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Tales from the Neighborhood: The Debate Over Pay to Win

Columns By Jessica Cook on June 03, 2015

The Debate Over Pay to Win

The Newbie Blogger Initiative came to a close this week, and at last count over 20 new blogs and podcasts were inspired to participate and join the community over the month of May. As a show of support, all but one of this week’s links are from brand new blogs. It means a lot to new folks in particular to hear from their readers, so if you enjoy any of these posts I know the authors would love it if you left them a like or comment!


Is Pay to Win a Bad Thing in MMOs?

It seemed entirely fitting that in the final days of this year’s NBI event many bloggers were once again discussing MMO payment models. The battle between defenders of subscriptions and supporters of free-to-play has played out over and over across blogs for years, usually every few months. The announcement that WildStar will move to a free-to-play model soon served to rile everyone up again.

There was a slight twist to the discussion this time, though, and that was wondering where “pay to win” fits into the current payment model standards. Posts were written in defence of the concept: after all, we adults work hard for our money so why not spend it on buffing our game time! Meanwhile, bloggers opposed to the pay to win concept wrote about their fears of coercive payment models and encouraging publishers to make games more difficult to encourage cash shop purchases.

One thing that everyone seemed to agree upon is that “pay to win” is a pretty nebulous concept when it comes to MMOs. What does it mean to win an MMO? The condition varies wildly between games and players. In a game with a PvP focus like ArcheAge or H1Z1, pay to win would likely take the form of spending money to buy superior weapons or armor. It becomes a lot less clear once you start thinking about more classic-style MMOs like Final Fantasy 14.

For me personally, while I can see why someone would want to pay to skip a long gear grind or dominate on the battlefield it feels a bit like cheating. I’ve always believed that MMOs, particularly themepark ones, are about the journey rather than the destination. It’s not just that you had a Winterspring Saber mount, it’s that you spent the weeks doing the reputation grind to get it. Along the way you probably ran into other people who were doing the same grind, or spent a lot of time telling jokes in guild chat while waiting for respawns.

If everyone starts using and demanding pay to win features in their MMOs, eventually the only way to be competitive will be through spending money. PvP wins will come down to who has the most disposable income, not who has talent or reflexes or clever battle plans. It becomes a war of incomes.

History shows that most publishers will keep the best pay to win items in lockboxes. Even now in a number of games the payment model is less “pay to win” and more “pay to have a chance of winning”. Spending $15 a month on a subscription seems cheap in comparison.

I’m not going to tell anyone that they’re playing a game wrong, or they should feel bad about how they play. But for me pay to win is the slippery slope down from the top of Mount Free-to-Play, and it is in the best interest of players as both connoisseurs of good MMOs and engaged customers to not let publishers think these kinds of shenanigans are acceptable.

Highlights from the Blogosphere

It’s only fair if I include a link to someone who has a different opinion on the pay to win discussion, and I have an excellent example to share. While Syl from MMO Gypsy is not a fan of pay to win games herself, she suspects that the “anti” crowd are just giving into nostalgia. Sure, we did grinds uphill in the snow back in our day (both ways!) but times change and maybe we should just accept that pay to win isn’t as bad as some of us fear.

You can find a lot more discussion about pay to win in the blogosphere right now, but let’s look at some highlights from May’s Newbie Bloggers!

Pike from Aspect of the Hare loves the written characters in MMOs. While she doesn’t play games for the social experience, she too has experienced finding friends in World of Warcraft and writes about how important they can become to even the most individual players.

A number of newbie bloggers wrote about their “Seven Gaming Sins”, including blogger The Iron Dagger. In this post they share their realization that roleplay is occasionally overcome by quest rewards, and reflect on a gaming history that happily lacks wrathful moments.

Blogger Tyrannodorkus not only has a great name, but he also wants you to know what makes a great horror game. He writes that appealing to players’ curiosity is key, and praises games like The Secret World for using the concept of the “unknown” to their story-telling advantage.

Waiting for Rez and Party Business had the creative idea of each discussing the same issue in their ongoing feature “Dual Wield”. This week the blogs tackled the notion of the 12x experience boost in Star Wars: The Old Republic. P. Mersault from Party Business found that the boost make it difficult to do anything outside of the class quests. Ironweakness at Waiting for Rez agreed, calling the boost “a fix applied to an outdated system”

Last but not least, Chestnut from Gamer Girl Confessions watched last week’s Blade & Soul livestream from NCSoft and is left underwhelmed. She shares the popular opinion that the game’s visuals look great, both in the environment and on characters, but the combat seems like more of the usual and the PvP was “confusing”.

And that’s it from the blogosphere this week! If you see a great blog post that you think should be featured here, leave a link in the comments or on Twitter at @Liores.

Jessica Cook / Jessica "Liore" Cook is a longtime MMO blogger, fan, aficionado, and community goodwill ambassador. She hosts the MMO podcast Game On, and writes the weekly column: Tales from the Neighborhood. You can read more at