Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

What Is Pay to Win?

Tobold wrote the other day about the Pay to Win Scale. And while he handily skewers the use of P2W as an excuse, I kind of wonder where the idea comes from in the context of PvE centric MMOs. I conducted a survey about cash shops a while back that included the option of high-level items, and most respondents wouldn't just not buy the stuff, they wouldn't play games that included such items.

Tobold's Epitome of P2W
In a PvP scenario, this attitude might make slightly more sense, but it runs up against the time vs. money vs. skill conundrum. As Tobold pointed out, players of sufficient skill often have little need for P2W items. And people with P2W items often don't have the skills they need to actually prevail.

In a PvE scenario, particularly in the case of persistent-world MMOs, what is the win condition? Complete Best-in-Slot gear? That will be reset with the next patch, if not the next expansion. Bragging rights? Only a select few even care what you're wearing. All the gear in the world won't help you learn not to stand in the poo.

At the time I conducted that poll, I agreed with the sentiment against such things. But now, I've decided I don't really care. A game that's won is a game that's over. Since MMOs are never really "over" (even if they get shut down), then they can't really be won. Therefore, why should I care if someone wants to spend their money on some awesome sword of awesomeness. How does it affect the way I play my game?

Did you earn that helmet, or buy it?
Without a true win condition, how can you have Pay-to-Win? It is more often than not pay-to-catch-up. Take shortcuts like an instant high-level character so people can play with their friends or skip content that caused them to leave the game before. Does it hurt you if someone else didn't "pay their dues"? Does it somehow cheapen the time you've spent getting there? Psst, I have a secret: You're not a world-class MMO player. If you are, I am shocked that you're reading this blog, and I'm guessing you don't really care if someone bought themselves an über character. Because, frankly, they'll never be as good a player as you.
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  1. I'm with you on this. I used to think the 'win' condition in an MMO was beating end game PVE content. But, really, even with that as the condition, unless you have the chops, no amount of gear is going to help. And example of this in my mind is the Hel fight in Niflheim in TSW. She doesn't hit particularly hard and doesn't really have that much health as bosses go, but unless you learn to stand where you're supposed to and can position yourself to get to a pillar in time for the next snow storm, no amount of uber gear, payed for or earned, is going to help you beat her.

    I see high level gear in a shop as a chance for people who don't have the time, but do have the money, to invest so that they can experience the content they want to.

    Would I buy such gear? Probably not; I have a good deal of time to invest, generally.

    1. TSW is a prime example of experience and skill far outweighing gear. Obviously some fights will be harder or even impossible to beat without the proper gear. But that's really pay(or play)-to-participate. Gear just gets you in the door, so to speak.

      I doubt I would buy such gear, either. But I have purchased XP boosts on occasion. Is there really a difference?

  2. Tobold did a "What is P2W?" post months ago that I more or less agreed with. With the exception of a PvP match, there's is no "THIS IS THE WIN CONDITION" in any MMO. It's all the player's own personal competition. And with whom is he competing? I'd wager there's a fairly high chance that the "competition" is only a personal goal of his (must.collect.every.mount) and his "competitors" have no clue there's a competition occurring. Therefore, per my own personal definition, if there wasn't a real competition, there was nothing "won" except in that one player's mind.

    But what all can we do in MMOs to create an artificial Personal Win Condition? An awful lot of players only like to level. XP bar goes away, they're "done" and make a new character. That could be their "win condition." Maybe they set a personal goal of leveling one of every class / race? Maybe they wanted every achievement or title? Maybe they wanted to be the wealthiest player? Own every cosmetic costume? Every pet? Maybe he's the type into "competitive" things like Server Firsts? Being in the Top Guild?

    Here's the catch: for every time anyone says "oh blahblah game is P2W" can they actually name what is for sale that lets anyone "win" at the game? Doubtful. With the exception of PvP-only games (usually shooters, and usually not MMOs just normal shooters with item shops attached (another pet peeve of mine when players behave as if "item shop = MMO" when the game clearly isn't)) where you can actually buy a weapon that's better than you could get otherwise. But you still have to have the player skills to USE that weapon and keep yourself alive while doing it. No amount of money will improve one's skills.

    1. "No amount of money will improve one's skills."
      Exactly. And the Personal Win Condition has little impact on someone else's win condition unless they are in a known competition with you, like two buddies racing to max-level.

      Tobold mentioned his previous post. I didn't take the time to go back and read it, figuring he had come to the same conclusion I did.

  3. The problem is when you have two basically equally skilled people or groups in a competition and one of them pays for an advantage. In WoW PvE, this is raiding because you're competing for rankings and thus recruits. The best recruits will go to the best progressed guilds.

    So if your guild and my guild are of roughly equal skill and your guild pays extra for the equivalent of a 10% character power increase, suddenly your guild is going to progress faster than mine and draw the recruits that we wanted.

    Which might very well lead to my guild collapsing if we can't get the players we need.

    THAT'S how someone being able to buy instant BiS gear or something will affect me.

    1. I find it fascinating what people find fair and unfair. Of course, most of the time it seems that the developer making money is seen as "unfair" for some reason. There are plenty of factors that come into play that cost money beyond buying stuff in a game: a more powerful computer, a better internet connection, having enough financial support to not have to worry about a job, etc. And, this isn't even considering the time required to be poured into a game, something that is unfair to people with less time available who still want to do things like participate in raids.

      We accept that the person who has fiber internet has an acceptable advantage, but that same person buying in-game power is seen as a horrible violation of the "fairness" of the game. Not that I'm advocating selling "best in slot" gear, but I find the way people approach this to be very interesting.

    2. First, the computer/internet/etc stuff is not something that can be measured in-game. So it's not that we accept that the person with better internet has an advantage, it's that there's no way to judge it accurately, let alone try to equalize things. All we can do is try to do is keep things equal within the game itself.

      Second, my guild (which raids two nights a week) isn't competing against guilds raiding 4+ nights a week. We're competing with OTHER two nights a week guilds for our recruits. So the time available isn't important in this case because a person who wants to raid with us won't be interested in the four night a week guild anyway.

    3. If your guild is that fragile, you've got bigger problems that someone buying high-level gear instead of rolling for it.

    4. What is that supposed to mean?

      We have a roster of about 12-13 people on our raiding roster. It's definitely not unusual for one person to need to quit for schedule reasons and someone else might need to go out of town for a business trip. That means we need to be able to replace the former person (who flat out had to quit) to have the team we need for progression (since we're now down to 10-11 people and could still have random absences).

      If we spend months trying to recruit someone but can't because we're behind other equally skilled guilds who bought power boosts for their members, people will get frustrated and go elsewhere.

      That's the reality for EVERY guild in the top, say, 3000 guilds -- most likely top 5000-10000. If progression stalls, people will go find another guild. That's how it works.

      If anything, my guild is far LESS fragile because we specifically maintain a larger bench than most (12-13 versus 10-11) BECAUSE we want to be able to avoid crises like that.

    5. The top 3000 guilds are not nearly the bulk of Blizzard's customers, especially if they have only a dozen or so members apiece. If they were, there would be no need for LFR and a dozen other conveniences currently available. Since you've already qualified your "top guild" with a "that only raid twice a week," I'm sure you'd have no problem adding "and that doesn't have any cash shop items."

      We are clearly on different ends of the player spectrum, since even if I were inclined to raid again, I would not apply to a guild as if it were a job, only to warm a bench hoping one of the regulars decides not to show up. The kind of guild you are in does not sound like the kind of guild I would ever want to be associated with. Nor do I care whether someone buys some boost that you think throws off whatever balance of power you think you have in your tier of raid guilds.

    6. Sure, people progressing seriously in heroics make up less than 5% of the player population -- but half (maybe more) of the population is also not even max level. Figures I've indicate something like 5% in heroics, 10-15% in normals, and 30-40% in LFR. Might find this interesting: http://www.mmo-champion.com/content/3678-Armory-Stats-Heroic-SoO-Progression-Blizzard-CS-Callback-Blue-Tweets-Fan-Art

      And yes, we potentially WOULD have a problem adding that because we'd be artificially limiting ourselves. We already have to chase down every upgrade we can get and farm stuff outside of raids. If we're talking about potentially saving like 30 hours of boss attempts over the course of a tier by paying $20 each or something, we'd feel very much obliged to do it -- it's the whole steroids problem. If steroids were made legal you'd bet that every pro athlete would be using them to gain an advantage.

      "I would not apply to a guild as if it were a job, only to warm a bench hoping one of the regulars decides not to show up."

      Two things I would like to mention here:

      1, people wanting to join our guild are signing up to wipe on bosses in high end situations for 8 hours a week. We spend hours poring over logs trying to figure out mistakes and fix them on our own outside of raids. A one time investment of spending 30 minutes filling out an application and spending another 15-30 talking on Mumble is trivial.

      2, we don't HAVE a bench. All of our raiders rotate through on fights and everyone participates 75-85% of the time.

      Your original comment in your post was

      "Therefore, why should I care if someone wants to spend their money on some awesome sword of awesomeness. How does it affect the way I play my game?"

      Are you saying that as long as it doesn't affect YOU personally, you don't care what companies do? I figured that was a general question indicating you couldn't think of a way it would affect someone, not just centered on you specifically. Perhaps I misread it.

    7. Well, you can measure internet connection. Ask for ping information, note how many times the person complains about lag, or how often they lose connection.

      As for time, consider which applicant you would rather have in your 2-nights-per-week raiding guild:

      1. A raid-ready character who gets along with everyone else in your guild.

      2. That same character who has a stable full of crafting alts and is willing to bring flasks and food for everyone to each raid.

      Now, which one takes more time in the game to accomplish? And, how is this different than the person able to, for example, buy gold and use the gold buy flasks and food for everyone?

      The main difference is that we accept that the person who spends more time in the game is "legitimate", even though it is entirely unfair to people who cannot play as much.

    8. So everyone is going to enter their internet connection WoWProgress? We're going to average the latency of raid teams to use in rankings as a handicap? Etc? That would be insane to try to do and ripe for severe exploitation to boot.

      For your question: we don't care. We already provide flasks/food/enchants/gems/potions/etc from the guild bank and we have all the professions we need. We'd never even ASK about the crafting alts and flasks and whatever, nor would we care if they mentioned it.

  4. The problem with "P2W" isn't that it actually lets anyone win. It's that it runs the risk of creating an environment in which it becomes difficult or even impossible to play the game at all without repeated input from your credit card.

    If it's a matter of some people choosing to pay extra to bypass content that others prefer to play through then I have no problem with it. If the game cannot be played entertainingly at a run-of-the-mill, average level without drip-feeding cash into the cash shop then that's what I would call untenable. A game that has that model and is also able to attract sufficient players prepared to keep paying to keep it in business is "pay to win".

    Allods was accused of that in the first few months after launch and SynCaine always references Atlantica Online (I think that's the name...) as a textbook example.

    1. "...impossible to play the game at all without repeated input from your credit card." << You just described subscription games.

  5. "Pay to Win" isn't really a tangible thing, it's a mental shortcut. It's a way for people to say, "I don't like this game, and it has something to do with the business model." This could be that they have a knee-jerk negative reaction to in-game purchases, or that they like the game but feel they have to pay too much to accomplish whatever goals they might set. This might be something as simple as "get to max level in what I consider a reasonable amount of time" or "be part of one of the best raiding guilds in the game."

    One problem is that people are quick to jump on imagined problems. As Bhagpuss says above, "[Pay-to-win] runs the risk of...." Not that it is guaranteed to cause a problem, but that there's a risk. Of course, players ignore the risks that subscription models run, because we've accepted and internalized those risks. Fewer people complain, "subscriptions run the risk of better rewarding people who have more time to play" because we've accepted that risk even though it causes inequality between two players of equal skill as much if not more than any cash shop purchases could.

    1. See my response to your above comment about the time "problem."

    2. Thank you for pointing out the time inequalities inherent in the flat-fee subscription model that so many bloggers seem to champion. As someone with a job and a family and interests outside of the game world, my time to play is limited. A top-end player may be online the equivalent of a part-time or even full-time job—to say nothing of actual professional gamers who are making money by playing.

      Given Blizzard's official policy allowing the sale of accounts, Balkoth's guild has no way of really knowing whether a player they're recruiting leveled her way up or bought his way into endgame. I'd wager it would become apparent fairly quickly in the middle of a raid, though. The latest offerings by Blizzard and SOE just cut out the middle-man.

    3. What official policy allowing the sale of accounts? That's against Blizzard's rules since Blizzard rules clearly say BLIZZARD owns the characters, not us.

      I can also safely say we've NEVER had a person apply to our guild who bought their account. The signs are almost always very obvious -- and you'd have to really really know your class to get past our application process: http://despotism.enjin.com/forum/m/1283719/viewthread/505100-how-to-apply

      We have a written application, review of logged raids, and a Mumble interview. Theoretically if you played a rogue in the past at a very high end and have kept current on theorycraft you might be able to buy a rogue and apply but it would be awfully difficult to do so.

      Something like 90-95% of our applicants pass the trial because we know how good they are in advance.

    4. Read your EULA, It's been that way for years.
      "3. Ownership
      A. ...
      B. You may permanently transfer all of your rights and obligations under the License Agreement to another only by physically transferring the original media (e.g., the CD-ROM or DVD you purchased), all original packaging, and all Manuals or other documentation distributed with the Game; provided, however, that you permanently delete all copies and installations of the Game in your possession or control, and that the recipient agrees to the terms of this License Agreement. The transferor (i.e., you), and not Blizzard, agrees to be solely responsible for any taxes, fees, charges, duties, withholdings, assessments, and the like, together with any interest, penalties, and additions imposed in connection with such transfer. You acknowledge and agree that you have no interest, monetary or otherwise, in any feature or content contained in the Game."
      I, of course, have no intention of applying to any guild that treats the process like a job, up to and including a written application. We've sort of had this discussion before. All you really safely say is that you haven't had person who recently purchased an account apply to your guild.

    5. Maybe you should read the Terms of Use?


      "8. Ownership/Selling of the Account or Virtual Items.
      Blizzard does not recognize the transfer of World of Warcraft Accounts or BNET Accounts (each an “Account”). You may not purchase, sell, gift or trade any Account, or offer to purchase, sell, gift or trade any Account, and any such attempt shall be null and void. Blizzard owns, has licensed, or otherwise has rights to all of the content that appears in the Game. You agree that you have no right or title in or to any such content, including without limitation the virtual goods or currency appearing or originating in the Game, or any other attributes associated with any Account. Blizzard does not recognize any purported transfers of virtual property executed outside of the Game, or the purported sale, gift or trade in the “real world” of anything that appears or originates in the Game. Accordingly, you may not sell in-game items or currency for “real” money, or exchange those items or currency for value outside of the Game."


      Seems PRETTY clear to me. No account selling or transferring.


      "I, of course, have no intention of applying to any guild that treats the process like a job, up to and including a written application."

      Sure, and that's clearly your choice.

      But that doesn't change the fact that selling power boosts for money would have a dramatic and negative effect on guilds in my "tier" of the game, which was the whole point of this blog post, no? That P2W didn't have negative effects for people?

      I play in an environment where being, say, 3% better is a very big deal. You don't. And that's perfectly fine and I get that not everyone (hell, most people) don't want to play this way...but it is rather irritating when people then try to claim something doesn't affect us when it in fact does.

    6. Explain to to how you can legitimately "permanently transfer all of your rights and obligations under the License Agreement" without "purchas[ing], sell[ing], gift[ing] or trad[ing]" the Account. The whole thing is CYA legal doublespeak.

    7. My guess is that it might have had something to do with the original physical packaging or a minor moving characters from their guardian's account to their own.

      I DO know that Blizzard 100% does not recognize account sales/transfers/gifting. If you sold me your account today and then four years later called Blizzard and provided documentation showing you signed up for the account originally, they would reset passwords/emails/etc to get it back to you -- because some stuff you cannot change about the account (the name in particular, I believe).


  6. "Does it somehow cheapen the time you've spent getting there?"
    Not at all. My many alts would seem to indicate that the time I spent there was not merely a means to an end, but an enjoyable process unto itself. I wonder if these P2W features weaken that, increasing the perception that the pre-end game processes are just barriers rather than something to enjoy. It has been my own experience that I really hate leveling when I'm trying to get to a distant level, but if I'm aiming for two more levels, or just enjoying the ride, then it is a great deal of fun. It is strange to me that a company would imagine selling something that skips fun, even stranger that anyone would buy it.

    1. I'm not sure I will go back to WoW, when Warlords comes out, but if I do I will welcome the 90 character. I quit during the Cataclysm era because I found it unfun. A very brief stint in MoP did not change that opinion, but then I was on a new, low-level, character. If WoD promises to be something different I will give it a try. I just started playing EQ2 and currently have no intention of getting a level-85 by other than the traditional means. Like you, I enjoy the questing game.

      But I am not arrogant enough to think I am more than one guy with a blog. The way I want to experience a game is not the same way most others seem to. There are people out there thoroughly convinced that the game doesn't even start until endgame. And more power to 'em.

  7. Pay to win is what I feel others can't have by spending real money and if this happens I stop playing..I am bored of everyone's opinion about what I should consider pay to win and what not(I am not referring to you specifically, but on various forums, discussions I took part over the last year/months).

    1. I certainly hope your "I" is also not specific, because if it is, you seem to be trying to impose your definition of P2W on others at the same you complain about others doing the same to you. Personally, I am not arguing about what should be considered P2W, but that the idea of "win" itself is incompatible with a persistent-world MMORPG. Therefore, P2W is meaningless.

  8. "Pay to Win" probably is not the best term that could have been invented for the phenomenon. But now it's the term we're stuck with, and we just have to remember not to take the "win" part too literally.

    In this kind of situation people who are good at math and maybe not as adept at human relations stuff go into logic like "I will now formulate a precise definition of Pay-to-Win... Scenario X does not fit my definition... Ergo it is not P2W.... Therefore no-one should be upset about anything.... QED"

    The people who are good at human relations go: "People are upset... I don't understand why they are upset... Let me listen carefully to what they are saying and see if I can maybe figure out what they're really upset about..."

    I don't know what exactly people are upset about, I haven't looked into it that much. But I suspect for a lot of them it needn't necessarily have to do with either paying or winning exactly.

    1. It may already be apparent that I find myself less and less empathetic to complainants of so-called pay-to-win items. Far from defining P2W in specific terms, I am saying that it does not exist.

      As is usually the case, the people who feel they have something to lose get the most emotional about the *possible*. If there were actually something to lose, they might have a case. But I remain unconvinced, because they are in essence trying to dictate to others how the game should be played. The availability of conveniences doesn't mean that the individual players have to avail themselves of said conveniences.

      For over a year before I stopped playing WoW, I refused to participate in LFG because of the toxic experiences I found there. But it's a convenience; and if someone wants to use it, who am I to stop them? If someone wants to buy XP boosts or max-level characters whole cloth, who am I to say they should slog through 85 or 90 levels of what for them is an unpleasant chore, just so they can do what they really want to do in the game? Their play does not affect mine.

      "But I suspect for a lot of them it needn't necessarily have to do with either paying or winning exactly." I suspect that if it's not one of those two things, then it's probably a simple case of 'You're playing the game wrong.'

    2. BTW, as you may have noticed, I took your advice and put the disclaimer at the bottom of the post. I works better there, and I added the Creative Commons info besides.

  9. I have no difficulty identifying win conditions, but I also find it interesting that these conditions are very often unique to each player. I'm the kind of player that enjoys achievements and their rewards, things that many players have no interest in.

    I would say that I both enjoyed the time spent getting those achievements and also would not want to be able to get those same rewards from the game store. The two are not mutually exclusive.

    I'm not in competition with anyone, particularly. Everyone plays the game differently and has different things that they value. Just I have no aspirations for the latest PvP gear, neither would I expect everyone to yearn for my reputation standing with a particular faction. I would, however, grant a certain respect to someone who both earned and chose to display a "Guardian of Cenarius" title. I wouldn't want that to be a random drop in a cartel pack.

    I don't think the concept of success is in any way incompatible with a persistent MMO. I just find that there are so many different definitions of success that P2W must be a highly personal determination, not something that can be hurled as a general insult.

    1. A few years ago I heard a lot of disparaging remarks about the "of the Shattered Sun" title made available by "donating" 1000g to the cause of the Shattered Sun. Such comments ignored the fact the one had to do enough dailies and/or Sunwell dungeons to reach Exalted, and then have worked at enough other game activities to accumulate 1000g that one had nothing better to spend on than said title. And that didn't even involve real money, other than the subscription cost involved in all that /played. Full disclosure, I never had 1000g at one time that I can remember in WoW.

      A highly individualized win condition is just as subjective as the definition of P2W that would counter it. As was pointed out elsewhere, for a pet or mount collector (gotta have 'em all!), P2W has been in place for WoW for years. But if you aren't a collector, you probably don't care.

      With so many different individualized definitions of success and P2W applied to an MMO, both terms become meaningless.

    2. I don't think the term becomes meaningless, just applied at a finer scale.

      I worry that we're in danger of setting up a straw man: because people recklessly disparage entire games with the term P2W, we should therefore dismiss any concern that players with a particular play style raise when pieces of the game they like are diminished in importance.

      That's what I think is really behind the cry of P2W. The awareness that the game is trivializing something I like to do.

      Yes, I think we could have a useful discussion about whether the 6 mounts in the Blizzard store constitute pay to win for collectors in the face of the 400+ mounts available at some point or other in the game.

      I would say not, at this point. But if I look at LotRO where there are far more mounts in the store than available in game, I think you could have a major case.

      On one hand, that doesn't mean that I point at LotRO and label the entire game pay to win. On the other, if I enjoy the challenge of mount collecting I would be appropriately warned by someone who told me how that game did things.