On Pay to Win


This follows on from a previous post, read it here.

Pay to Win. The phrase is the subject of a thousand forum flame-wars, usually between the paid and the paid-nots. Everyone agrees it’s an epithet, but not on its definition. We should be clear. Pay to Win is not something a game is, it’s something a game has. As such, it isn’t a binary condition. If the amount of money you spend on the game confers any advantage, the game contains some Pay to Win. Rapidfire Redeemers and permanent overshields at £2.99 a round would be a lot of Pay to Win. Starting with one extra round of ammunition in reserve, a little.

“But it’s not Pay to Win!” insist the developers. “Everything is unlockable with in-game eckspee!”
“Yeah, they are just offering paid for unlocks as a convenient option for people with more money than time!” agree the forum stooges. Meanwhile the executives shake their heads in disbelieving joy.

Things being unlockable with earned in-game XP does not instantly mean that the game has no Pay to Win in it. This is Stockholm Syndrome of the worst sort. (Well, not the worst sort, that would be identifying with the goals of people that have actually kidnapped you, but this is the internet. Hyperbole is how we do.) If they design in huge inconveniences, and then charge you to bypass these huge inconveniences, they are not doing you a favour. It costing 12000 glacially accrued eckspees to upgrade your tank tracks is not just ‘how it is’. This was decided, with a very particular intent.

The intent is to get you go and pony up some cash. That’s fair enough


For that matter, advantages conferred by additional playtime is, certainly in the context of a competitive FPS, unbalanced (read: less meritocratic). But we tolerate this in games with a traditional business model. Why? Because it’s fun to unlock stuff.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s unlock system spawned a thousand imitators, because the constant torrent of awards and unlocks and attachments tickles the same lizardy bit of the hindbrain that RPG’s do. A lovely little feedback loop of action and reward. It keeps you playing. It makes you happy. Admit it. You can’t help yourself. Go on, prestige again, we aren’t judging you.

Then take that stream of constant reward, and throttle down to a trickle. You can still have your new pistol upgrade, but it’s going to take you all week. Unless… Nah, never mind. No, forget I said anything. It’s just, well, they’re in the cash-store over there. And it’s on special offer.

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