Fortunately for the dedicated players (and to the chagrin of cash shop whales), the truth is a bit more skewed. There are varying degrees of pay-to-win cash shops, but Age of Wushu's cash shop provides very few outlets to directly buy power. The main culprit is the simple fact that spending real money can give a player silver to spend on anything he or she wants.
Silver is king in Age of Wushu. The entire player market revolves around silver, and the largest source of it comes from the cash shop. Does this mean you need to pay to have a chance?
Making silver from nothing
There are a few ways to make silver other than the cash shop. Kidnapping is the second major source of silver, and it is fairly limited. A potential kidnapper can kidnap only once per hour, and any given victim can be kidnapped only once every six hours. Additionally, most schools assign 10 points of school discipline any time one of their disciples completes a kidnap mission. This isn't a whole lot of discipline, but the fact that any discipline is generated discourages a lot of players from kidnapping. Most kidnaps are performed by the schools that don't get discipline from kidnapping: Tangmen, Royal Guards, and Wanderers. None of these is the largest school in the game.
Additionally, the number of silver generated by kidnapping is fairly small. A single kidnap generates somewhere between 0 and about 20 liang, and the usual number is between 5 and 10. Even players in kidnap-friendly schools tend to view this number as a waste of time. By comparison, $30 USD gives 1000 liang (1 ding) worth of silver if all the gold generated is converted to silver. I rarely kidnap despite being a Tang clansman, as farming materials gives better money and carries less chance of failure. I still occasionally perform kidnaps simply to raise my evil rating, but I pay more silver in taxes from market transactions than I would generate if I did 24 kidnaps every day.
The other source of silver is randomly granted to offline players. This is totally random and cannot be depended on. I've generated less than 500 liang from these events throughout my entire time playing, and I make at least that much per day on slow market days.
These are the only sources of silver injection and there are lots of ways that silver gets removed. Taxes add up fast; recently I bought Flying Horse (1), and the taxes on it were over 300 liang. Opening up enchant sockets deletes silver from the system, as do divinations and gear repairs. Many players -- even those who don't buy gold -- spend a lot of silver on martial training. Silver exits the economy in huge quantities daily.
This should not discourage you, though. Even though cash shoppers produce most of the silver that is used in the game, that money flows through the market every day and anyone can get her fair share of the profit. As I've mentioned above, I make a lot of money trading, but anyone can get in, gather materials, make products, and earn silver. I've personally taught at least a dozen people how to get in on the market and make money, and it's not hard to find a niche. Buying Turn Weapon Around (1) costs around 5 ding, which would cost a cash shopper $150 US. An enterprising marketer can make that 5 ding in a day or two.
The most direct way to buy power is to use it to burn cultivation. Although the option in the training menu is called "Practice Martial Arts," the premise of the center option is that your character is purchasing special medicines or incenses to accelerate his rate of internal growth. All players can expend 50 liang in silver coins (NPC currency) every day on martial practice.
There is no limit, however, on the number of tradable silver that can be spent on martial practice. While a player must still have cultivation available to invest in a skill, martial practice speeds up the rate of invested cultivation rapidly.
When the 2nd Internal Skill event concluded, players rapidly power-leveled their internal skills using both martial practice and team practice. Just 24 hours after the event began, there were players who had already reached level 36 in their 2nd internal skill. By comparison, many players were still using their first internal skill at level 30-36. It was around a week before I could justify switching to my 2nd internal skill, even though my first internal skill was only level 30.
Even after I'd taken that leap, I was roughly level 18 in my 2nd internal, and there were already players at level 36. For a couple of weeks, this was an insurmountable barrier; these players were nearly impossible to kill. Some of them were in enemy guilds, and there was quite a bit of resentment among my guildmates about it.
Now, there is hardly a gap at all. I'm level 31, and those same people are still level 36. When I fight one of them, skill is the largest determining factor. The numbers difference is negligible now, and if I lose, it's probably because I was outplayed. In another week or so, we'll be the same strength, and there won't be any excuses at all.
While I purchased the Deluxe Edition package, I haven't spent any money on gold other than what the Deluxe Edition gave me. Even that gold has hardly been used; I spent 2 gold (20 liang) to buy airdashing on day 2 and haven't spent more. I know people who started around the same time that the 2nd internal skills were released, and they are over level 20 on their inner 2 -- a week or so behind me. The martial practice advantage is transitory and will be overcome with time.
Ultimately, silver is not much of an edge. There are ways to make silver without spending any money, and a free player can take advantage of any of them. Spending $300 to get 10 ding might get someone some advantage, but that $300 doesn't produce any more money, while nearly anyone can make 500L-1D per day with a little smarts.
Horses are another story, however. The only horse available outside the cash shop is slower than a Tangmen on foot. The fastest horses are much faster and have extra sprint abilities for even greater speed. These horses are a massive edge when traveling from place to place. If you're harvesting or reacting to a call to arms, having a Fanyu will get you where you need to go in half the time.
The only thing that makes Fanyu fair at all is that it can be sold. Many cash shoppers will purchase horses or vanity outfits in exchange for silver at a more favorable exchange rate, and there are Fanyu and Rushing Cloud horses available on the market all the time. Still, I don't have a good horse myself as they're expensive 30-day consumables and I am very fast on foot.
So is Age of Wushu pay to win? I'm inclined to say no. A non-VIP member will have all the moneymaking potential of a VIP member and will eventually get to the same combat level as the cash shop whales. The only difference is time. Horses are a problem, but even savvy businesspeople can pick up good horses at decent prices. If you really want to succeed in Jianghu, the key is not spending real money -- it's being successful in the game itself.
Age of Wushu is a wonderous place, full of hidden secrets, incredible vistas and fearsome martial arts. Join Patrick as he journeys through China, revealing the many secrets of this ancient land. The Ming Dynasty may be a tumultuous time, but studying The Art of Wushu will give you the techniques you need to prevail.