The Fallacy of MMO Fairness
Want a balanced multiplayer game? Go play Joust or Urban Champion on the NES, Bomberman for for the SNES, or a nice simple game of Chutes and Ladders in someone’s dining room while their mom bakes you cookies.
Oh, you want a balanced MMO? Too bad! It's never going to happen.
Lately there is a trend of people feeling the “pay-2-win” model ruins a game because it upsets the balance of the world they play in. Know what else upsets the balance of the world they play in? Other people.
The MMO genre is different from others in that it is separated into tiers. To get to the end game you must first pass through all the other tiers. (Or you could buy your character, but that might be better for another article.) Through each tier you learn new things about the game world, the class you chose, and how different mechanics interact with each other. That is except for the middle tiers where all you do is grind to reach the Endgame doing the same stuff you've already done a thousand times. Once you finally reach the Endgame, it doesn't end there. Now it’s time to gear up so you can do more challenging encounters to (wait for it) gear up more. It’s a vicious cycle that has devoured many who would not have it any other way; myself included.
In an ideal balanced MMO everyone would be levelling at the same pace while grouping and questing together. Making friends, defeating enemies and slugging through the mid tier grind to form bigger groups to defeat bigger enemies at the Endgame. This does not and cannot happen though with the current design. Everyone's life is different. They have different jobs, schedules, recreational hobbies and family obligations to deal with. One person may play four hours a week, while another may play forty. Needless to say, the ones that play more reach the Endgame faster.
Now this in and of itself isn't the balance issue. You will find there are almost always other players to play with no matter what tier you are in. Most games are built from the group up with the intent of always having players in every tier. Warhammer Online took this even farther by having the keep sieges in the low and mid tiers affect the frequency and direction of Endgame city raids. Where the balance becomes skewed though is when those who play less finally get to the end tier. The end tier, colloquially split up into its own set of “Endgame tiers”, really is just one big ever expanding mess. The more it expands, the more the balance gets upset.
If you have ever been late to the Endgame party, you know exactly what I am talking about. Catching up in gear is a daunting task, even with systems in place like WoW's Valor Points. If you do manage catch up in gear through endless failed pugs and grinding all available resources, not being there for that very first pull of a newly released raid can keep you left behind for longer than you'd like, if not indefinitely. You can argue if this is a fault of game design or the player base itself, but you cannot call being locked out of content you want to do while others are doing it consistently something that is ‘balanced.’
So if the natural order of an MMO is already imbalanced, how does a Pay-2-Win or F2P model upset this even more? For that matter how does gold farming and character exchange change this either? You could argue that these things can make a game more balanced as it lessens the effect free time has on the overall experience. I personally wouldn't, and I'd prefer my games not to have any of those things over a static subscription. In no way do I have such disdain for the pay2win model though, as to condemn it at every turn.
Societal balance in an MMO is a myth just as it is in real life. And you know what? I wouldn't have it any other way.