Laevatein’s Campfire Tales: Defining Free-to-Play and Pay-to-Win

[Hey everyone, Laevatein here, and today my article is going to be quite special.  As you may have noticed, I have started up a new series, but fret not, for nothing has really changed.]

PlanetSide 2 is a game that many would think is long overdue.  Now, I can’t say I’m a fan of the original or anything, but I did get beta access, so I’ve been playing it here and there.  It’s quite fun, and that’s not even a “It’s quite fun for a free to play game” sort of statement, either.  I think it’s legitimately fun.  I love how large the scale of everything is, as it’s not about your place in the team, but you as a cog in a much larger machine.  I suppose that might not be to everyone’s liking, but I find it intriguing.  Nevertheless, I was quite concerned when I first saw what was in the cash shop.

Cash shops have gone hand-in-hand with free-to-play games for the longest time (though Ubisoft seems to be trying this with Assassin’s Creed 3, hahaha oh you guys), so I may seem silly being hesitant about cash shops.  I do think cash shops make a lot of sense, from a business perspective.  They are conceptually very fair to both the companies that provide the games and the consumers that play the games.  Cash shops, unfortunately, are often littered with items that give advantages to people who are willing to spend money.  “Of course that’s a problem, Laevatein, where have you been?” you may say.  I had to admit that I have been out of the free-to-play game loop for the longest time.

What I think needs to be brought up is how we all define what should and should not be chargeable.  If a game gives people who spend money an advantage, if even a slight one, that game should technically be defined as “pay-to-win” (as much of a misnomer/catch-all as the term is).  As it stands, no one can agree on some of the finer points of this definition.  This not only gives developers free reign to add features that may wind up upsetting the game community, but also gives the community an easy to use tool to effectively “lynch” developers that implement things they don’t like.

There, discussion’s over, let’s go home and play some games, everyone.

Now I’m not saying PlanetSide 2 is necessarily pay to win.  In fact, the stuff you can buy in the cash store isn’t even particularly egregious.  To the best of my knowledge, PlanetSide 2 allows you to buy weapons, equipment, cosmetic items (which is and has always been perfectly fine),  and boosts with real money.  Now this is technically pay-to-win.  Many would argue it’s not.  I’m personally on the fence when it comes to PlanetSide 2.  The developers have mentioned before that they’ve been inspired by the League of Legends system, which has a pretty decently designed cash shop.  At the same time, it seems like the PlanetSide 2 developers have talked about their pay-to-win features, or lack thereof,  to reassure their fans and assuage their naysayers.

The weapons and equipment you can buy in PlanetSide 2 technically do give advantages to players that buy them.  While it’s important to note that these items can still be obtained by non-paying members, paying members do skip the grind to get these items non-paying members would go through. These items never give an actual advantage to the people that own them, however (and if they do, it’s never by intentional design).  Weapons and equipment are designed to be mere sidegrades, rather than upgrades.  Assuming two players are almost exactly alike, are both equally skilled, etc., buying one of these weapons or pieces of equipment should not (and often does not) give the paying player an advantage.  This is important, because this lack of an advantage won’t alienate non-paying members.

At the same time, it’s important that companies price these items fairly, not only for paying members, but also for non-paying members.  One game I feel does not price their items fairly is Tribes: Ascend.  You can technically never have to pay a single penny in Tribes: Ascend, and still be able to access everything the game has to offer.  Tribes does have some pretty major problems with their cash shop (which led me to quit a few months back). The amount of time it takes for a non-paying player to grind for a weapon is astronomical compared to other games.  You can kick some major ass, be MVP, and max out XP in a single game, and that would still only bring you a fraction of a step closer to a weapon that paying customers can acquire quite easily.  Did I mention that some of these weapons feel like upgrades, and certainly do give their owners advantages?  The whole system was certainly very off-putting.  I suspect others feel the same way.

As mentioned before, PlanetSide 2’s system was inspired by League of Legends’ system.  League of Legends allows you to purchase new champions with real money, along with cosmetic items and boosts.  Champions aren’t designed to be specifically better than other ones, and are there to merely add more options to the game, rather than significantly change dynamics.  You can also try certain champions each week for free, allowing you to make a more informed champion purchase, like PlanetSide 2’s eventual gun testing system.  While League of Legends is not perfect (I remember about a year or so back when one champion, Corki, was significantly buffed for whatever reason, but that was fixed quickly), these issues are usually design issues and not schemes to coax money out of players.

Contrary to what the above chart may have you believe, then, I don’t think being able to purchase any weapon automatically makes the system bad.  It all depends on how significant the weapons you can purchase are.  If they offer significant playstyle changes, that’s bad.  If these items  are upgrades, that’s even worse.  If they can only be purchased with real money, that’s terrible.  On the other hand, if guns one can purchase, with or without real money, are merely sidegrades that offer some variety, then there’s nothing wrong with that.

Just so long as the grind to obtain those weapons isn’t terribly long, of course.  Too long a grind will drive a wedge into one’s player base, separating those who are willing to spend money to get content immediately, and those who are willing to wait.  Some of the player base may wind up quitting, and nobody wants that, right?

Boosts, on the other hand, are much trickier.  Most free-to-play games on the market employ boosts of some sort.  Fans will swear up and down that boosts of any variety are perfectly fine, as they don’t give the paying player a significant advantage.  To an extent, they’re right.  However, experience boosts enable a player to skip much of the leveling process.  Personally, I think experience boosts and the like are very telling of what the developers think of their game’s grind.  It seems to me like developers admit that the grind in their games are too long, and introduced boosts to not only “fix” this flaw, but to earn additional revenue, as well.  Unlike in the case of weapons, where saving time is only a side effect, boosts of any sort are solely there for the purpose of saving time.

If nothing else, bloated time requirements should be identified and fixed, not treated as something one can buy their way out of.  Offering boosts to paying players will create that divide I mentioned, a divide between players who can spend money to save time, and players who can’t.  Unlike the divide between weapon buyers and weapon earners, however, this divide is a lot more fundamental, and creates conditions one may actually call pay-to-win.

If developers really want to distance themselves from the “P2W” stigma, they shouldn’t need to restrict what paying members get access to, as most free-to-play games nowadays handle items in a sensible manner.  What they should do is not only remove boosts of any fashion, but also remove the want or need to use them.  Ultimately, we, as a community, need to adopt a set of standards regarding what can be considered pay-to-win and what can’t.  Maybe, in the end, my standards aren’t the way we should go.  I’d be fine with that.  I can’t say I very much like the idea of developers opening up sources of revenue that are inherently problematic and destructive.  With a set of standards, we can see the decline of these destructive elements, and maybe can finally stop using pay-to-win.

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A mad scientist who's so cool!


A mad scientist who's so cool!

One Comment:

  1. Pingback: An Update On PlanetSide 2, Is It Pay-To-Win? | Moar Powah!

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