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The Soapbox: There's no such thing as pay-to-win


Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

I hate it when MMORPG players completely misrepresent this hobby. I cringe every time I find myself in the middle of a discussion about "MMOs" when most of the people chatting are pulling only from their experience as a World of Warcraft raider and nothing more. There are hundreds -- actually, thousands -- of MMOs in existence. Discussing MMOs without knowing about as many as possible is really talking about specific titles, not a genre. You wouldn't catch a group of "foodies" basing all of their passions on a few items from a handful of menus. The same should apply to MMO discussions if we ever want the genre to be taken more seriously by outsiders.

MMO players love to pigeonhole titles. What are some of the worst descriptions? "Hardcore" is one. What does that even mean? Does it mean a title is hard to play? In what way is it hard? Does it mean that it takes time to play? How much time equals hardcore? "Facebook game" is another term that drives me crazy, and it's often used by many MMO fans to dismiss all sorts of titles. While I know that the term generally refers to FarmVille-style gaming, using the term literally reflects how little the person knows about the variety of games that actually appear on or are connected to Facebook.

The term that drives me the craziest of all is pay-to-win.

Allods Online screenshot
I could easily close this article down by asking, "Pay-to-win what?" Do most MMOs have single goals to achieve? Not at all. In my experience over the last 13 years of playing MMOs and in covering them for roughly half that time, I have rarely come across any MMO that forces players into a single goal to "win." In fact MMOs are MMOs because they offer the choice to come up with your own goals or to experience designer-made goals. If an MMO is pay-to-win, it's more than likely not an MMO to begin with. Heck, it's probably a first-person shooter. To prove my point even more, some readers will argue that some FPS titles are not single-goal games!

The variety of definitions I hear when asking about pay-to-win is staggering. Some people claim it's a simple definition -- that if the game sells advantages for real money, it's pay-to-win. Of course, we have to look at particular titles to see what these advantages are, but even then I will promise that we will find many, many goals from roleplay to collecting items that have nothing to do with the cash shop.

"Is Nascar pay-to-win? Many fans would say no, and many would say yes. The fact is that even non-fans know that a pile of cash is needed to compete in Nascar."

I decided to stop by a local comic and game shop to ask about pay-to-win. As is true for many gaming shops, a good percentage of this one's profits come from collectible card games, namely Magic: The Gathering. I asked whether Magic was considered pay-to-win, and the almost immediate answer was "yes." How does it maintain a playerbase, then, and what percentage of that playerbase plays casually? After a long, heated discussion (the kind you can have only with fellow geeks), it was decided that if the Magic player was a casual player, he or she would probably avoid the sting of the deep-pockets player. If that same player decided to get into tournament mode and compete for prizes or fame, then he or she would easily feel the need to spend cash to keep up with other players.

That's still not pay-to-win in my book.

Is Nascar pay-to-win? The fact is that even non-fans know that a pile of cash is needed to compete in Nascar. The cars can cost wads of dough, and the upkeep can be staggering. Even with the help of endorsements, a driver can be hit hard. Is golf pay-to-win? How about tennis, football, or any sport in the Olympics? (excluding all of the enhancement drugs, of course).

The fact is that we all know the rules of these particular games. Only someone who has never read a word or watched a video about these sports would think that someone with no cash at all could compete. Golf clubs cost a lot of money; so does a good racket or trainer.

The same applies to an MMO. I cannot think of a single MMO that hides cash-shop items from players. Well, technically Lord of the Rings Online has hidden certain items in the cash shop from players who are not at the level required for the item, but that's a rare, silly case. You will find obvious cash-shop prices, well-written change logs, and even player-made wiki articles that explain all of the costs involved. If there is a hidden cost in an MMO, the player who missed it more likely missed it. The cost wasn't hidden.

Wizard101 screenshot
Let me give some examples of just how buying power is often useless, even in PvP.

During one of my annual return visits to my 2004 EVE Online account, I blew some real-life cash and sold some time codes. With the ISK I earned, I bought several ships, including a Raven battleship and a stealth craft. If I had wanted to, I could have bought the pilot to go with them. I did not run out into PvP with the ships for many reasons, primarily because I hadn't the best skills to pilot them at the highest efficiency. I knew that if I went out alone, I would die very quickly, even to players who hadn't spent any cash at all. I can buy myself into the game only so far.

Bigpoint recently passed to me a carrier-class craft in Battlestar Galactica Online so I could experience it for writing purposes. This is common practice in the industry, and without receiving the occasional press account or free access to high-level characters, I'd be much more limited in what I could write about. But even with my cash-shop ship, I was destroyed most of the time I appeared in battle.

Wizard101 has been called a "pay-to-win" title. A player can purchase cards, pets, and all sorts of goodies in the cash shop. Those cards can go into a deck, and that player can then participate in PvP matches. I've watched players do this, and I can guarantee that the cash-shop player is unlikely to win. The player who knows the most about how the card system works will almost always win.

"The subscription itself is a design that places cash-strapped players at a disadvantage. Player with multiple subs and plenty of time could easily have a small army of alts, all tuned perfectly to help grind through levels... just ask an EverQuest vet."

Sure, a player with time and money can have an advantage over other players. This has always been the case, however, all the way back to the early years when MMOs were truly about asking players to spend loads of time in game. The subscription itself is a design that places cash-strapped players at a disadvantage. Players with multiple subs and plenty of time could easily have a small army of alts, all tuned perfectly to help grind through levels... just ask an EverQuest vet. I know that many readers would claim the subscription is a fair practice because once the cost is paid, everything is equal. Exactly. And as with all of the pay-to-win titles I mentioned or the ones that pop up in the comments, once the price is paid, all things are equal. If all players pay for an awesome cash-shop ship, they are equal. Who says that the game should be tuned for players who cannot afford the items or subscription? That's not only limiting for designers but tends to paint deeper-pocket players as some sort of elitist group of power-hungry fanatics. The truth is that the costs are known in advance; the toll is painted on the sign in giant letters. If you don't see it, that doesn't automatically qualify the game as pay-to-win. It qualifies you as someone who cannot afford the toll.

I know it might sound as though I am coming from some sort of "conservative" gaming point of view, but that's not it at all. Gaming is not politics. Gaming is a simple hobby, even when we put everything we have into it. Claiming that an MMO is unfair simply because the developers put cool, powerful items in the cash shop is short-sighted. It's missing the greater point that there are hundreds and hundreds of titles to choose from. Maybe the problem is that gamers need to try more MMOs or consider that there has never been a rule that MMOs need to value players with less money over people with more. Those "rich" players are just as valid as anyone.

So does pay-to-win exist in my mind? Well, name a title and I'll tell you. It's the same with "free-to-play" or "casual" or "social." I refuse to broadly paint a game as pay-to-win. If a player wanted to get the biggest and baddest sword in a title and the only way to get it was through defeating the toughest boss in the world, we wouldn't expect that cost to fit every player's particular time-budget. Purchasing items with a money-budget should be treated the same.

Many MMO gamers need to stop using such general terms. I try to avoid them at all costs. These generalizations do nothing, especially when many potential players are willing to read a single comment and use that as evidence to avoid a game. How about we encourage players to simply download the game and try it out for themselves? After all, we're talking about one of the cheapest -- no, the most free -- genres around. Do what I do: If you see someone commenting that a game is "pay-to-win," make room for the five minutes needed to download or sign up. See for yourself. I'll guarantee that most of the time the player who used such a term was speaking about his or her particular situation, one that might never be the same as yours.

Also remember that many of the titles that are referred to as pay-to-win have thousands, if not millions, of players. Surely those players must be enjoying the game, cash shop and all? How is that a bad thing?

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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