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Drawing the "Pay To Win" Line
by Josh Bycer on 11/02/12 03:09:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


When I first started posting a few years back, one of my first posts was on the subject of maintaining balance in free to play games. In which the developer makes the bulk of their money through monetization. Since then, both the rise of the free to play and social game market exploded onto the scene.

As someone who is both a gamer and familiar with design I've always had to straddle the line between thinking as someone who plays games, and as someone who wants to make them. On one hand, coming up with ways to make people spend more money isn't exactly my favorite past time, but on the other hand, a game without any profit is a bankrupt waiting to happen.

This presents us with the topic of the day: Where is the line between getting money from your game vs. forcing people to spend it?

In For a Penny, In For a Pound

Whenever we use the phrase "pay to win" it's normally associated with competitive games. However, as more companies embrace both free to play design and DLC, this motto can sneak its way into cooperative games. Such as designing the game to be difficult unless the player buys DLC only items. Or even more insidious, making quests or missions unsolvable unless the player spends extra money on quest related items.

Asking the player to spend continually for basic items or features, to me is pushing it. The line is drawn in my opinion if these items are essentially throw-aways: once the player uses them they're gone for good without any meaningful permanence.

                                                  Albatross 18

An example of a better use for quick items would be in Team Fortress 2. I spoke about the Mann vs. Machine mode in my post on social game design; for those who don't follow TF2 here is how it works:

You can play non ranked games in the mode for no cost. But there is the option to play in Mann up mode for 99 cents by buying a Mann up Ticket. The ticket is only consumed if the player finishes an entire match, if they are disconnected the ticket will not be used up.

Each time the player consumes a ticket, they will receive one random item, and if they complete an entire series of levels (at this point that would be 6) they'll receive a unique item that can't be found anywhere else.

As with consumables or cheap items in other F2P titles, the tickets are meant to be quick, inexpensive and impulse buys. But unlike having to buy a quest item in a social game, these tickets provide the player with something meaningful: an item that can be used whenever they play TF2.

But in other games, those cheap items have no permanence; once they are used they are erased from your account as if they never existed. For social games that ask the player to spend money to complete quests, all you'll get out of it are some in game resources.

If you as the designer trivialize the act of spending money with throw away items, your fan base is going to know it and will be less likely to spend money in the future. Moving on it's time to talk about the heart of the matter: buying items in competitive games.

                                                  World of Tanks

The Competitive Edge:

Whenever a game allows the player to buy equipment that can be used in a competitive game, the discussion on "pay to win" rears its head. However, unlike the previous topic which is easy to see whether or not the items are a cash grab or not. Here, the issue becomes grey based on how the items are integrated into the design.

The point of contention comes down to this: At what point does money overtake skill? In that post from a few years ago about balancing item design in free to play titles I gave an example that still holds up:

Imagine if we have two race car drivers: one, a twenty year veteran who has driven on every kind of surface, and the other, someone who just got their license two weeks ago. The veteran is given a 40 year old car (unmodified) and the newcomer gets the fastest super car on the market. If both of them were to race, who would win?

The argument of skill vs. money is a fine line to tread and can make or break any game. If your fan base discovers that people who pay money have every advantage, they will leave in droves. The challenge is to figure out that sweet spot in which skill can beat out money.

A few years ago the first free to play title I played was Albatross 18: an arcade golf game in similar vein to the Hot Shots Golf series. There, to improve yourself you would have to buy new clubs, clothing or characters. Some items could be bought with in game currency while the rest required the person to spend real money.

What makes the balance important to this post is how skill and money are factored in. If someone just buys the best gear in the game they'll be able to hit the ball several times further then I can. But if they can't putt and I can, then I have the advantage.

However, if I played against someone who had both a better character then me, and was as good (or better) at putting, then I had no hope of winning. Is that fair, that someone who bought better items, but even skill wise, should have an advantage? I know that some of you reading this right now are immediately thinking "no", but both history and sports have proven otherwise.

When it comes to almost every major sport, an athletic can only be as good as their equipment. The best tennis player in the world would still lose easily if they were using a racket with a giant hole in the middle. Spending money on better gear is just as much a part of competing as training yourself. How many golfers buy a brand new set of clubs after learning and practicing when they want to start competing?

                              World of Tanks' store to unlock new tanks.

And that takes me to where my final opinion is on the line between "pay to win": Money should only supplement player skill, not supersede it. When I was playing World of Tanks, one of things that frustrated me was how much money had an effect on who would win.

Premium tanks (ones that could be bought with real money) had at the time, better stats compared to other tanks of the same tier, and provided more in game resources for using them. Because of how the damage system worked in WoT, tanks that had higher armor were resistant to more damage making otherwise fatal shots ricochet off.

Having someone able to do more with less skill compared to me, just because they spent more money and the punishing factors of trying to play the game for free, eventually drove me away from it.

Going back to Team Fortress 2, because the developers focused on side-grades instead of continually making higher rated items, it prevents someone from having more money to beat out someone with more skill. Granted, the more items someone has for their respective class gives them more utility. However, if the person doesn't know how to use their class effectively, no item in the game will make them play better.
We keep hearing from designers and publishers how more titles are going to be moving away from pure single player experiences. And every new multiplayer game social or not, has some kind of monetization element to keep people playing. While monetization offers a quick rise in case income, without a careful eye to game balance, we won't see the future of the industry, but a crash and burn of traditional game development.

Josh Bycer

posted from my new site: Game-Wisdom 

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Alex Leighton
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What I would like to see more of is a way to clearly tell who has bought their way to the best items and who has legitimately earned them. I remember they did this in PGR2 with the TVR Cebera Speed 12. It was the fastest car in the game, and really was reserved for only the best players (if I remember right you had to platinum everything in the game to unlock it). They eventually decided to sell it as a DLC car, but the one they sold was green, different from the unlockable car's colors. So whenever you saw a green Speed 12 online, you knew right then and there that the person hadn't actually unlocked it, and 9 times out of 10 didn't possess the skill to drive it anyways. It was great, because people who didn't have the time or skill (myself included) got to experience the best car, but the prestige that came with actually earning it wasn't diminished.

Which I guess is another solution: make your game skill based, so that even if you are able to buy your way to the best items, it still takes skill to use them, skill that can only be gotten from practice. Too many games have become purely battles of numbers, where the user presses a button and so long as their item is better, they'll win. If a game is skill based, paying to win won't happen.

Eric Schwarz
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This isn't a big problem in a lot of F2P games because the players who spend money tend to do so on both gameplay boosters as well as cosmetic items. The guy with the pump suit and a gold-plated AK-47? Yeah, he's probably paid money. Obviously this varies a lot depending on the game (wouldn't really work in World of Tanks), but it's pretty common to be able to make the distinction between players who pay and those who don't.

Maurício Gomes
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I stopped playing TF2 after I was unwilling to buy hats used in item sets.

I used to play mostly only as engineer, the first updated with hats that gave stats and were too hard to get playing had a couple of anti-engineer sets.

Yes, crap players still remained crap players.

But some mediocre players could at least, annoy me a lot (even if I still won with inferior equipment).

After two or three months, I ended getting tired of that, and me never finding a single set hat (and I bought TF2 when it was not free, I was not going to spend more money on it), I gave up and stopped playing completely.

Eric Schwarz
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If anything I stopped playing TF2 just because the players themselves became more interested in hats, unlocks etc. than in actually mastering the game and winning. I don't know what the state of the game is now, but when I left, players who paid had no real advantage other than more options - but nobody seemed to want to play properly because they were too busy trading others for gear, talking about what games to preorder to get the best unlocks, etc. The quality of play on the public servers just seemed to plummet around that time.

Martin Juranek
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When it comes to almost every major sport, an athletic can only be as good as their equipment. The best tennis player in the world would still lose easily if they were using a racket with a giant hole in the middle. Spending money on better gear is just as much a part of competing as training yourself. How many golfers buy a brand new set of clubs after learning and practicing when they want to start competing?

1) is typical appeal to nature (
2) you are comparing professional sport (getting money for doing it) with entertainment

Josh Bycer
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2) you are comparing professional sport (getting money for doing it) with entertainment

Except if you look at the latest titles that are F2P or have monetization. High level play has reached a point where people can play in professional tournaments for money. Call of Duty, Dota 2, League of Legends, World of Tanks and probably more have featured tournaments.

And the common link is at that level, people are going to be spending money to have any chance to compete. Either on the latest weapons that are unlocked, or having a huge stable of heroes (or tanks) to use to aid their team.

Hakim Boukellif
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Even in professional sports, you'd ideally want ability to be the sole deciding factor in judging the victor. Unfortunately, reality isn't nice enough to allow that to happen, but videogames don't have that problem.

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Michael Joseph
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Stands to reason. If there is no real incentive to pay nobody is going to pay. Unique shiny hats that allow your character to stand out aesthetically only goes so far.

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Josh Bycer
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"I love the way League of Legends creates fair play, and trustable gameplay. But at the same time being perfectly fair, despite its large platter of "choice" and gameplay "differences .. it is far, far behind WoT in game complexity. And despite the fact Wargaming is an ethically reprehensible company their game is exceedingly better."

This is why I spent more time playing WoT then I did LoL. The times that you have a great round and single handily lead your team to victory were great. But, the rest of time you're just working up the incredibly slow treadmill (unless you spend money). WoT is also the only F2P game I've played where you can lose progress as I had plenty of games where I lost more credits then I actually earned.

Eventually I just got tired of all the ways the developers handicapped you unless you spent money and stopped playing.

Eric Schwarz
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My stance on the ethics of FP2 is that nothing paid-for that affects gameplay should be entirely exclusive. That means that I'm not a fan of selling items you can't get normally, but I'm fine if you're, say, selling the means to get better equipment faster. Cosmetic items are also great to have, because they give players who purchase them a sense of satisfaction and exclusivity without ruining the game for anyone else.

I'm also generally in favor of paid items that are temporary rather than permanent. Obviously this keeps players paying, but provided prices are low I think it's smart to offer purchases that must be renewed. If nothing else I think this keeps players who do spend money playing longer, keeps them paying on a regular basis, etc., but it also makes paying money a bit more tempting for regular players because there's (perceptually) less risk in buying something for "only 30 days."

Gambling systems are things I'm still not entirely sure about. There are a lot of F2P games out there that have some sort of risk/reward mechanic that can be manipulated by paying a fee, such as slot machines which cost money to use, and paying more money can get you better results. Although these are big money-makers for some games, I don't really like the negative connotations as well as the habits it encourages, and to be honest it can come across as a bit sleazy and even damaging to a game's or company's image.

While I am not personally a fan of these sorts of things, when it comes to actually designing games with this business model, I think this makes the most sense and has the least negative impact on players who don't participate. I also think that by and large developers are getting pretty good at handling this sort of thing; the bigger problem is transitioning older games to a new system without alienating existing players (who are paying the bills).

Alexander Symington
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Ideally, I'd go with a whitelist that would probably include only purely cosmetic items and wholly logically independent content (e.g. selling individual levels in a game that doesn't have global character advancement or scoring, such that each is essentially a small self-contained game).

Giving paying players access to resource advantages can clearly be done in relatively less and more damaging ways. However, allowing this at all makes a game inherently impossible to balance to the extent to which base player resources can be differential. Once such a system is added to the design, deciding on any specific limit for how imbalanced we allow the game to become feels very arbitrary to me.