Monday, 12 January 2015

Decoding "Pay to Win"

I'm nearly tempted to make a new banner to dub the blog "Humbabella's Contining-from-Ziggynyery." That's probably a fridge too far, but I find myself once again expanding on an idea from a Ziggyny's Game Emporium post, this time on what it means for a game to by "pay to win." In this case Nick himself was posting because his thoughts wouldn't fit as a comment on a Tobold post on the same subject, and I'm basically just following suit.

First of all, regarding Tobold: Tobold gets his analysis wrong. He says that everyone wants someone else to pay for their game, and I just don't think that's true. Path of Exile sells cosmetic items and stash tabs for money. People like that because it means that money doesn't mess with the gameplay. But people pay them money for that stuff, and you cannot acquire that stuff without paying money. No one is playing Path of Exile as a funny hat collector because it is not a game where you can collect funny hats. People are playing Path of Exile as monster-killer-loot-takers and they are buying funny hats because they want to wear funny hats while they do it.

Tobold, probably rightly, points out that funny hat collectors would like to see epic gear in the money shop. That's not so that someone else can pay for them to play the game. It's so that they can pay to play the game. They would buy that gear to help them farm their funny hats. Basically Tobold's analysis is just plain old pants-on-head-silly.

Beyond that, it goes into nonsense-economist thinking. One of the main reasons people pay for games is because they want to pay for them. I gave Path of Exile $20, and do you know what I bought with my tokens? Nothing. I feel bad about expending a temporary resource that I can't regenerate so I decided I'd be happier just not spending them at all. Those people you see with the funny hats in Path of Exile are wearing those hats because they wanted to spend money on the game. Sure, they probably wanted the hats too, but I find the idea that the vast majority wanted $5 worth of a $5 hat a little farcical. If the money wasn't going to support the game, the majority would not have bought it.

So, what's up with "pay to win", or Pay2Win as Tobold helpfully spells it. To me, the problem with discussions of Pay2Win is that it is a pejorative term meant to deride a game, but people who argue that games are Pay2Win pretend it is a factual description so that they can import the derision after making an unrelated case.

Ziggyny's got a good, detailed explanations of how your money can mess with or not mess with his enjoyment of a game. That's really the big point. The basic question of Pay2Win isn't whether you can pay money to buy an advantage in the game or buy a win condition, it's whether you can pay money to mess with other people's game experience.

To borrow Ziggyny's pet battles example, here is why Blizzard shouldn't sell a best pet from the store, and why that would be Pay2Win: It's because everyone would feel like they had to use that pet. The money would be corrupting the game for everyone. It's not just that you feel like you have to pay, it's that there are other ways to play the game that are being shut down by the monetization scheme.

Let me tell you about why I hate Candy Crush. I've actually played a bunch of it, but part of their business model is to put in levels that are terribly designed and heavily chance dependent to get people to spend money to get past them. I'm not a master of Bejeweled by any stretch, but I am a master of analyzing simple systems, and some of those levels are transparently awful. If their monetization scheme was "Our game costs $5" or "Each package of 50 levels costs $1" then their incentive would be to design levels that were challenging and fun to play, and to shy away from levels that were frustrating and mostly futile.

But on the other hand I remember once hearing that the majority of people who had finished Candy Crush paid nothing for it. So is it really a Pay2Win game?

Suppose I Wanna Kill the Kamilia 3 sold an add-on for ten dollars that gave you three hearts instead of one-hit-and-dead. Would that be a Pay2Win game? Even though you would literally be paying to allow yourself to win the game, there would be no sense in deriding the game as Pay2Win. If you want to go race denferok and stinkycheeseone890 to the boss rush then it clearly isn't going to count if you have three hearts. If you put a video of yourself playing it on youtube then everyone will know you are playing with the add-on instead of without it. If you claim to have beaten the game then people will ask if you mean with or without and react accordingly. You literally pay to win but what would be the point in saying it was Pay2Win?

So my point is that "Pay2Win" basically doesn't relate to whether you have to pay money to win the game. At it's most simple, every game you have ever bought has been "pay to win" because you couldn't win unless you bought the game in the first place. Playing is a prerequisite of winning, so pay to play is always pay to win logically.

This is the other way in which Tobold got it wrong. He says there is no real definition of Pay2Win because there is no real definition of winning. I think there is a clear meaning to the expression, it's just that it's not literal. If you are debating about whether a game is "pay to win" and you are caught up on whether you can pay to get a screen that says "You Win" on it, then you probably also think, "Wow, the road was made of moonlight? That's a lot more interesting than all this stuff about the landlord's daughter!"

In my mind, some of the most absolute undeniable pay to win games ever are not Pay2Win at all. Is Vintage Magic a game where you have to pay an obscene sum of money to have a chance at winning? It sure is. But is it Pay2Win in the pejorative sense? Hardly. It's more like you aren't even playing if you don't have the cards - it's like a game that just costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to buy.

I think of Hearthstone the same way. It's a pay to play game, but one where there is an optional pay-with-time track. The game even has a matchmaking system that does a fine job of letting you play against people who you have a reasonable chance against for the latter two weeks of any given month. Where Hearthstone becomes Pay2Win is for those who would rather be paying money than time but doesn't have the money available. If the game simply cost $100 then they'd just walk away from it and never play, but because they have the time option they feel they are suffering through a monetization scheme that making their own experience of the game worse.

Basically what makes a game Pay2Win is having a two-tiered gameplay experience. The more expensive experience isn't necessarily the easier game, it is the better game. The reason this is associated with winning is that in PvP the better game is, for most people, going to be the most competitive game you can play. The single player equivalent, though, is Candy Crush, not an easier setting for Kamilia.

Pay2Win means "pay to avoid otherwise unavoidable frustration." What is wrong with it is that it encourages game designers to make games worse to get more money.

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