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The Free Zone: Is There a Place for Pay to Win?

Column By Richard Aihoshi on April 24, 2012

To be crystal clear right up front, I have no intention of playing any MMOG where I feel paying users with fat wallets gain huge advantages. The most obvious reason is that I'm too cheap. In fact, I haven't spent even a cent of my own money in any F2P game for at least three years, probably more. So, when I ask the question above, it's from the perspective of a market observer or perhaps that of a devil's advocate, not out of any personal desire for such releases.

I'm also not talking about games that are completely unplayable for non-spenders.  There are none.  This is an exaggerated model put forward by detractors who seem to think people can't see through their reduction ad absurdum style of “reasoning”. Since it's safe to say that there are free players in every single title they classify as P2W, we can logically conclude that those individuals consider them playable without paying anything.

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In reality, what we have is a situation where F2P designers have to decide on another aspect of game balance.  What degree of advantage will they provide through how much spending in the item shop? This is a question without a universal answer. Do they want to focus on achieving a higher percentage of paying users or on attracting whales?  These two things aren't mutually exclusive, but when we look at the bottom line, 100,000 users spending an average of $5 per month generate the same revenue as 10,000 paying $50.

As a result, we have games where purchases from the item shop generally cost less and others where they cost more. It's easy to attribute the latter to greed.  However, that's too simplistic an explanation. It assumes the companies operating those titles don't have any appreciation of the effect where raising and lowering prices affects demand, leading to decreased or increased sales.

Rather sadly, it also assumes players aren't intelligent enough to make their own decisions, and that instead of thinking for themselves, they should simply heed the exaggerated warnings from those who shout the loudest and the most often. In my case, I can remember quite a few games over the years that I enjoyed either substantially more or significantly less than their broader, averaged ratings would suggest.

It also implies that players have no control over their spending, that they're pay excessive amounts unthinkingly. I don't question that some people do so.  However, it's another gross exaggeration to assume that if something is too expensive for me, it must cost too much for anyone else.  I'm not about to position myself as the universal arbiter of how much any individual should spend on their MMOG of choice. In its own way, that would be just as presumptuous as telling them which one to play based on my preferences instead of their own.

Within this context, I can't help but think there's room within the large and still rapidly growing global MMOG market for some games that are more toward the P2W end of the item shop spectrum.  It's not likely you'll find me in any of them except just to take an initial look.  But if such titles can survive and even prosper by attracting players who have different preferences and values - and who are more willing to reach deeper into their wallets - I have no problem at all with that. If I happen to prefer Coke, it means I don't drink Pepsi very often, not that I think it should no longer exist.

Another factor in my thinking is that I don't put as much value as some appear to on being able to level as quickly as everyone else.  Don't get me wrong, I have plenty of experience min-maxing.  There's nothing wrong with this style if and when it's what you enjoy. But for me, it's not nearly as important as how much fun I'm having.  If I'm enjoying myself, it doesn't particularly bother me that other players are leveling faster.  I won't go as far as saying I'm unaffected, but it's a relatively minor detraction, one that I can easily live with.

As a closing thought, there is a possible down side that I've yet to see but am expecting. There are certain properties I'd like to see made into MMOGs. I suspect it's only a matter of time until one of them does come out with an item shop that has advantages and prices I consider unacceptable; i.e. I'll want to play it but will be deterred. That said, I think the industry as a whole is more than intelligent enough so this won't happen very often.

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The Free Zone
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about MMOGs since the mid-1990s, always with a global perspective. As a result, he has observed the emergence and growth of the free to play business model from its early days in both hemispheres.

He is the former Editor of RPG Vault and his column, focusing on free to play MMOs, appears on MMORPG.com every Monday.
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