Thursday 27 June 2013

Free2Play need not be Pay2Win

Tobold has been on a roller-coaster ride this last few days, from when he believed that "Pay2Win is not an issue", couldn't even admit to knowing what "Pay2Win" meant, and claimed not to know a single Pay2Win game, to his later hyperbolic claim that "Everything is Pay2Win".

This latter claim is based on the idea that Free2Play games must monetize by selling stuff in an item shop, and that in order to sell them, they must address somebody's idea of winning. So, for instance, if I am a hat collector in a particular game, then I am likely to buy hats that are sold in the item store, because otherwise I won't be able to make a complete collection. In other words, it appeals to my personal idea of winning in this particular game, and if it didn't, I wouldn't buy it.

I have two observations to make:

Firstly, people buy fluff items for the fun of it. We don't need to win to have fun. For instance, in WoW, Some people like to use Leyara's Locket, or Noggenfogger Elixir just for the fun of it. I dare say that even if these items were only available in a cash store, there would still be takers, just for the fun of it. Even people who weren't pet collectors bought the pandaren monk, just for the fun of it. This is an important point, as we will see later.

Secondly, I agree with the main thrust of Tobold's argument: in-game items sold in the cash store are usually bought to improve your odds of winning. That's why I've always argued against them. They are not fair, and they are not perceived to be fair. When people talk of "fluff" items, or "cosmetic" items, they often simply mean "Items that don't impact the competitive game that I'm playing, such as boss-killing". The Pandaren Monk and the Sparkly Pony did not impact on the raiders. But they did impact on mount and pet collectors. For them, these were not cosmetic items. When the Sword of a Thousand Truths goes on sale in the same real-money item shop, raiders can't really complain if they ignored the earlier complaints of the pet and mount collectors.

First they came for the pet-collectors,
And I didn't speak out, because I wasn't a pet-collector
Okay, that rather over-dramatizes the situation. But, it doesn't have to be that way, in Free2Play games. There are ways of monetizing these games other than just selling in-game items for real money.

Before I get to what these ways might be, first I want to talk about the nature of Pay2Win. Everybody here already knows that it doesn't mean that I pay some cash to a game company, and they display a "You win" screen. It really means "Pay for a competitive advantage". I think we're all agreed on that. If not, just read "Pay for a competitive advantage" anywhere that I wrote Pay2Win.

That raises the important point of competition. If everyone wins, nobody wins. If everybody must pay for the same competitive advantage, it confers no advantage. That's why I don't think anybody seriously includes subscription games in the list of pay2win games. Everybody playing the game must make that payment, so no  player is advantaged by it (and non-players aren't in the competition). Also, it must be obvious who is winning. There should be a clear way to calculate it. For instance in soccer, goals scored less goals conceded tells you who is winning a particular game; games won less games lost tells you who is winning a particular league, and so on. Leagues formalize this by awarding league points for a win, a draw or a loss. Similarly in Azeroth, it's pretty easy to tell who is winning the gear race. For instance, on my realm, I'm currently being beaten by 200 or so well-geared adventurers. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though, and it isn't so easy to agree on a transmogrification winner. That's also why portraiture is not an Olympic sport.

I'm writing this article to remind people that there are ways to monetize Free2Play games that are not Pay2Win. I'm not promoting particular ways of doing so. But as an aid to your creative juices, here are some examples. If you think any one of them is a bad example, I will readily agree with you. If you think any one of them is actually a Pay2Win item, I withdraw it. My point is simply to try to get people to think of ways of monetizing Free2Play games without making them seem unfair.

On to examples.
When I open my browser, it displays my home page, which is Google. How does Google monetise their product? By showing you adverts. Okay, I wouldn't be fond of this solution, as it might not be good for immersion, but it certainly isn't a Pay2Win solution.

In World of Tanks, I pay for garage slots and for barracks with real money, so I can keep more of my  tanks and crew. Otherwise when I want a new tank, I have to scrap an existing tank and crew. In Star Trek Online, I use real money to buy character slots. Rift now sells bag slots. You may say that this does confer a slight competitive advantage, but it is so slight that most people would not perceive it to be unfair. If you do, I withdraw it.

Fun items:
I can imagine selling armour dyes and transmogrification services for real money.
Hairstyles, tattoos, skin and hair dyes, body shaping (such as the items I mentioned earlier).
Dance Studio!

WoW already sells content, on top of its subscription. You couldn't get to outland before you bought the Burning Crusade expansion pack. Today, you can't get to Pandaria without paying for the content. LOTRO does this  too, and it's a great way to monetize the actual reason we play these games. In a Free2Play game, I would happily pay for access to zones (including dungeons and raids).

My examples may be poor, and I happily withdraw them all. But the point is to free your mind. Tell me what you would pay for that you don't think is Pay2Win. Think different.


  1. Accepting your definition (I do not consider time savers P2W), I have to state "Pay2Win is not an issue"; unlike Tobold, it's literal this time.

    The garage or character slots' competitive advantage is dependent on how the particular game depends on alts - in particular, I believe the first slots are quite a big advantage in WoT.

    Bag slots are the same as XP gain rate potions; both serve to save time, the difference is the time is spent fighting without XP pots and running to vendor with bag slots.

    As for selling content, I am not fan of it. I understand WoW has done it since 2007 and many people whose first MMO was WoW grew used to it; I certainly do not want to say it's overwhelmingly less popular than XP potions or rental weapons (or gold tanks) but I am sure it isn't overwhelmingly more popular either.

    I am sorry if I didn't say it well, I think dislike of "hard paywalls" is not in any way "superior" to dislike of time-savers but I believe it demonstrates that "pay2win" is not a term with an universally accepted definition, which was the point I wanted to make.

  2. I guess I'm not too worried about XP gain-raite potions, either, since I am not competitively trying to get to the level cap in any game. I suppose that if I were, then both XP gain rate potions and extra bag slots do provide a competitive advantage.

    I don't mind paying for content, though, which provides nobody with an in-game competitive advantage; but of course I understand if you have different preferences!

    My point is, though, to see if we can come up with new ideas for monetizing Free2Play games that don't provide an in-game competitive advantage.

    How would you feel about paying for player housing?

  3. Old post i know, but stillrelevant subject.

    Content has the advantage of being inclusion-deciding, rather than advantage bestowing. At least in the sort of expansions wow has typically been making. In the same sense that paying a subscription does not inherintly make a game p2w even though it of cause requires you to pay the subscription to participate, and you cannot win if you don't partcipate, paying for a new expansion is not (to most people, seebelow) p2w because it isnt paying for advantage, it is paying for participation. If you do not have the latest expansion you are most likely not participating in the same (meta)-games than those who do.

    The exception to such might be a raiding guild focused on raiding some old expansion, but without limiting its members to gear from that expansion (or maybe even to levels...?).

    Blizzard goes to some lengths to make sure that any content at your level is available to you, even if you havent bought the expansion. New zones, revamped dungeons/talents etc.

    Usually content is not considered p2w because it is not a form of paying for advantage, but rather paying for participation.

    1. Agreed, Shandren. And we already DO pay for content. We had to buy each expansion as it was released, or remain locked out of it. My guild has a few members who didn't buy WoD for ages, and were still happily running around Pandaria for a long time while the rest of us were in Draenor.