Nearly Every MMORPG Is Pay-To-Win, And Here's Why

Jason Winter
By Jason Winter, News Editor

Awful Idea: Monthly Spending Limit For F2P Games 3

Make a list of what you think are the free-to-play games with the best cash shops. Which games feel the most “free” to you and allow you to enjoy them without feeling the constant need to pony up cash? On the flip side, which F2P games feel the worst to you? The most pay-to-win?

Got your list(s)? Good. Now, what do those games have in common? For my lists, I'd say that most of the “good” F2P games have strong PvP elements, while most of the “bad” F2P games are primarily focused on PvE. True, there are exceptions, like Path of Exile (PvE and good), and World of Tanks when it had gold rounds for sale, but at least in my experience, it's always been easier for a developer to make a fair cash shop -- or at least one perceived as fair – in a PvP game, like a shooter or MOBA, than in a PvE one, like an MMORPG.

I've often considered the reasons for that. One thought I had was that because PvP games tend to be limited and repetitive – i.e., playing similar matches over and over – there are fewer things to mess with and potentially sell in the cash shop. On the other hand, PvE-focused games, mostly MMORPGs, offer a wide range of different experiences, and the developers have to figure out ways to partition each of those off so as to turn a profit. It's a trickier enterprise, and one that's more likely to upset players with its implementation. That's part of the equation, but not all of it.

Then I thought about a pair of articles I wrote some time back: one that asked why players were so upset with the plethora of cosmetic items offered for sale in Guild Wars 2 -- versus relatively few offered as in-game rewards -- and another about the definition of pay-to-win, and how that's different for every player. Merging the two lines of thought brought me to this conclusion:

Whether or not something is “pay-to-win” hinges on the definition of “win.” And that can be very different depending on the game.

Guild Wars 2 Crystal Outfit


Let's start with the most basic and fundamental definition of pay-to-win that we can all agree upon: an item, offered for sale in the cash shop, that gives better stats than anything that can be acquired in the game.

Outside of the most Chinese of Chinese browser games, nobody sells those any more. You won't find items like that in 99% of the F2P games covered on MMOBomb, and for good reason. Developers know that items like that would torpedo their game's chances before they even got out of alpha.

Below that obvious breach of protocol, just about anything is fair game. XP boosts, cosmetics, inventory space, and other “convenience” items are the most common for-sale items, and players tend to be mostly OK with those. After all, none of those give you an actual advantage in the game, so they're not pay-to-win... right?

Let's go back to our PvP/PvE dichotomy. What's the object of a PvP game? How do you “win”? The answer, in most cases, is to beat your opponent or your opponent's team in a match. Whether it's a round of Team Fortress 2, a League of Legends match, or a World of Tanks battle, the object is to wipe out your enemies. And those games know better than to sell you direct advantages to help you achieve that goal.

Rift Celestial Unicorn

So how do you “win” at a PvE game? Well, you can beat the biggest and toughest raid boss, but that's something that only a small percentage of players do. Other players might want to have a good-looking character, decked out in the shiniest armor and weapons, or amass a fortune in gold, or climb the ranks of the PvP ladder, or role-play, or even just wander the land or get as many as characters possible to max level. In short, there are a number of victory conditions for a PvE game; there are several different ways to “win,” and it's going to be different for each player.

That's where the disconnect occurs. A PvP game developer who says “There's no P2W in our game” is probably telling you the literal truth. There's nothing you can buy in the cash shop that will help you win battles, the primary win condition of their game. You might be able to advance more quickly, but matchmaking being what it is, you won't generally square off against someone's death machine with your rank one peashooter -- not without a few other death machines on your team to even the odds, at least. Even if the game does offer outfits or skins to pretty up your character, you rarely hear anyone complain, as long as competitive advantage isn't for sale.

A PvE game developer probably means the exact same thing when saying “There's no P2W in our game”; there's no direct stats-for-money item you can purchase. But there will be lots of things you can buy that help you enjoy the game in the myriad ways that can be seen as “winning.” And, over the years, with everything but direct stat purchases being added to cash shops, I think gamers are starting to tire of the practice, no matter how “fair” it seems.

War Thunder camo tank

Expectation recalibration

Is it selfish and entitled of players to not want to see that kind of stuff in PvE games' cash shops? Probably a little bit, and they devs have to sell something to make up for the game being free to play. I'm not advocating that those sort of things no longer be offered. Better fancy outfits and XP boosts than straight-up stat bonuses, right?

I think, though, that a slight recalibration of “pay to win” should occur, both by devs and by players. Devs touting their newest Free MMORPG's cash shop as having “nothing pay to win” need to be aware that there's more to “winning” than having the best stats, and that the interpretation of pay-to-win has broadened considerably since the dawn of free-to-play gaming. Saying “We're not pay-to-win” is going to rankle just about everyone to some degree and be seen as a “lie” when the 238th mount goes up on the cash shop or XP boosts make leveling irrelevant.

Similarly, players of these games are going to have to accept that this is how things are going to be, and that, at its most liberal definition, all such games will have elements for sale that could be construed as pay-to-win – if not by you, then by someone else with a different play style and different goals. If you can't live with that, you'll have to find a new hobby. Even a game that might seem OK at first will probably tiptoe down the line of pay-to-win-in-your-own-way eventually, as the developers look for additional revenue streams and see how far they can push the definition of “winning.”

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About the Author

Jason Winter
Jason Winter, News Editor
Jason Winter is a veteran gaming journalist, he brings a wide range of experience to MMOBomb, including two years with Beckett Media where he served as the editor of the leading gaming magazine Massive Online Gamer. He has also written professionally for several gaming websites.

Discussion (53)

dack janiels 5 years ago
well dungeons and dragons, the card game, you haf to buy the cards to play it.

Misfit 5 years ago
ANY mmo can be pay to win, free to play or not. When you can buy shortcuts to grinding with real money, it devalues the game for the company to make a quick buck. Take WoW for example. At the peak of that game, it was much harder to do anything than it currently is. You had to work (grind) for what you got, so it had more value to you. When everything is just handed to you for a few bucks, you lose that feeling of investment which keeps you playing. In any MMO, the way you 'win' is by getting the best gear/mounts/items/rating the game has to offer. So if you can pay to get those much faster or instantly..... pay to win.

DirtyChump 5 years ago
Finally someone that gets it. Call it pay2win or pay2skip, regardless it has killed this genre

Lyllany 6 years ago
Just PLAY WoW!
Its the only good game!
You pay monthly!
Then you let your skills talk!
No more no less!

View 1 reply
pppoe 6 years ago
It's simple. It all boils down to the fact that long ago a term Pay-4-Power was functional but people who liked paying for an advantage liked to rise strawmans like crazy trying to point out that if it's not p2w in strict sense (which is having items not obtainable without spending real cash) is good and in that sense a lot of p4p could've been dismissed. So when p4p started sounding like all the other made on the spot terms like p4convenience, p4time, p4whatever most have just switched to calling all p4p p2w, which watered down the term though i'd say rightly so.

I've been there, seen that. And what is scary to me that nowadays i've already seen entire economies set on indirect p4p through cosmetics trading.

F2p was a model that promised free game experience but it was a business model none the less that was assumed to strive on income from small arpu and big userbase so instead of getting lets say $60 from all 100 players they'd get $20 from half of the 1000 players. The reality is that that model is unsustainable and even if, then nobody cares once they smell how much money casinos online can get them.

I'd say the only viable model would be freemium as being at least honest but the reality is i don't know of a freemium game whose dev/publisher would keep their hands in their own pockets.

eqweqw 7 years ago
my win condition is fun, u spoil my fun, dat p2w

trionisshit 7 years ago

View 1 reply
DueyBear 7 years ago
Honestly, the term pay-2-win is utterly meaningless with how broad the definition has gotten and it saps any fun out of playing the game. I henceforth ignore any cries by people of p2w until I actually encounter a p2w element in the game which affects me (which has not happened to me for the last 12 years of playing F2P MMOs.) It's a game, and frankly I don't care if folks can progress faster or easier than me, as long as when I meet them at cap I can still evenly match them in pvp. Keep crying wolf and no one will listen.

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Gwenael 7 years ago
Absolutely shitty article.

(hey, pssht ! Looking for a good not p2w mmo. Take a look at Path Of Exile. It's insanely good !)

truth 7 years ago
All Korean MMO's are Pay2win and it's hard fact! Only MMO i know so far that is truly free is DOTA 2 most played game on steam, all heroes are completely free, no limits or anything similar, no premium, all the money they make is purely from cosmetics!

View 2 replies
KBye 7 years ago
I have to say, that blade and soul eu/na, is "free" to play!
It's fair, currency exchange in game gold for hongmoon coins or pay for it, cosmetics and convenient items like bag slots. The cash shop doesn't sell any weapons that give you stats just a remodel. appearance change.
Premium members get in game copper for killing mobs, but free player don't, this isn't a issues though and doesn't make it p2w.
It's not pay-to-win.

View 1 reply
Toblerone 7 years ago
So essentially your article boils down to "There may be a problem with cash shop items or maybe not and both devs and players should fix it somehow" you never presented an actual problem or an actual solution. You said all games are pay to win in the title, WHY are all games pay to win?

Razer 7 years ago
I can accept cash shop cosmetics like in Path of Exile. I can accept sidegrades being sold for premium currency as long as they can be obtained through a mild amount of grinding like in the late Blacklight Retribution.
Gameplay-affecting stuff held behind a huge grind wall is an instant uninstall for me. The only exception is in the few instances where all of said items are bundled at a reasonable price like a buy to play game, such as Gear Up's $20 premium shortcut.

eunusunt 7 years ago
For me it's not p2w, but I freakin' hate it when they sell inventory/bank space in the cash shop. One can probably count the games that don't do it, on the fingers of one hand.

View 1 reply
Xiao 7 years ago
the best example of pay 2 win is age of wushu(it's super heavy PVP or PVE), he should've use age of wushu. why? here is why, vip lets you cultivate (level up) offline , that itself already is pay 2 win since F2P players can't do that, VIP gets you "Random encounters" (get better gears or skills). trading money cost real money, like planet calypso, cost 30 usd for 10 ding, so if you want to buy things with other players you either get vip, get lucky and sell skill frags or you buy using real money. I'm not done yet... In order to get good skills you either pay 30 usd or sometime up to 500 usd and they can only be obtained by real money. In order to get good extra stats (inner skills) you pay even more.. about 1k usd.

FireAir 7 years ago
Why so much hate?? Relax guys it's just his opinion on MMORPGs and P2W stuff. Besides, he's quiet right about how things are

Ghestly 7 years ago
Why all the hate about article? Do even ppl finished before posted comments? Quote "... all such games will have elements for sale that could be construed as pay-to-win – if not by you, then by someone else with a different play style and different goals." Everyone have different opinion, it doesn't mean you or other are wrong... Ehhh 2016, everyone gets triggered by simple article.

View 1 reply
Dan 7 years ago
The main reason some MMORPGs are Pay2Win. It is because of its competitive PvP side of it. People want to level up fast, buy up boosters/potions etc when they duke it out with someone else. Unfortunately it also brings toxicity into some of those PvP heavy games.

The PvE side of things. It is rarely pay2win, with a few exceptions which is obvious for the whole game in general. Cosmetic/Appearance items are not pay2win. They are simply fluff.

Milk 7 years ago
Holy shit, did any of you actually read the article? Whats with the circlejerk ass blasting?

sean murray 7 years ago
If you can buy it, it's pay to win. MMO logic.

RuBixx95 7 years ago
Wow this author has zero knowledge what pay to win, Is so let me make clarify what pay to win is, Pay to win is when a player can buy themselves an advantage i one thing you got get in to your damn head Guild wars 2 is not pay to win fake as clikcbait article

View 2 replies
volfie 7 years ago
Guild wars 2 pay to win,,,, hahahahaha you on drugs???? first of all its buy to play game and first copy is 100% free and there is 0 thing in gw2 that makes it pay to win.. thay sell cosmetic item that players can buy to re skin ther wepons and armor no stats!!! only Cosmetics!!! and even tho that it got that u can spend real monye to get this skins. u can STILL GET IT FREE 100% FREE FROM ERNING GOLD FROM SELF FARMING EVENTS TO BUY THE ITEMS!! there shop is more pay to sponser the game u like!!! its best fuking system there is !!! and it works!!! and games with pay to win!!! is allso way for players to buy shit to skip 1000 hr of grind!! all games allso have shit u can get free but takes longer path to reach there!!! its basic shit all players knows!! pay to win is short cut!! nothing more. and yeah this guy ho written this shit!,, has never playd a mmorpg

View 1 reply
itaintmebro 7 years ago
How do you expect companies to make money on free to play games?

View 2 replies
ASD 7 years ago
So true and it's worst on consoles you gotta pay for xbox live and PSN plus the pay 2 win MMOs you play on the consoles so the PC users are getting off easy since it's an open platform while the consoles are a closed platform.

View 1 reply
HQZ 7 years ago
the title should be "EVERY FREE MMORPG IS PAY-2-WIN, AND HERE'S WHY" you can add "number 3 will shock you" to this shitty clickbait article written by someone who has never even played a mmorpg

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