EVE Evolved: Is DUST 514 a pay-to-win game?

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I've been following DUST 514's development with a cautious optimism for the past few years and have been trying to convince my console gamer friends to give it a try since it launched back in May. Last week I finally sat down to play the game myself and was thoroughly disappointed with both its 2005-era graphics and fundamentally broken gameplay. DUST 514 will likely stay in development for the forseeable future and may end up becoming a polished and integral part of the EVE Online universe, but right now it's a buggy and mediocre FPS that has very little impact on New Eden.

DUST 514 launched to mixed impressions from the gaming media, catching a lot of flack from reviewers for its microtransactions options. Some have argued that selling skill point boosters and destructible Aurum tanks and equipment directly for cash makes it a pay-to-win game, while others maintain that it doesn't give you an advantage that free players can't buy for ISK. The definition of pay-to-win isn't always clear, and the console FPS audience may not be as tolerant of microtransactions PC users have long since accepted.

In this week's EVE Evolved, I look at the arguments for and against it being a pay-to-win game and ask what went wrong with the game's launch.

Game side imageHarsh death penalty

DUST 514 borrows its harsh death penalty from EVE Online; You lose all the gear you had fitted on death and will have to re-buy a new set from the market. Vehicles are similarly spawned from your personal equipment stash and are permanently destroyed on the battlefield. Equipment comes in three tiers, each of which has better stats than the last but requires a higher level in the appropriate skill. A basic sniper rifle can be used with level 1 of the Sniper Rifle Operation skill trained, for example, while level 3 lets you use the more powerful advanced version and level 5 unlocks the top-tier 'prototype' rifle.

Things get a little more complicated with the addition of militia items, which have the same stats as basic items but require no skills to use. When you first launch the game and have no skills trained, the only gear you can use is militia equipment bought with ISK or tier one Aurum gear bought with cash. Militia items have the same stats as the basic tier one versions but require more CPU and powergrid to fit, so to a new player the Aurum gear appears to actually have better stats. You can unlock cheap ISK versions of those same weapons and modules by training just level one of the required skill, but new players don't know that.

Game side imageIs skipping ahead pay-to-win?

Aurum gear sold in the market for cash essentially lets you skip ahead by one skill tier. The basic aurum gear is accessible with no skills trained, advanced equipment is available at level 1, and prototype items are unlocked at level 3. This lets you pay for access to better gear than you would have had otherwise, which is enough for some to call DUST pay-to-win. But pay-to-win is usually defined as buying an advantage over other players who don't pay cash, and the Aurum gear has the exact same stats as ISK gear that any player can access by just training the appropriate skill higher.

The top prototype tier item in each category requires a level five skill that will take weeks to unlock, so spending Aurum could at best let a player skip several months of training. The question we should be asking is whether an individual player getting access to gear a few days or weeks earlier than usual constitutes an advantage. If DUST 514 had a matchmaking system that put you up against players of equivalent play time or skillpoint level as in every other console FPS, then the answer to that question would be a resounding, "Yes!"

The fact that DUST 514 doesn't have a balanced matchmaking system means you'll be playing against people of all skill levels in public matches, and Aurum items aren't guaranteed to give you any advantage over them at all. Unfortunately, this has the side-effect of increasing the gear gulf between new and veteran players and making newbies feel even more that they have to use Aurum to catch up. When you're being killed in one or two hits by prototype Assault Rifles and Flaylock Pistols, you feel you need to get your hands on them too. The 500,000 skill points a new character starts with won't stretch very far unless you pay cash, so Aurum becomes less about older players paying to win and more about new players paying to catch up. That may not be pay-to-win, but it's arguably worse.

Game side imageCorporate warfare and attrition

One area in which the argument for DUST being pay-to-win may hold water is in corporate territorial warfare. CCP expected players to use cheap standard gear when defending or invading planetary districts to decrease the cost of attrition, but it turns out that most people are happy pouring ISK into tanks and prototype dropsuits for corporation battles and grinding the ISK back up later in public battles. We find the same dynamic in EVE Online, but the effect is compounded in DUST by the fact that battles are currently limited to a minuscule 16 players per side.

Any stat or financial advantage your side can get over the enemy is a big bonus, and that could mean having your newer corpmates buy Aurum gear to catch up. The biggest cause for alarm in the pay-to-win debate should then be the fact that you can pay cash for starter packs and infinite-use item blueprints. These decrease the cost of your clone deaths and so make you a more cost-effective mercenary, but even their effect on the game is very limited.

You can never get infinite versions of advanced or prototype gear, and starter packs come with only standard dropsuits, weapons, and vehicles. This advantage will also become far less useful as time goes on and the economy is fully fleshed out, as the ISK cost of infantry gear will be negligible. EVE players will soon be able to transfer their billions of ISK into DUST and put up contracts that make the 40k/unit on a prototype sniper rifle look like chump change.

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CCP's Chief Marketing Officer, David Reid, said in 2012 that he thought DUST "could be the biggest game in the world" at the end of the year and that it could bring "tens of millions" of console gamers into the EVE universe. This seemed ridiculous at the time, and now that the dust has settled (pardon the pun), we can see just how ludicrous it really was. The free-to-play business model hadn't been thoroughly tested on consoles or in first-person-shooters yet, and now it seems that PS3 owners aren't impressed.

My console gaming friends are adamant that DUST 514 is a pay-to-win game, but I'm not so sure as every piece of Aurum gear has an ISK equivalent. I think the very fact that older and richer players have access to prototype equipment and vehicles that make such a big difference in public matches is itself enough to put people off. Perhaps we expect a great deal more fairness from a first-person shooter, to know that our kills and deaths are the result of good tactics and a steady aim. Every time I'm killed with an Aurum weapon, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if that player hadn't opened his wallet.

Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to brendan@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.