Small Scale Pay-to-Win

You see the title. I have been pondering it at the player and game levels. Let me give you a few examples so we’re on the same page here.

In Guild Wars 2, there are costumes of town clothes you can buy, usually around the holidays. These are basically “I win” buttons for the costume brawl. The Executioner outfit is so good that the November update disabled town clothes in WvW zones. Costume brawl is a tiny mini-game that has no outside effects beyond a few achievement points, but within that little sphere, $10 lets you reign supreme.

I have been playing a bit of Marvel Puzzle Quest lately, and the PvP portion is pretty blatantly P2W. You can get a modicum of reward with heroes you earn by playing, but when you hit someone with a level 80 Doctor Doom, you know he has spent a lot of time or money (likely both) for the privilege of rolling over everyone who hasn’t dropped a fair amount of money on the game. That becomes circular: the PvP tourneys award top-level heroes and villains, which you stand no chance of getting unless you already have top-level heroes and villains, and which you probably cannot keep without spending some money because your number of character slots is limited by the cash shop currency (you get some free). So most of the game is open to everyone, but the top ranks of the PvP game is basically a playing ground for the higher paying customers.

And then there are hundreds of browser-based games where you can be the bully on the block for $20 or $100. Buy bigger stats or armies or whatever and roll over the other players. You bought your ticket to be a wolf, and the F2P players are your sheep. That usually covers the whole game, but is “small scale” in the sense that the game is small, people feel low investment, and walking away is easy. After a few tries, many players walk away from these games entirely.

At the player level, I know that winning is fun, but at some point most people get bored without a fair fight. Once you turn on god mode for a game, it often palls. Stomping through the game with no resistance is amusing for a little while, but the game is gone. And then when you turn off god mode, you can still see past the grind and know you could get past the grind with a few cheat-clicks, so the illusion of achievement is gone. I cannot see how pay-to-win works for the player except either very short term or for bullies.

At the game level, that same problem plays out on a grand scale. Unless you can successfully monetize churn, you should expect your P2W customers to get bored of W and stop P. The only way that works is if you keep them competing with each others, and real competition is exactly what the bullies were avoiding. The bullies are negatively impacting the game for your non-whales, who can choose to become one of the P2W competitors or drop out but are discouraged from spending small amounts on the game.

It seems like P2W poisons the game, and rather quickly. When it is on the small scale, like one subsystem you can P2W, you are still poisoning that subsystem, so the goose that lays the golden eggs is dying. The non-P2W players avoid that part of the game, you run out of sheep, and now you cannot sell wolf tickets. That, and the need to let people pay to be even bigger wolves, is presumably what that part of the game sees more cash shop mudflation.

The best case scenario for these is to create a two-tiered system, whereby the paying customers and the non-paying customers are essentially doing the same thing, but the paying customers are the ones in the high-level game. This is effectively what most F2P games do with their PvE content, letting you in for free but requiring money to play anywhere near the top. That only works well if the top is isolated by a glass wall; you want your low level players to see the awesomeness of the paying customers but not be negatively affected by trying to compete with them. You want your non-paying customers to feel like they should be (paying to be) competing with the big boys, but you don’t want your big boys driving off the fresh meat. But feasting on fresh meat is the whole point if you are a P2W bully.

So you see, perhaps, why my thoughts keep getting stuck in a circle, and why I am glad when games keep this on a small scale. When the whole game goes P2W, you just leave and stop thinking about it unless you want to be the whale financing the whole game.

: Zubon

5 thoughts on “Small Scale Pay-to-Win

  1. Jeromai

    I think you may be missing two potential subsets of the population here:

    1) Low-tier players (casuals?) who don’t get bored of “cheating” a little in order to “win” (whatever tiny game they’re playing, be it look good or a pvp fight, etc.)

    Look at the propensity and popularity of singleplayer game cheats and walkthroughs, aim hacking in FPSes, hacking, bots, buying/selling accounts and RMT in MMOs. It’s not a majority doing it, but a significant minority will. And get banned for it, pay and buy the game again and do it all over again.

    2) High-tier very competitive players who are deep enough into their minigame to realize that the efficiency equation includes real life cash and are willing to pay it to get to the level of evenly matched “good fights” they want

    Here, they’re not paying to be a bully. They’re just paying to qualify to be a wolf among wolves. An entry fee. Perhaps a subscription fee to keep up. A wolf may jump a sheep if they see one (becoming perceived as a black hat) but perhaps their self-motivation is they want to have a hierarchy duel among wolves (ie. white hat), the sheep just got in the way.

    The Infinite Continue Coin for GW2’s Super Adventure Box was an interesting example of this. I twitched a great deal when seeing this in the cash shop. Strictly speaking, optional. a) you don’t have to play the minigame. b) you can do infantile mode without it, and possibly normal mode if you were good and didn’t mind a bit of minor grind and even tribulation if you followed a walkthrough and did grind out some extra lives.

    What ended up happening was that a lot of players (at least in my one pragmatic guild that I was in) bought it as a ‘cheat code’ to get by a normal that was initially more frustrating than planned. I held off until fixes because I couldn’t ethically support that with my wallet.

    However, if you wanted to explore Tribulation mode without relying on a step-by-step walkthrough and play it as a challenging experience, you accepted that the entry fee would either be spend a lot of time grinding for lives, or spend some rl cash for the infinite continue coin. And some players bought it for that reason too.

  2. SynCaine

    The subset of wolves that enjoy fighting other wolves that Jeromai describes is indeed correct (I’ve run with that crowd in the past, though never to the point of being a top whale). However, I don’t think its something that transfers from game to game. Once you ‘whale it up’ in one game, and realize playing at that level isn’t all that different or more fun than the free level (the numbers are just bigger), you’re odds of becoming a whale in a different but similar game are pretty slim.

    I think what distorts things currently for some devs is the other group that you described Zubon; those who try P2W initially and soon find that being god and removing all challenge isn’t as fun as it sounds.

    Together, it would appear that P2W is a viable strategy on a larger scale. I think in a few years, when the faucet of “new to P2W” players is reduced to a drip (much like ‘new to MMOs’ is now a drip, or ‘new to Facebook trash games’ has all but dried up), things will shift once again.

    Until then, the wallet wars will continue. May the richest fool win!

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