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.
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.
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.
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 F2P 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.”