s basically where I come down on whether something is P2W or not. If the item to buy can directly impact the gameplay for others, then it’s P2W. If buying it only improves or affects me and others can’t be impacted, then it’s not.

Not to mention I’d guess it takes quite a bit more development time to design a new costume for a character then it does to add a modifier that makes a player do X activity faster or with more damage.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I think the argument in the quoted post is just fundamentally flawed. Wanting nice cosmetics is not the sole domain of “social” gamers. Everyone likes to look good. Lots of high-end min/max raid-or-die types still buy cosmetics. I’m a committed soloist, and I buy outfits in pretty much every game I spend any significant amount of time in.

Heck, these days even a lot of single-player games are selling skins, even if only indirectly through pre-order bonuses and the like. While we may not love the idea of being further squeezed this way, somebody’s buying these things, and it’s definitely not social gamers when we’re talking about games with no social components.

By the same token, being a social gamer doesn’t automatically make you an easy mark for micro-transactions. Roleplayers are one of the main blocs of social gamers in MMORPGs, and in my experience RPers are often hesitant to purchase the kind of gaudy outfits offered in most cash shops, preferring more grounded and realistic outfits for their characters.

As to the broader question, things got to be this way because it’s what most people find to be the most palatable option. Even as one of the few who’s willing to argue that paying for power can be OK, I must admit I’m more comfortable with cosmetic micro-transactions. MMORPGs are inherently unbalanced, unfair games, but as much as is reasonably possible it’s better to avoid introducing more levels of imbalance. And as I outlined above, cosmetics appeal to pretty much everyone. Selling fancy mounts and pretty outfits gives developers the widest possible market for their products while causing the least disruption to the game. There’s never going to be a business model that everyone is 100% happy with, but this seems to be the compromise that works best for all parties.

So who’s really paying for MMOs? People who can afford to. I think most people will splash a little cash on their game of choice if their budget allows (there will always be some who just don’t care and never spend more than they have to, but that’s fine). I’ve never seen any evidence that any one particular playstyle is being more heavily targeted for monetization than others, and honestly, it wouldn’t make much sense to do so. Developers want everyone buying their stuff. They’ll offer the products that have the widest possible market.

I wish we as a community could break out of the mindset that every single business model is somehow nefarious. These games need to make money somehow. Shady business models do exist, but we’ve got to stop acting like every attempt to make money off an online game is exploitive or immoral somehow.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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