Often when discussing online game payment models, one runs into a situation where one side considers a free-to-play title to be of the pay-to-win variety where as the other side disagrees. So what exactly can be considered paying to win? While people have differing levels of tolerance to P2W features, I don’t think the answer to the question is down to opinion alone. In fact, I feel denying certain features being pay-to-win is just being intentionally misleading. This is the issue I want to tackle today.
Winning in a virtual world
An argument sometimes brought up by either F2P advocates or fans of specific games is that there are no winners in MMORPGs – hence there can be no paying to win. And they’ve got a point there, to some extent: there are winners of situations within a game of this type, for example a player may win in a duel against another, but there is no definitive point where you’ve won the game.
Because of the unclear definition of winning, I feel it is appropriate to steal a term from Syncaine: pay-for-power (P4P). Essentially, all features we’re used to calling P2W in MMORPGs can be called P4P instead. From now on, I will try to use this term.
Paying not to grind
The most glaring P4P features are of course the type where real money buys the player levels, skills, equipment or another form of power not available through other means. These types of cash shop options are, surprisingly(?), fairly rare in today’s games, at least here in the West. Few people would argue against this sort of thing being P4P.
Opinions get more divided when the power being sold is also available through other means. Sometimes people will argue that if a cash shop item can be attained by just playing the game as well, it cannot be considered P4P. I would disagree here.
Character power in online RPGs tends to be a reflection of how much time the player has spent on a character. In fact, time tends to be he greatest factor when it comes to it. When one uses real money to buy powerful items or levels, even if those things can also be attained through purely in-game means, one is paying money to not have to spend as much effort for the item in-game.
A situation of this kind would be called by some a case of paying not to grind, which to them isn’t the same as paying for power. You also often hear these people saying grinding is something anybody can do, and because of this paying not to grind features should not be considered P4P.
I completely disagree. In a skillcheck situation, you either have the skill to get to an objective or you don’t (example: beating a difficult dungeon to get a powerful item). Similarly, you either have the time and determination to grind for an objective or you don’t. There is no difference. If you can skip either and claim the rewards by paying money, you are paying for power.
So what isn’t P4P?
There are some situations where it is difficult to say if a feature is P4P or not. Take for example RuneScape’s model. I have heard the model has lately changed dramatically though, so I’ll explain what I mean:
- – As a F2P player, you are allowed a certain set of skills, all of which you can train to their maximum potential. You are also allowed access to servers that have most of the world in an accessible state.
- – Subscribers can play on subscriber-only servers where there is more landmass to explore and more skills to train. Skills available in F2P are also given more variation through subscriber-only items. Subscriber-only items cannot be transferred to free-to-play realms.
The difficulty of defining this model as either P4P or non-P4P comes from the fact being a subscriber does sort of grant more power by giving the player access to more efficient leveling areas as well as a larger variety skills and more ways of making money.
Personally I would not consider this P4P. The F2P portion I would instead consider an extended free trial, and buying a subscription only buys you content. That content might or might not be more efficient for gaining character power, but nevertheless the player is not directly buying character power – they’re still going to have to work for it. The fact most subscriber-world-only items don’t work on free servers also helps to make the system less P4P.
World of Warcraft’s expansions are a pretty similar case to the above. One could argue they are P4P because the potential power level of characters rises as they can train to a higher level, but in the end what the expansion really buys is content, not direct increases in character power. Besides, practically everybody ends up buying the expansion anyway, and the game is sort of designed around this idea. As for the game’s instant level 90 thing though, that’s a completely different case: in it, the player is literally buying character power in the form of levels, and I don’t think there’s arguing this isn’t clearly P4P.
To give one more example, this time for a model I would consider P4P, I want to mention Eldevin, a recent browser-based MMORPG. It was looking to capitalize on RuneScape players by it’s design, but the payment model, F2P with optional subscription, was inherently different: instead of buying new areas to explore or new skills to advance, subscription increased experience gains in existing skills alongside with granting access to free potions the subscriber could use in combat. Unlike the above two examples, I would argue the system is in fact a form of paying-not-to-grind, and hence should be considered P4P.
The point of all the above is not to bash F2P or or even P4P, nor to take a stance on which payment model is the best. The only thing I want to do here is to make the reader see the hypocrisy in claiming certain features offered by some games should not be considered P4P when that is clearly what they are.