BLOG: Paying For It – Ruminations on The Pay To Win Conundrum

PayToWin  It is interesting how we videogame designers feel pay to win is a bad thing, when the entire world around us is literally running in that paradigm. Money gives people critical advantage in the game of life from the best schools, the best cars, the best medical care, all the way to the best golf clubs, the fastest running shoes, or the biggest military. Even our professional sports are dominated by the owners who have the deepest pockets. Money makes a HUGE difference in the Win/Lose possibility space. Our entire ‘civilized’ world runs on a Pay To Win basis.

Note that the game of life allows some skilled players a chance at success, highly visible examples being one William Jefferson Clinton, who went from being raised by a penniless single mom in an Arkansas trailer park to becoming POTUS, and J.K. Rowling who is now the wealthiest author in the world. There are others, but they are exceptions to the rule. So that is our ‘normal’ reality.

From the first days, videogames have not been magically outside the insidious influence of money on success either. What about the old arcade machines? Completely fair fields of play? Only for kids with all the quarters and time they needed to become masters. Fast forward to now. How about those with the $8,000+ desktop uber gaming computers and fibre optic networks, but consider THAT money based advantage to somehow be fair to those with minimum spec machines?  Classic old school gamers seem to accept these advantages, but definitely do not like the new ones that are part of the Freemium world.

Per my own subjective observations, the Pay To Win elements have been introduced as part of the evolution of game revenue streams evolving from single fee purchase of a discrete product, to an ongoing game ‘service’. The key parts of the service (as it relates to this discussion) are the Pay As You Go aka Freemium, which has either replaced or is in addition to the up front purchase. There are a few different categories of goods and services a game publisher can provide, such as Convenience and Social Trophies like cool outfits and pets. But the 800 lb gorilla are PTW Items, bought with real money, that give a player Gameplay Advantage. This doesn’t matter much in single player games, we have offered players cheat codes for decades now. But it makes a HUGE difference in games that pit players vs players. Which brings this back to the original question of “Why does the Pay To Win bother us?”.

Are OUR games meant to be an oasis from reality? A pure place where merit is earned by gameplay only? Why do we feel this way? As game developers, we depend on our games to provide us with a living, why are we so averse to allowing the influence of money into our game spaces? Is Pay To Win an element that players are generally accepting of, with the resistance coming from idealist game designers? Will the ‘next’ generation of game designers feel the same way, or will they accept it as a normal design consideration?

My own opinion is fairly straightforward. As a professional, I accept the challenge of designing within the business constraints for revenue generation, whether it be single purchase or Freemium. But in order to be an ethical business, the game publisher needs to ensure the player is notified, up front, how the ‘rules of success’ work. I personally feel no pity for a player who complains about Pay To Win in a game that publicly brands itself as such, anymore than I support people who complain about noise after moving next to an airport. But also the responsibility, even if it is purely a moral obligation, is to the game provider to ensure players know what they are getting into. Nothing turns me into a furious gamers like a game that lied to me. Unethical game publishers could, in the past, get away with deceptive practices because of the old up front purchase paradigm. With the new ‘ongoing service’ approach, game providers would do well to nurture an honest and respectful relationship with their players.

The Internet, Facebook, Mobile Devices… all of these have been huge factors that pushed the evolution of videogames into new paradigms and types players. Part of that is Freemium, and that particular genie is never going back into it’s bottle. So let’s just be sure to be as ‘fair’ as possible within the new rules of play, and let players play where and how they want. May the best games win!