The Great Pay-to-Win Debate: Roundup & Commentary


When I was pretty young I happened to come across the word “Stylite” in the dictionary. Mind-bogglingly enough a stylite is a member of an early Christian sect which used to live on top of pillars. I’m afraid my teen self couldn’t stop laughing for quite some time, and even now the concept brings a chuckle.

What does all this have to do with MMOs, I hear you ask? Well… it goes to show that people find worth, meaning and virtue in some rather strange activities. Much as people find meaning and worth in some rather strange MMO activities1, and consequently get excited about whether their exertions are devalued by the possibility of others by-passing them and reaching similar goals via the mere spending of money.

It is therefore in a spirit of religious tolerance and anthropological curiosity that we turn our minds to the great pay-to-win debate…

The Great Debate, Part 284

If you’ve been around the MMO blogosphere a while, you have seen this topic come around a number of times.

The current flurry of posts seems to have been kicked off by a piece on Massively OP, The Soapbox: Can MMOs eradicate pay-to-win?. This is a sample…

a quick perusal of the ArcheAge forums invariably turns up posts by thirtysomething I’m-too-busy-to-play types admonishing their anti-P2W counterparts for daring to suggest that games should be played through instead of paid through.

From my perspective, paying for your gear or any sort of character advancement is an extremely short-sighted way of approaching MMORPGs. But I’m seeing it accepted more and more often in games, on forums, and in the blogosphere, and it boggles my mind to see just how many people are falling in line.

Personally I have a good deal of sympathy with the idea (not a new one, but repeated in that post) that if people are willing to pay good money to not have to play some part of your game, that’s a pretty sad indictment of that part of the game. As I’ve said before, too many games contain too many elements that don’t really deserve to be called play at all.

Of course, not everyone likes the same things…I guess it’s understandable that not everyone wants to take part in every aspect of an MMO, and maybe considerate of the game designers to not force that on people. This is something that MMO Gypsy makes much of in Today in P2W: Gamers are getting older and that’s okay!

… obviously there are many ways to find pleasure in games. I’ve played MMOs in the past just to dress up my characters and yes, buy exclusive clothes from an ingame store. Likewise, P2W-players do very much also play the games they invest in, duh – it’s not like they’re just paying money and then never spend any time on actual game play. They just play differently.

Sadly though, the kind of things that come up in the context of the pay-to-win discussion are typically boring grinds that pretty much no-one actually likes, and which nevertheless make up 80-90% of the time spent “playing” in MMOs.

Yes, if people mostly want to skip the crappy 80% of your game to get to the enjoyable 20%, this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of what a great game you made.

What is winning anyway?

Liores (who coined the “Part 284” line I used above) has a lot of interesting things to say in her post The Eternal Payment Model Debate: part 284. A notable theme is the question of what “winning” means in MMOs anyway…

MMOs don’t have a consistent win condition. It varies wildly from game to game, and from player to player. Perhaps you feel that you’ve won an MMO by completing the hardest group content, or maybe you’re an ArcheAge player and you “win” by being dominant in PvP.

I like collecting cosmetic items, and I evaluate my gaming success by getting the “best” hats and mounts and such.

A similar point is made in a somewhat different way by Tobold

I think this is a case of everybody having a different win condition in a MMORPG, and many people wanting that *their* personal win condition doesn’t involve money.

This raises the question of why exactly do people care whether their own “win condition” involves money. There seem to be two separate aspects here…

  1. No-one can “win” without paying. e.g. You can’t get the best cosmetic hat or the finest PVP gear without paying, because it’s only in the cash shop.

  2. While you can “win” without paying, other people can get the same thing through purchases. e.g. The best gear drops in raids, but can also be bought.

Some people seem to object to (1) and I’m finding it hard to understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they think something that seems essential to them should be included with the sub or the box price or whatever, and it’s not fair to charge extra for it. Maybe they’re the type of people for whom the game doesn’t even really start until you’re geared up for endgame raiding.

Many more people seem to object to (2) though. Most of the Massively OP post is about skipping grind after all, and you do hear a lot of objections to insta-level items and suchlike. What is going on there? I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine various types of feelings that people might have…

  • “It’s not fair that I had to work so hard for X, when someone else can just buy it”

  • “My sense of achievement in getting X is ruined by the fact there’s an easy alternative way to get it”

  • “The kudos that should be mine because of what I’ve achieved is undermined because other people have all the outward appearances of what I have earned without any real achievement on their part”

My guess is that a lot of this stuff is wrapped up with people’s self-image and the qualities that they value in themselves. Some people seem to see virtue and character in manfully doing the grind, as the Stylites saw virtue in living on top of a pillar.

Personally I thoroughly dislike excessive grinding, and I can’t see a lot to be proud about for having done it. But neither am I willing to pay big bucks to avoid it. Bad news game designers: I have a ton of other fun and interesting things I can do with my time instead of playing your game if those are going to be the only options you offer me.

  1. Collecting hats? Hmm… 

9 thoughts on “The Great Pay-to-Win Debate: Roundup & Commentary

  1. Has anyone ever designed a game that is over the top P2W?
    Imagine in battle, your character is at half health and a suddenly a pop up window appears:

    ‘Give generously and the rewards will be generous…for 1 “RW cash unit” the god DOSH will appear and heal you, for 2 “RW cash unit”‘ and you will summon DULLAH who as well as providing a attack boost will slap the face of the foes for minor damage, for 4 “RW cash unit” SPONDULIX who will heal completely and do MAJOR damage to your enemies and for 10 “RW cash unit” STAVROS screaming ‘LOADS a MONEY’ will appear and slap all enemies to death with wads of money, giving you an INSTAWIN!’

    Sounds fantastic….

    • OOPS getting my Harry Enfield (British comedian) characters confused: Stavros was the Kebab seller, Loadsamoney, was was the name of the character and his catch phrase!
      …to er, is to be human.

      • I know that feeling!

        Sometimes I wish there was a button I could click on posts to say “Hey, very very interesting post, but no way I can write all my thoughts in a sensible amount of time. Later, maybe.”

  2. “Yes, if people mostly want to skip the crappy 80% of your game to get to the enjoyable 20%, this is not exactly a ringing endorsement of what a great game you made.”

    I do wonder how true that example is you gave 😉 I mean, 80% is high sure, got any examples of that for actual p2w MMOs or other titles? Because we can’t work with anecdotal examples like that. I somehow doubt that successful p2w titles are titles where players skip 80% of content; the big whales in WoT for instance are highly competitive players at the same time, who play more in sheer gametime than most.

    So yeah, be careful about that one. Also, I don’t think the above rule actually applies to determine a game’s ‘quality’; take any game, any great title even WoW, you’d find a LOT of players happy to pay their way around stuff. Sure, again not 80% which is an imaginary number, but basically no matter how good a game is, someone would happily skip parts of it. The reason for that is: playstyles. Different playstyles are different.

    In the end, you highlight the biggest issue I have with this entire debate:
    “It’s not fair that I had to work so hard for X, when someone else can just buy it”

    …..and the other bullets, right there. The moment people realize that we can have ‘absolute fun’ (or ‘good’) instead of relative one, the world would be a better place with a lot less problems altogether. It is sad and it is bizarre that we carry mindsets such as this into social games especially. Roger Edwards commented in my topic how mind-boggling it is that we should have meritocratic debates over MMOs. I second that notion and wonder, who is really more social on the two sides of this debate? I’ll sleep on it. 😉

    • I was thinking of grindy themepark MMOs, and you’re right that 80% is a rhetorical touch on my part rather than an actual stat. (If you want to read my rantings on the subject of stats, you gotta read my other blog!)

      I personally probably wouldn’t want to skip 80% of most games on a first play through, but I’d often be willing to skip 80-95% on alts. However when I think of how much of a game can consist of grinds (umpteen kill 10 rats quests, crafting grinds, gear grinds, repeatedly running stuff for drops etc etc) it’s a pretty darn large percentage of many games that many people would happily skip.

      I don’t play MOBAs, but I’d guess a lot of the attraction of them is that if that’s the kind of thing you like to do in a game, you can get right down to it without faffing around with a lot of other stuff first.

    • Btw, re “absolute fun”… Maybe I should underline that I think it’s partly the fact that people are able to skip not-fun activities that irks those that don’t or can’t avoid them. It’s like you might resent that your sibling who never does any chores still gets given better presents that you do.

      The thing about living on top of a pillar, no one would consider it virtuous if it was fun or easy. It’s kind of the point of it that it’s uncomfortable and hard to do.

      You can be pleased with yourself for doing unpleasant but supposedly worthwhile things, whilst resenting that others don’t have to do them and yet don’t suffer any consequences for their “slacking”.

  3. Oh wow, I’d never heard of the term Stylite before, how unusual.

    We’re all drawn to certain games for different reasons and so I don’t have a problem with people playing the way they want – even paying -, so long as it doesn’t infringe on my own enjoyment of the experience. I do think it partly depends on the type of experience the game is trying to create. There are certain types of games where it could be considered unfair or not what the experience is about. For achiever types I get why it would bother them in certain circumstances. Some games are better for allowing us to cater it to ourselves and others I’m glad the developer made me experience it the way they intended.

    I personally wouldn’t pay to skip parts as I want to get my full moneys worth. If I found myself considering that I’d start to question if I’d bought the right game for me or if my time would be better invested elsewhere.

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