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We Paid to Win & Lost

Tim Eisen Posted:
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Many years ago, we were offered two pills, one red, one blue. We picked the blue one and as a result we bear responsibility for the evolution of this genre and its payment models. Pay to win isn’t new, it’s just the newest form of an older version of itself. In the beginning, we happily paid for access to something. This was the primordial ooze from which the payment models of our genre emerged. To be a MMORPG originalist took quite a bit of smarts, skills and most importantly, money. You had to know how to pay for and assemble an expensive gaming machine then establish a pricey internet connection.

This was the first time we paid to win but we all won by gaining access to thousands of lives to live within hundreds of digital universes. Unknowingly our actions were a sacrifice to many gods, that of money, of technology and of the internet. The same models that granted our genre power fed the god’s as well. Now they’ve grown so powerful every product is trying to get its users through a paywall and into a subscription plan with built in micro purchases on top. Modern consumers have never met a paywall they wouldn’t climb and we showed them the route, drilled in the bolts and tossed down the rope as the gods watched on in delight.

Pay to access, pay to play, pay to win, pay to run, pay to loot, pay to equip, pay for hard mode, pay for expansions despite the $15 a month you and thousands like you have been paying for years, where does it end? The only thing that can stop it is consumer rejection but we are a long way from monocle gate and the future has already been programmed. The most terrifying thing for a modern parent seems to be interacting with their child. Avoidance is just sixteen numbers away and designers know exactly how many times your kid will ask before you give them the card, they are banking on it. Pavlov’s technique is training new generations of gamers armed with magic cards to use them without hesitation or consideration. The future is pre-determined.

Many of us are aghast at what we’ve done so we blame publishers but companies don’t drive the direction of the product, the consumers do. Companies can only do what their consumers tolerate. We like to think we are raging against the machine but instead we were the ones in the lab that taught the machines how to manipulate our peers. MMORPGers love giving out money so much we often make a joke about it. “Shut up and take my money!”. Is it really surprising that publishers responded with a resounding OK?

We can’t stomach pay to win, or at least the idea that with a single purchase a kid with their parent’s credit card can nullify an advantage we grinded hours of our life for. It’s not just the time we cringe at losing, it’s our fantasy being shattered. The illusion has been breached. Who you were outside of a MMORPG once had substantially less impact on what you could achieve within it, that time has passed. In game purchases were the final nail in the coffin. The MMORPG genre is dead and unlike all the other times writers have said it this time it’s real…(it’s really not).

Melodrama aside there was a time when many of us were content to ignore paying to win. It was more acceptable when it was on a black-market. Back when people “knew a guy” or “heard of a place”. Way back when people had the decency to do it illegally and developers had the decency to ignore it! It wasn’t so game breaking until it went corporate and landed on our door steps. We are unhappier now because we can’t pretend it’s a minor occurrence anymore, it’s in our faces in every newsletter, email and trip to our game’s website. At times, its feels like studios are taunting us with it but they aren’t. They are just trolling for easy bites on their storefronts so they can keep their games running.

Paying to win isn’t a new threat, it’s just never been so obvious before. The good old days maintained the illusion but only if you ignored the breach. It was harder to see but you could always spot it if you chose to look. I’m not trying to spite anyone and I miss the good old days as much as any MMORPG veteran. I’m trying to point out that pay to win can’t beat you because you’ve lived with it all along.

So, sit down, strap in, and enjoy the tour through the park (spared at no expense – other than the micro expenses) because it’s not going away, it’s always been. Its woven into our nature and the nature of our genre and its expanded to every device with a charge. We can’t avoid it and it’s too late to reverse it, all we can do is learn to cope with it and survive it like we’ve always done. The payment models will continue to evolve with the games and so will our expectations of what constitutes MMORPG enjoyment.


Tim Eisen

I roleplay a wordsmith that writes about the technological and social evolution within the game industry