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Free for All: Turbine's pristine payment plan perfects pay-to-win


There is one recurring statement that bothers me to no end, largely because it is simply not true. Most of the time if I pursue the player who uses the term, he will admit to using it only to justify his dissatisfaction with a handful of free-to-play games. That term is "free-to-play is pay-to-win." Essentially, the term refers to gaining advantages over other players through one's pocketbook, by buying power. As someone who has played, investigated, talked about or interviewed developers of over 100 free-to-play games, I can tell you that a "pay-to-win" scenario exists in the minority of games, not in the majority as some would have you believe.

Most of the comments from the "pay-to-win" playbook come in more recent times, but that could be because my column has provided a nice, fertile space for everything anti-free-to-play. But I have found the most vocal of the detractors to be referencing recent free-to-play games like Allods Online, primarily because they may have loved it so much, yet did not want to pay a single dime for it -- and because they simply had not played many free-to-play games before that. Allods Online was, essentially, their main experience with free-to-play.

Meanwhile, I am often shown DDO (or now, Lord of the Rings Online) as some kind of "proper" way to do a cash shop. Ironically, Turbine is now not only the largest, but the closest to a true pay-to-win developer. Anything larger would exist outside of North America.

Firstly, we need to define in-depth what people seem to mean when they say "pay-to-win." For my part, I only see it when someone wants to prove to me that all free-to-play games are a scam or a con-man heist that preys on poor, helpless gamers. Essentially, any time one player can buy an "advantage" over another player, it is called pay-to-win. But it's not that simple -- what do they mean by "advantage?" The most obvious and closest to a true example can be found in PvP games that literally pit player against player. In many PvP-centric games that I have played, XP scrolls, healing potions, and combat pets are signs of "pay-to-win." This, despite the cash shop being open to everyone, 24-hours-a-day. While it is possible that a player with pockets filled with potions can perform better in a pinch, what is the outcome of such a defeat? No character is lost; no items are destroyed. Even in the case of particular pieces of valuable real estate like keeps or land areas, the tables can always be turned. You never actually "die" in PvP -- you are just put on pause. Time-out is the only result of losing a match.

Other than PvP, the main example of "outperforming" stems from leveling faster or obtaining better loot than fellow players. I have always been perplexed by the idea of outperforming someone else, especially in a world in which 99.9999 percent of items are not unique in any way, are endless in number, and are available to all. After all, if one guild kills a dragon, even in non-instanced games like Vanguard, the dragon comes back to life within a short period of time.

Still, there are the claims that "all free-to-play games are pay-to-win." I have seen it so much, I literally try to avoid certain topics for fear of the comments section being taken hostage by one off-topic discussion after another.

So why have Turbine's new freemium/free-to-play offerings been embraced by so many new players, many of whom would be the first to say "free-to-play equals pay-to-win?" I have a few theories, but essentially I think it all comes down to familiarity. Over the last week, I have read and heard players proclaim that LotRO was not fun enough to pay for, but fun enough to be played for free. I have long accepted that the gaming industry is much like the music industry, with most money being made by the most common artists. People stay loyal to what is familiar to them. They like to be faithful to one product or to one band. Or, of course, to one or two MMOs.

Everyone who has experienced LotRO long ago made his decision to spend, or not spend, money on the game. DDO was in the poorest state of its existence before it went freemium. What changed? I suggest that something more sinister is afoot: While both games are not familiar to everyone, they are not alien to most Western MMORPG gamers. Xenophobia is the key -- anything "alien" does not feel the same as something familiar. "Alien" is not safe, and many gamers want safe. Despite the existence of scores of high-quality free-to-play games, LotRO or DDO will be the first ones that many Western players will claim to love. Where was that love when Turbine asked for a subscription?

"So, despite the fact that Turbine has come the closest to perfecting the "pay-to-win" model, you should not let it stop you from "paying to win."

There is no denying that the cash shops in both LotRO and DDO are the closest thing I have ever come to actually being "pay-to-win." You can literally buy content; you literally need to buy access to PvP -- everything that players have used as evidence against my love for free-to-play is present in Turbine's offerings. Weapons? Check. Potions? Roger. Buffs, hirelings, buffs for PvP? All there. All "pay-to-win."

Let's be clear though: Pay-to-win is one of the most ridiculous terms players have come up with. It's up there with "huntard," "vanilla," "carebear," or "easy-mode." While those terms are used many times as simply a reference, they only affect you, bother you, or have meaning to you if you allow them to do so. The last thing any gamer should ever do is allow another gamer to instruct him on how to enjoy himself.

So, despite the fact that Turbine has come the closest to perfecting the "pay-to-win" model, you should not let it stop you from "paying to win." The fact of the matter is that both of the companies' offerings are solid, fun, and easy to run. Turbine has shown that it wants to take chances, that it wants to break from certain payment-model molds. This means the company is attempting to think, to adapt to a changing audience, and to lead in an industry that is filled with "AAA" games that have offered the same payment plans for years and years and years.

It might, or might not, work for you. While I enjoy Turbine's games, I have to admit that they are not my favorites by far. (I'll save that for a later article.) But if they become your favorites, especially now thanks to this genius marketing maneuver, put a little money in the devs' pockets. Quit worrying about the promise of "YOU SHALL NOT PAY!" Remember that free-to-play is simply a reference to a possibility and a choice. It's not a guarantee.

You've nothing to lose by rewarding a game and a developer you love.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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