Every free-to-play game is pay-to-win.

That’s a sentiment I see all the time. No matter what game is being talked about in an article, someone in the comments will talk about how it’s pay-to-win. Everyone has their own definition, and what’s totally reasonable to someone is exploitative and expensive to another.

The undeniable truth is that every F2P game (as well as every buy-to-play game and some sub-fee games) has an item shop, and it’s expected that the developers will put things in it that they expect/hope/need you to buy. But how much is “too much”? How essential does an item or upgrade have to be before it crosses the line from “fine” to “paid advantage”?

Let’s start by identifying the extremes. I think everyone would agree that purely cosmetic items – armor/weapon/character skins, fancy hats (hello, Team Fortress 2), new paint jobs for your cars, etc. – that convey absolutely no in-game stats are fine.

On the flip side, if there’s an item that is available only in the item shop, that cannot be gained via in-game activities, and is statistically better than anything available in game… that’s pretty much the definition of pay-to-win.

But what lies in-between? Where do you draw the line between F2P and P2W? Here are some examples of common monetization methods in F2P games, all of which have, at some point, drawn out the plaintive cries of “pay to win!”

Boosts. Advancement-rate boosts are present in nearly all F2P games. Whether they boost your character’s leveling XP, crafting XP, currency gain rate, etc. – if there’s a way to speed up your progress, you better believe it’ll be sold in the item shop.

When a game artificially keeps its gain rates slow so that it can sell the “cure”, that’s bad. It’s also pretty difficult to prove when that’s the case. Still, since they don’t confer any actual in-game benefits, except letting you get powerful faster, most people are OK with this kind of transaction. Are you?

Buying gear. As with base leveling speed and boosts, the difficulty in getting gear in-game is a big factor here. If it’s relatively easy to get gear, requiring only a few hours’ time for a typical item, then it’s generally perceived as not too much of a bad thing if you can buy that same gear for real-world money. If it takes a long time to get gear, like a typical PvE progression game that requires multiple dungeon or raid runs over the course of several weeks or months, it might be seen as if you’re more “encouraged” to buy your gear instead of earning it.

The power of the gear, and in fact the verticality of the game as a whole, also factors into it. In PlanetSide 2, for instance, all gear is (theoretically) sidegrades: a weapon that fires faster does less damage, for instance. In Rift, new levels of gear provide direct benefits, such as increased stats. Most people would have more of an issue with the latter case than the former, while some don’t want to see stat-based gear available for sale at all.

Buying in-game currency or game time. This doesn’t apply as much to pure F2P games but is a factor in games like Guild Wars 2, EVE Online, and (soon) WildStar. In all of these games, you can spend real money for a currency (gems in GW2, PLEX in EVE, and CREDD in WildStar) that can be exchanged for in-game currency. In effect, you can spend money to get gold, or the equivalent thereof, and with it, potentially gear.

One line of reasoning goes that, because you can, technically, get real-money stuff without actually spending real money, anything goes in the item shop. It’s not “pay-to-win” if you don’t technically have to pay, regardless of how long it might take you to grind for the currency.

Buying convenience and basic utility. Like boosts, the amount of bag or vault space you have unlocked doesn’t directly impact how much damage your character does, so it’s technically a stretch to call this sort of thing “pay to win.” But it’s hard to imagine someone being able to manage a character up to combat competence without a reasonable amount of space to keep all their stuff – not to mention other basics like hotbars (hello, SWTOR!) and currency caps or time-based lockouts.

Does “annoying and infuriating unless unlocked” count as “pay to win”? Or does it need to be something meatier and directly combat-oriented to count? Or do you just not like the notion of anyone being able to purchase any kind of advancement, such as in advancement speed, over you? Let us know!

the author

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.

42 Readers Commented

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  1. ASD on October 19, 2016

    Paying for unfair advantages like level boosts,cash shops,premium items,micro currency,costume shops,cosmetics and the other crap you don’t really need. Sure theres some stuff you could use from the shop but you don’t need every single cool item from the shop in your inventory. I laugh because on the games I play people make fun of me because I don’t have every single item from the shop which is sad because they spend their hard earned money on alot of the premium items but that’s on them I only get the items I think that would go well with my avatar I don’t just get useless junk. I personally dispise the level boosts I think you should level up legitly because if you buy the easy way out then what’s the point of playing then? I’d buy it if I really had to but I perfer not to buy a level boost.

    • ASD on October 19, 2016

      By useless junk I mean the stuff you just buy then leave sit in your inventory forever and dust away and never use. I got my own things I don’t use but it’s special things I save till that day. But all I say is the cosmetic trash isn’t worth buying unless you really like the outfit. Don’t just randomly buy stuff from the cash shops to make your account worth more or look better that’s just stupid.

  2. x on October 21, 2015

    It’s not a line, its shades of gray and differerent varients. Pay for level, Pay for Instant Power, Pay for Gradual Power (Enchants) or Pay to Play-Effectively (or at all at some level).

    It’s not only from non-fair chash shops. I know a few people in “game x” who managed to turn boosts (combined with power leveling) and purdy things into fully powered end-game gear. P2W isn’t always a straight line.

    • no on August 26, 2016

      You pay for unfair advantages which are not archivable without spending money. Thats pay to win. Unfair advantages for money.

  3. Smex on November 23, 2014

    Well i played ALOT of MMORPG’s and i can tell you that P2W can destroy some games pretty hardly because F2P gamers cannot even enjoy the game anymore, let me make an example of one of the last MMO that came “ArcheAge” ~ alot of people were waiting for that and now “whales” what we call them can 1 shot people in PVP because they’ve spent over 5000€ in the game, just an example of archeage shop modle ~ the crafting 100% + chance~ that only sell in item shop or special trees that in game we got only 0.23% chance to get them they sell special trees for people that pay RNG boxes they get 10% to get a tree soo that’s a P2W model!

  4. Nindigo on September 16, 2014

    Seen from a social point of view, I feel the P2W concept divides a playerbase in an unfortunate manner just like in a society – the rich and the poor; those with cool stuff and those without. And I continue to encounter a snobbish attitude within the former group. It’s a surefire way to create a rift between players sometimes making it difficult to “socialize”. Anyway, just my opinion. And by P2W, I understand an option to pay for your character to get stronger than what would normally be achievable. Poor taste that, if you ask me.

  5. blah on July 19, 2014

    Any advantage over another player is pay to win. Doesnt matter if its farm-able. As a developer, I would simply increase the amount of necessary grind so that only those who pay cash would be able to reasonably attain everything.

  6. Ironsands on February 26, 2014

    I consider most F2P mmo as P2W.
    The problems are:
    1. how much of the advantage does the payment give you.
    2. how much money you willing to pay to keep this advantage.
    3. how the paid advantage frustrate F2P players.

    Considering above, I continue playing or give up some of the games I used to try. (some of them are not f2p)

    Dragon nest -give up- I don’t want to pay for protection jelly or stamina for cap lvl dungeons.

    Planetside 2 -continue- I considerer it partly P2W, first time I play the game, I felt ESF farming guys are really annoying, so I save certs and bought an AA-lock-on launch. then found that it’s unless. damn 1000 certs. QQ. However I still playing because I can have fun without any high lvl upgrades. I’m a noob at planes and tanks, but I can still kill BR100s with headshots.

    WOW- I’m going to give up- everything is getting worse, and a lot of ” WTB/WTS 2’s carry” (kind of P2W style :P) I just run raid and get offline each Tuesday.

    SWTOR-quit – there is a limitation for F2P player to join BGs.

    Rift- quit – you have at least spend a minimum amount of money to unlock AH, It’s to against gold farmers.I bought a bad slot. but when I passed lvl 50 I’m feeling leveling up is too slow. so I quit playing.

    El sword- quit- limited times of dungeon run for F2P, not quite sure about this game, but I heard people saying it’s not P2W game, I may try again later.

    The Secret World- stop playing for some reason else- but this game is so good, I like the concept of the story and game structure. you don’t need to create alts to experience all kind of role and play style. the you will need buy DLC, but it’s only a series of quest with some average lvl gear. you can access everything: endgame gears, raids, bgs. the dungeons are exciting, even a single mistake will cause a wipe. Community is mature and active. the only thing I don’t like is there’s always OP builds in pvp.

    Once, I heard “your time is a kind of currency” while I was watching some farming guide of WOW.
    Sometimes, for those extremely P2W games, I was wondering should the game company pay F2P players for letting paid players have fun? 😛

    BTW:
    I’m looking for a Space ship MMO, it can be like EVE, but will don’t want my ship permanently destroyed, cuz’ I want to do a lot of PVP. I’m not looking for FPS style fighter games like Star Conflict, I prefer a UI like WOW or Guild Wars2.
    Also if anyone have play a costume map” starship-battle”(or some similar name) on StarCraft II. It’s a 6v6 ship battle. you can earn gold by killing enemy ships or NPC fighers (like DOTA) and purchase upgrades. I love this kind of ship battle games as well.

    If anyone have any suggestions, just tell me.
    Thanks

  7. kyphe on February 26, 2014

    In a game like world of tanks using real money (gold) does not give you that much advantage in an individual game over people who use earned credits so it is not directly pay to win in that sense at least once you have fully upgraded your vehicle you will be on par with any other player. However it does give you a massive advantage in terms of overall stats which is the ultimate expression of winning. Stats in game can be boiled down to win rate x damage done = XP gain. Bonus XP is not counted to your stats but getting bonus xp and better income lets you skip the grind on stock and crap tanks which keeps free players win rates and damage output down by a large margin. So if not pay to win per game, it is pay to be more competitive in the rankings.

  8. Baconarmy on February 23, 2014

    One of the biggest factors is when it takes an exorbitant amount of effort to achieve something which costs…like 2 bucks. When it would take the average player 10 hours a day to get something credit shop whore 2 seconds to do by making a real money transaction…

    When said item is immensely useful or powerful too

  9. Protokore on February 22, 2014

    Okay first off ill admit i didnt read too much about free to play / pay to win because i for the most part will agree, but the only exception i feel to that system is neverwinter.
    Neverwinter does have a currency you can pay real money for but you can also exchange in game currency for payable currency, which makes it so no one has to truly pay to play this game. AD to Zen was amazing add on which leaves no excuse for people because even if someone does pay to get a little helping hand, there is nothing he can buy that you cant, its just paying for it gets it immediately where as converting AD to zen just takes time because u have to earn the AD to buy Zen. Neverwinter is a TRUE Free To Play game

  10. Gabz on February 21, 2014

    For me there’s 3 categorie free to play , pay to win , pay to enjoy.

    Free to play : You can get everything in the game (except maybe some esthetic items like cloth or paints) In a decent amount of time with in game currencies. Games like Loadout or path of exile are good examples.

    Pay to win: Well you know what it is. The most frustrating kind to me is the pvp super weapons.. But still i prefer dealing with pay to winners than hackers.(Wich is really the worst kind of pay to win… Some people buying aimbots or hacks in pvp games just make me sick) good example are becoming scarce since F2P is becoming so popular but the first 2 years of battlefield heroes is a good example.

    Pay to Enjoy : Noooow this category is getting VERY popular. Games you have to grind months to get those premium credits or items. Games that makes you pay to get essential stuff (Anyone who tried SWTOR as a F2P knows what i mean) Making people pay for PVP, dungeons, items slots and quick bars is pretty much like Wow saying it’s FREE TO PLAY “up to level 20”. almost every Trading card games fits this category.Games like war of the roses, neverwinter and other MMO you need to play 12 hours a day 7 days a week to get the equivalent of 1$ in premium currency is in my opinion a Pay to enjoy.

  11. duty14 on February 20, 2014

    There are some games that do this F2P model very good. 2 of those games are gigantic names and brands.. LOL and Dota 2 . Also Smite does it well, i guess most of MOBA do this well. Also F2P shooters can play very fait in terms of F2P ( ex: Blacklight Retribution-my favorite, Hawken, PS2, TF2-> very good games ) although other F2P shooters titles made in Asia mostly take advantage of P2W.
    Like said before MMORPG’s are the problem mostly. ( and in general in games Asian developers or publishers).
    Maybe because RPG’s are a bigger project, with a bigger budget, and a lot to develop including a continuous content rolling in to keep the players in the game, to keep the players entertained. With Moba players are making the content with each match is different than the previous one. Same with shooters. The PVP focused games need a less atention to new content 24/7 because the players are making the game and content between them. With RPG’s to get to that PVP you have to level up in PWE. And the PWE is ”costly”.

    Players that Pay and support the game should have a little advantage but that advantage should not make a difference from the other players. Thats the developers job to figure out what they want. And we as players decide if its worth playing that game with their model of F2P or P2W game.

  12. Merkadis on February 19, 2014

    Simple really:
    1. If anything present in-game that cannot be gained without paying – Pay To Win.
    2. You encounter lot of annoying “encouragement” to pay – Free To Pay.
    3. Shop like in path of exile that only sells cosmetics – Free To Play.

    Thing is, a lot of ppl used to designate games that are unlikely to be pleasant for f2p users as p2w because p2w is something everyone knows about or/and what that is in the first place.
    It’s simply convenient.

    • Merkadis on February 19, 2014

      I guess we need 1 more designation for games like rift that sell lots of things in shop but all of them can be gained for free.. let’s call it… Free To Obtain, perhaps. ^^)

  13. beastro on February 19, 2014

    want to see a real P2W mmorpg but its a browser game go to (ultimate naruto) any publisher event ninjas cost 500$-700$ just to obtain one. and when you get it your powerful on PVP, (sorry for bad english)

  14. Retro on February 19, 2014

    Rift has no items that alter stats that cannot be gained through gameplay so i think….wait i know rift is F2P

  15. Dumber Asshole on February 19, 2014

    Mounted

  16. fromhelll on February 19, 2014

    I think the outcome of a match/raid should be decided by the player’s skill and strategy, not by buying exclusive gear or skills.
    With that said (at least to me )P2W is pretty clear, paying for gear/items that give you an advantage over a non-paying player, whether it’s a one-shot-kill gun, or a ridiculous amount of armor (looking at you brick-force).

    I’m not sure I would put XP boosts and vault space in the P2W category, unless it’s an extreme case, but things like “double XP for 12/24 hours” I’m OK with since it doesn’t have a direct impact during a match and it requires the player to actually play in order to benefit from it.

    A far as the vault space I wouldn’t say it’s P2W, I think that’s just a stupid-lazy way to try to get money, it’s annoying and has the potential to ruin the game for some players.

    At the beginning of the article “Every free-to-play game is pay-to-win. That’s a sentiment I see all the time”. Yea you’ll usually see that in every comment section of every video for every free-to-play game, but you’ll also see someone else call the game a clone, and some dumb asshole say “first/mounted”, and an even dumber asshole say “first/mounted” even though he’s actually the 7th to comment. I guess my point is not all comments come from people who actually know what they’re talking about.

    To finish up, I’ve mentioned this before somewhere else, but I think F2P has been in an eternal experimental stage until recently, with games like Loadout, LoL, TF2, DOTA 2, etc who have found a way to have a cash shop and keep the gameplay unaffected by it, hopefully this model will be profitable enough for the developers/publishers to be used in newer games. I know those specific games are different from RPGs but I’m sure it can be used to mold a similar model that can apply to the needs of an RPG.

  17. Da flying bird on February 19, 2014

    P2W is that players with money can actually play the game while the “free ones” are just to fill the game, not to enjoy it sad but true.

    The old futuristic mmo Airrivals/Ace Online was a free and a pretty good and highly enjoyable game, at first, but now after some patches the game went fully p2t at the point that a free player being lv 70+ with the best free gear the game has to offer(which before the patch those guys were amazing) now can easlily get kicked by a lv 40-50 premium guy several times, if you are not a premium player then there is no way to see any progress throught the game. I had to left the game after 5 years of play, now im playing WOT but that game is heading to the same objetive.

  18. Name (Required) on February 19, 2014

    P2W… its not P2W if I can get the same by grinding as F2P no matter how long it takes. For me P2W literally means that. You HAVE to pay real money to complete or be the best in the game

    • Sabin on February 20, 2014

      Actually the time really matters, as all mmos tend to keep things at endgame, if a boost makes people get to end game say 80% faster then non paying players, he clearly has an advantage over him which only gets bigger and bigger.

      Even though boosts doesn’t seem like a p2w idea it can become one if the game is too grindy and the boosts are way too good.

  19. CPU on February 19, 2014

    there is no line its only p2w.
    all item shop: boost, gear, ingame money, crafting material, etc are p2w. is like playing single player games with cheats codes

  20. Name (Required) on February 19, 2014

    I’m really getting sick of people saying Hearthstone is p2w. You can get EVERY card in that game FOR FREE if you desire. Paying does not give you an exclusive advantage that non-payers will never obtain. It’s ridiculous the whiners complaining about Hearthstone.

  21. Giovanni on February 19, 2014

    IMO ill give an example, microvolts as an example is P2W.
    heres how u actually know if its pay2win:
    1. if u pay 300 Euro, u can actually get a weapon called “GOD WEAPON” which 1 shots ppl anywhere, which ruins the whole game for others, this is what pisses ppl off, not boosts, im okay with boosts doesnt matter that much, but when it gets to the degree that the game developer releases a weapon or an item that costs 300 euro and u can never die cause u have it thats where the line is drawn.

  22. Sabin on February 19, 2014

    That line can be summed up really easily.

    Anything that it is too hard or takes too long for a free player to acquire but is sold in the cash shop. You can fit anything there.

    See. why isnt gw2 pay 2 win even though you can buy gold with real money, because it isnt hard to acquire gears. Why perfect world , which has the same system is? Because end game gears are reaaaaally hard , that makes perfect world pay 2 win while gw2 isnt.

    Getting xp boosts in most games isnt pay 2 win but in age of wushu is, you can cut by 90% your progressing time with vip and boosts. What would take you years to acomplish a paying player could get it in less then a month.

  23. Rufinus on February 19, 2014

    allods is a truly a pay to win game and i think its the worst kind of pay to win

    • itachi on February 19, 2014

      agreed

    • Krusbar on February 19, 2014

      Doesnt allods also have a p2p server? so peoples that wants to pay in the month can play totaly without the shop. I think thats a good way for peoples that doesn like the shop can always play on a p2p server. In my eyes most of the free games are Free to try and pay to play when your getting to the endgame.

    • Itachi on February 19, 2014

      man if i am going to pay for a game i wouldn’t pick allods bc it sucks instead i’ll go for final fantasy 14 or something else

    • Lunarlurker on February 19, 2014

      Unfortunately, yes, though it’s a shame, as I loved this MMO back when I used to play it 🙁

  24. itzteajay on February 19, 2014

    P2W to me is anything stat related that cannot be gained through in game progress. PVP gear should ALWAYS be earned through in game only because it directly impacts other players and creates imbalance. PVE gear people generally look the other way because you’ve now become an asset in a raid or dungeon. buying credd or plex is fine with me because you can purchase nothing with it besides game time. So buying and selling goes directly into the game and the market price of those items is community driven through supply and demand…. That’s my take on it in it’s simplest form.

  25. Itachi on February 19, 2014

    P2W = be killed with 1 hit like in war of the immortals and some other games

  26. tolshortte on February 18, 2014

    to me pay to win is simple. if you can pay to get an advantage over your opponents or teammates that can not be earned any other way its pay to win hands down. this includes tradable items. just because it can be bought off the AH doesn’t mean it isn’t p2w. after all the best items wont be placed there at there release very often and will always be economically destructive.

    boosts I don’t see as pay to win. I see it more as pay to get there faster. and if you are paying you should get something rewarding.

    cosmetics obviously are not p2w unless attacked with stats or stat holders. but to me aren’t very rewarding at all. they are nice for those who want to look different but for me I don’t care. most of the time I only see my character from a odd or limiting view anyways.

    inventory space can be in some cases. if you can hold more potions etc then you have an advantage and that equates to p2w for me. usually not enough to be bothered with, but I can see in certain circumstances how it could be an issue.

    as far as gear goes, I don’t like seeing gear in a shop at all. but it can be done in a way that isn’t that bad. Warframe sells frames but they aren’t impossible to obtain in other ways relatively easily other than 1 frame that comes to mind. and it isn’t like that frame is a huge difference maker.

    im all for game time in a shop. im all for ingame currency in a shop. this does three things. it makes it f2p for those insane time loggers who don’t want to pay for their game. it makes it so those who would buy gold anyway have a safe way to do it. and it helps eliminate gold spammers which is the most important for me.

    unlocks or content in a shop for me isn’t p2w. but it makes the game to me at least no longer f2p. If you cant access everything without paying I don’t see how it can be called f2p.

    SWToR, well that f2p model is more like a demo to me. and not a good one at that. I bought that game btw and subbed for quite a while. I like the game, but the f2p conversion was so bad even I had to go as a paying player. the non stop hate on its system just got bothersome to the point I just didn’t want to look at it any longer. and a mmo without chat isn’t much of an mmo really.

  27. Aggh on February 18, 2014

    You left out buying power. Pay to win is when there are items that give a noticeable gameplay advantage in a PvP game and they can only be purchased for cash. It’s bad because it affects a direct negative impact on your personal gameplay experience where the most effective counter is buying items with cash to counter it. The same cannot be said of boosts and currency purchases.

    • Zac on February 19, 2014

      It’s also when items that give a noticeable advantage take so long get though in-game means that people get fed up and quit without ever getting them, sick of being “content” and cannon fodder for people who paid.

      There are only a few types of multiplayer games that can make a working and profitable F2P model without selling any kind of advantage. MMORPG is not one of them.

    • frostroses on February 19, 2014

      agreed with Aggh, boosts (not stat boost) & currency are not P2W in my book. I do not consider time as a winning value, so saving few hours rather than paying to skip the content/grind is not P2W. Additional space/bags, cosmetics, or premium emotes also didn’t count as advantage, on the paper, they won’t a premium cosmetic user (as much as i hate to admit) has no advantage over non-paying player. The best game for me is where everything ingame (including premium stuff) is obtainable without paying, but that is not the solution from money maker’s point of view. So we have to make do with some restriction; SWTOR is a bad example, PSO2 is neutral/rather good example (not 100% sure but the i think the premium is auctionable), GW2 is good example (yeah i know it’s B2P).

      • frostroses on February 19, 2014

        scratch “they won’t” from “they won’t a premium cosmetic”; catastrophic mistake on my brain :3

      • Zilthuras on February 24, 2014

        I am unsure what you guys mean by “Boosts” so I won’t comment on that but I will have to disagree on buying currency on any game that has an auction house (it efectively destroys the balance of the economy reducing the coin value to levels that make the prices too unreasonable at even low quality items for non paying clients) or multiplayer gameswith brackets (lvls 1-5, 5-10) were it indirectly lets you buy power (example at lvl 1 having a gun that deals 5 damage and being able to buy a gun that deal 50 damage at an unachievable rate until later lvls) if any of you are familiar with it I’m thinking of something like heilrooms in wow if they were bought with currency from the cash shop.

    • Razer on February 20, 2014

      It was mentioned in the article. He said those games are the very definition of P2W. So pretty much every game that has come out of Korea fits that category. I’ve seen some turds (that also happened to have spent money on the games) vehemently try to deny it though.

      I draw the line at games that require an excessive amount of grinding to be able to trade for cash shop currency in order to buy overpowered premium items. If it’s so difficult to get that it may as well be out of reach for the free player, then that’s a P2W game in my books.

  28. Mounted on February 18, 2014

    MOUNTED

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