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

Simeon_Stylites_stepping_down

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… 
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A Year in Games and Books

As 2014 comes to an end, it seems like a good time to say a few words about what I’ve played and read this year that seems notable. If nothing else, maybe it will give people ideas of what they might want to grab in the sales before they close!

Games I Played in 2014

LOTRO

As ever LOTRO is my most played video game of the year, though I played rather less this year than last. Early in the year many of us were worried about the game’s future after a round of Turbine layoffs followed not long after the news that there would be no expansion this year. I was pleasantly surprised and relieved that Turbine did deliver new content as they’d announced though.

If I played less, probably that has less to do with the game itself and more to do with me. For one thing the first couple of years of any great new thing are more exciting to me, and after that I get somewhat used to it, less absorbed and generally ready to do other things.

Chess

Another reason my LOTRO time dropped is that my interest in chess got revived. That was mostly down to happening to read a book called King’s Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World’s Most Dangerous Game. Ironically for a book that focuses on the darker sides of chess and chess players, it brought back a lot of fond memories for me.

While I’ve never stopped playing completely, it’s probably getting on for twenty years since I played at all seriously or was a member of a club. But with my revived enthusiasm and starting to sharpen up my rusty skills, I might well do that in 2015 sometime. Meantime I’m having fun playing online, and reading bits and pieces about the game again.

Hero Academy

This is a rather nice turn-based strategy game that I play on iPad. It’s entirely PVP, and has some of the flavor of MMOs (tanks, healers, debuffs, AoE effects etc) and some of the flavor of chess as well, in calculating possible moves and counter-moves.

It’s very enjoyable, and if I don’t play as much as some other games, that’s only a matter of what I have time for.

King of Dragon Pass

Another iPad game, and a unique one, so it’s rather hard to describe. Something of a cross between a full-blown fantasy novel and a turn-based resource-management strategy game. It has one of the best worlds and most interesting cultures that I’ve come across not only in a game but in any form of fiction.

Like Hero Academy I only wish I had more time to play it and explore its depths.

Others

Other games I played and enjoyed but spent even less time on include..

  • The Secret World, lots to love about this, but I haven’t got very far into it yet.

  • Guild Wars 2 (for a trial week, see also), maybe I’ll get into this in the future

  • Skyrim, Enjoyable in lots of ways, though I think I prefer games with more of a social aspect for my RPGs

SF & Fantasy I Read in 2014

I’ve read quite a few books this year. Some of the SF and Fantasy ones that stand out are:

  • The Last Policeman Trilogy – A fascinating an entertaining series set in a world that knows it’s going to be devastated by an asteroid impact in a few months time. (The three books are set IIRC six months from impact, three months from impact, and last week or two before impact.) It’s hard SF in that the asteroid and its effects are well researched and accurately portrayed, it’s also a series of mysteries and criminal investigations. Most of all it explores how people and society cope with knowledge of impending doom. For example, why is it even important to catch murderers now when everyone will be dead soon anyway?

  • The Farseer Trilogy – I wrote a review of this, in short a very fantasy good series, though it could do with some trimming!

  • The Liveship Traders Trilogy – This is a follow up to the Farseer Trilogy, though there is only one character in common, and it deals with events in another part of the world some time after the first series. If you know the Game of Thrones (GoT) series, you will find this rather like that – told from many points of views, lots of characters and story arcs, lots of themes, a good deal of politics etc. Like GoT the author probably bit off more than they could chew, but unlike GoT at least it’s finished and has a proper climax! (Though there are even more trilogies after these, but I’ve not read them, as I was sated with Robin Hobb at this point.)

  • The Game of Thrones Series – Technically the series is called A Song of Ice and Fire. After five huge books we still don’t know much about the Ice and Fire aspects of the world and probably never will! The world and the stories are fascinating, though I’m by no means convinced the series will ever be concluded successfully. Which makes it like a mystery story in which you never do get to find out whodunnit, or an epic quest story in which in which our heroes only got half way to the destination.

  • The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke – I haven’t read all the stories yet, because there are a lot of them! It’s a great book to dip into, and I read it especially in between longer novels. Reading a collection like this you do start to see various themes and patterns that repeatedly show up with the author, more than I did as a kid reading the odd Clarke book as and when I saw one in the library. There’s a nice range with comic stories, tragic stories, thought-provoking stories, very short and snappy stories, novellas etc. A good read if you’re new to Clarke or have not read him for a while.

As ever I could write a lot more, but then it would be 2015 before I got finished. Since an end of year blog post should arrive precisely when it means to, I’ll leave it there.

A Happy New Year to all!

Roundup: The Bloggy Christmas Series 1-5

Bloggy Xmas

I’ve been looking for a place where all the Bloggy Christmas posts were collected together in a nice list and easy-to-click format. There probably is such a place, but I haven’t stumbled on it, so I thought I’d make my own collection of links, with a few taster snippets from the posts together with the odd comments of my own.

Originally I planned to cover all posts to date, and then keep the list updated as new ones came out. But it’s turned out that the way I liked presenting the list, that is really going to be too long for anyone’s comfort, so I’ll try to gather around ten posts per roundup. Here goes with Dec 1st to 5th…

  • Dec 1st… Telwyn at GamingSF: Gaming and Community
    “…there is some je ne sais quoi, some mix of ingredients that online gaming brings and I think community is a central part of that… Interactions with real players can often be fleeting or negative, but they can also be very positive and memorable”

  • Dec 1st… Ikralla at Grimoires of Supremacy: Community
    “I’m not the most social of people… Without World of Warcraft, without this little blog of mine, without that behemoth that is Twitter, I don’t think I’d have met (in a manner of speaking) so many awesome people.”

  • Dec 2nd… Talarian at Gamer by Design: A Family Like No Other
    “So getting into a guild that was LGBT friendly, and active about it, was immense for me. I could be myself without having to worry about what other people think. Folks to talk to in cases when I felt I had nobody else, really.”

  • Dec 2nd… Aywren at Signus.org: Self Discovery and Personal Growth in FFXIV
    “This game was pushing me out of my comfort zone, and I wasn’t giving up. I was succeeding!…I was also learning things about the community and other players. I discovered that there were other people who were new to the dungeons, who seemed relieved to hear me announce “Hey, this is my first time.” Many times I heard “Yeah, mine too.” Or “My first try on a tank. Please be gentle.”…These people weren’t those raging leetists that I feared. In fact, I saw very little of that at all… “

  • Dec 3rd… Tremayne at Tremayne’s Law: The Faces Behind the Avatars
    “Insofar as there’s a moral to this rambling tale… think about maybe meeting up with some of the faces behind the avatars…. it’s not nearly as scary as it might seem”

  • Dec 3rd… Izlain at Me, Myself and I: A Sense of Belonging
    “Just knowing that people read my opinions and care enough to comment or write retorts on their own blogs makes me feel like I belong to something greater, and that’s been my goal for a long time.”

  • Dec 4th… Scree at The Cynic Chronicles: How Gaming led me to my Wife
    “Gaming and the communities it created for me has been an enormous personal blessing to me… It gave me my best friend… It gave me a brother-in-law… It gave me happiness…Best of all, it gave me my wife.”

  • Dec 4th… Ranni at The Flaming Bard: Community is Family
    “When I think in terms of my ‘gaming community’ I think “My PEOPLE!”. People who get me, people who make me laugh, people who take an interest in the same things I do even outside of gaming. I’m included in this wonderful bunch of geeky gamers and it feels incredible”

  • Dec 5th… Asmiroth at Leo‘s Life: An Old Soul
    “With so many games available for our attention, the odds of a single community in a single game are long gone. The bonds last across games but you still need a mechanism to share stories. Blogs are an amazing way to do that.”

If you’ve not read the posts, there is much more to each of them than is conveyed by the short snippet that I chose to give a flavor of them. So do go ahead and read them!

Looking at the collection as a whole I’m struck my how much community has meant to everyone, and the sheer number of extraordinary stories people have to tell. Seeing them all in one place brings it home to me even more than reading them individually did.

There really is something magical about true community.

Web Roundup

A roundup of some game related things I’ve been reading, listening to, and watching recently…

Turbine Layoffs and the Future of LOTRO

Contains Moderate Peril and LOTRO Players both had excellent podcasts discussing the recent Turbine layoffs and what it might mean for the future of the game.

There were also a number of interesting new blog posts on the subject:

My overall impression is that the community regards what’s happened as a very bad sign and possibly the beginning of a slide towards maintenance mode or managed decline. i.e. A scenario where Turbine / Warner Bros is looking to get as much revenue as it still can from the game while keeping costs and new investment to a minimum.

Last week’s initial reactions were shocked and pained. Ranni summed up the feelings of many I think:

There’s a sense of loss and sadness that is running deep and wide in my heart.

With some time to reflect and adjust to the news the mood is more one of looking to make the best of things. As Syp put it:

My gaming life, even my MMO gaming life, is not just LOTRO. When it goes, it goes, but I’m very happy playing it for the meantime.

New Directions for MMOs

Brian “Psychochild” Green gave a fascinating interview discussing the history of MMOs, the typical lifecycle of game genres, and ideas for taking MMOs into new directions.

Given that MMOs tend to stay relevant much longer than single-player games, we’ve seen a slower evolution of gameplay than FPSes have. But in late EQ and the middle years of WoW, we saw a focus on raiding that was beyond the reach of many people. Now we see MMOs that focus so much on the single-player aspect of the game that the social aspects don’t feel quite so important. So MMOs have lost some of their appeal, and we need to find the next “big thing” to get people excited again.

The interview puts recent happenings at Turbine into a much bigger context.

Meanwhile Braxwolf tried to put forward a case for MMO developers to make games for kids. It’s not something I know a lot about, but I believe Club Penguin is huge and was at one time a massive money maker, so he may be on to something. On the other hand maybe Disney have that market cornered.

Steam Tags and Internet Behavior

Recently Steam introduced a system that lets people tag games. This caused a bit of a kerfuffle as some maintained this was an obviously bad idea that due to the bad behavior of people online would produce a complete train wreck of nasty and inappropriate tagging. I’m more inclined to agree with Wilhelm that the results are not so bad really.

Bad behavior was a wider theme, with the Moderate Peril podcast also covering the dark side of internet fame. A common underlying issue here is that a small minority that behaves badly tends to be much more visible than the large majority that behave well. With tagging the majority may prevail most of the time as most people will probably do some tagging and do it sensibly. With social media feedback things may not go so well as the vast majority who are happy don’t feel the need to say anything about it, while a a small minority who are very displeased are moved to vent their complaints.

I’m not sure what can be done about that, but it does seem to a significant problem for people that have even a modest online following. A start might be to step up how often we show our appreciation to people who produce things we enjoy.

Into the West – Peter Hollens

So far this hasn’t been the cheeriest of posts. Let’s finish with a good song that I came across this week. A new version of “Into the West” …

Reading Roundup

If you like what I write, you’ll probably like what I read too.

Plus in my reflections on the NBI I noted that oftentimes I don’t need to post about a topic that’s been on my mind because someone else has done it well already. If I do have anything extra to add, it often makes sense to just add that as a comment to the other person’s post.

Which gave me the idea of doing a roundup of posts and conversations that I’ve found particularly interesting this week.

So here goes…

News and Chat

Thirty thousand Orcs and you

At last we got a better look at LOTRO’s upcoming Big Battles system. This was still a guided tour, and only covered a small piece of the overall Big Battles content, but it fleshed out what we can expect much better than anything we’ve heard so far. And it sounds promising!

There’s a nice discussion of this on LOTRO Players too.


Bio Break’s 27 most anticipated games

I’m not one to follow all gaming news avidly, so this was an intriguing list for me. It prompted me to go read a bit about WildStar, and watch some of the dev videos

Poll: How many MMOs are you playing right now?

Interesting to hear what people play, and how many things they play at once. I’ve been thinking about how many it makes sense for me to play and still be able to do them justice. I might write a post about that sometime.

The Newbie Blogger Initiative

NBI Logo

As the NBI came to an end, there was a flurry of last-minute advice and people taking a look back at the month. On top of that, while I was thinking about the NBI, I went and read a bunch of earlier posts. Here’s a selection of the best:

  • NBI: Write Your Worst Article – Some interesting advice on overcoming writer’s block, accepting that you have good and bad days, and avoiding excessive perfectionism.
  • Squeaking in with advice at the last minute! – I’m not sure if it’s all technically advice as such, more of it is funny and encouraging personal tales! Either way it’s a good and heartening read.
  • NBI: It’s almost over – Four bits of specific advice, which I have started to put into practice. Plus nice shout outs for three blogs, including this one.
  • NBI: Class of 2013 – A handy listing of all the blogs to come out of NBI 2013. Which is not otherwise that easy to find!
  • NBI 2013 – Aftermath Eternal and NBI Aftermath look back at the NBI and look forward to the future. Nice thought about what the dragon is sitting on Joseph!

Food for Thought

The Awkwardness of Games is thoughtful piece on whether games can be art, and comparing them to other forms like books and films.

I read a bunch of posts about what makes MMOs fun, and whether they once used to be much better than they are now. The posts aren’t all new by any means, but I read them all this week out of interest in the topic.

  • MMO Future: Understanding old memories – an interesting take from someone that thinks MMOs really used to be much better, with a lot of good discussion in the comments, even if some of it got a bit tetchy.
  • Skills and flow in MMORPGs is related in that it discusses how challenge relates to fun, and how players can inadvertently spoil their own fun.
  • Is MMO Combat Really That Bad? is a post from someone who likes the challenge of PVP and is happier with combat now than it used to be in past.