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Robert Lashley: When is it Pay to Win?

Columns By Robert Lashley on January 19, 2016

When is it Pay to Win?

Over the course of the past three weeks I have been playing some older MMORPGs for my new column The Test of Time. During this period one thing has become abundantly clear. You can buy power in a lot of these games. When I was a younger man I would have been aghast by this. Buying advancement in a game was anathema to everything I enjoyed. So what is this doing in our hobby today?


Last year I wrote a column Why Cheat? To summarize almost everyone does it at some point but by doing so you run the risk of ruining the experience for yourself. When it comes to single player games feel free to hack, cheat, exploit, and mod to your heart’s content. It is your experience. Have fun with it. But when it comes to the multiplayer, or competitive experience, you are probably ruining that experience for others. Especially those that are the victim of your exploits.

In addition to looking at those older games and noticing their evolution of including items that bestow players or characters with power I also noticed a comment from one of the contributors to this site on social media. In that comment he mentioned how Ben Cousins had a conversation at GDC on using analytics. Ben at the time was working on Battlefield Heroes and they had made design changes to the virtual currency. The gist of it is that the community was in arms about how this was “pay to win” yet some of the most vocal opponents were the heaviest users.

You don’t have to look hard to find games that are financially based upon selling you ways to power up your characters. The most notorious of these are the new breed of mobile heroe collection games. Dungeon Boss and Star Wars Heroes are two such games that are great examples of this business model. You can play either of these games for extended periods of time and never have to pay a penny. During that time you can probably derive a lot of value since you are paying nothing and being entertained. But both of these games are banking that someone at some point is going to drop $99.99 on a premium character pack. The tie ins that Star Wars Heroes was running with The Force Awakens were pretty jaw dropping. Dungeon Boss even rewards you with VIP ranks for the more money you spend. While neither of these games are MMOs they do have PvP matches and players rankings and you will clearly benefit in the competitive aspects if you spend money to the disadvantage of the free players, or the players that just spend less money.

When I play a RPG or a MMORPG the journey is just as important as the destination. Now that wasn’t always the case. In large part years ago I was content just to get to max level in a MMO and find out what was available at “end game.” Anymore I want to enjoy the leveling experience. However, in a growing number of games you can buy the newest expansion and get a character instantly at the game’s previous maximum level. You can then pay for additional characters at max level. And this isn’t always a trivial amount of money. 

With the prevalence of microtransactions subsidizing free players in most modern MMORPGs developers have had to come up with more and more clever ways to encourage players to actually spend money on the game. Typically these players are rewarded with bonus experience, bonus money, and maybe a few extra character slots. I think most players would agree that this isn’t “pay to win” but it is clear that you do have an advantage as a paying customer over a non-paying customer. But what if you could buy experience potions in that same store? Is that still okay?

I’ve begun to look at purchasing items in games a lot like I would cheating. I’m not saying that they are cheating but if you want to boost your stats, fine. Far be it from me to tell you how to spend your money. But when you put yourself at an advantage that a person can only have by paying and you can competitively use that against other players then the developers have crossed a line. If you want to make something harder for me by not paying, I’m okay with that. But if you put players so far behind the power curve by not paying that they do not even have a chance then the model is broke.

So where is the line these days? If the game is a first person shooter and I can buy a gun that anyone in the game can earn if they sink enough hours into it is that “pay to win?” If I buy a stat tome off the in game store that instantly gives me +2 to strength and there is no other way possible to get this item is that “pay to win?” Is this subject black and white or is “pay to win” a moving target? Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Robert Lashley / Rob is a Staff Writer and jack of all trades for When he isn’t blinding people with the glare from his head in front of a camera you can chase him down on Twitter, PSN, XBL, and Nintendo @rant_on_rob.