Let’s take a look at the history of MMOs. What are some of the most successful MMOs of all time? The first two I think of are World of Warcraft and Old School RuneScape. Of course, if I extended that list to more modern examples, I’d have to include Final Fantasy XV, Guild Wars 2 and more, but I digress. Most online gamers in their 20s started their online gaming career on one of these two games. This wasn’t the beginning of online gaming but these are two landmark games that still hold popularity today. Why? There’s a lot of reasons why, but it comes down to more than just massive worlds with lots to do and good friends. Most anyone who played one of these two games has come back to it months or years later so it begs the question: why do we go back to games?
Pay-to-win (or P2W) is a term used often in online gaming. It’s a term that gets thrown around these days to any game where you can buy advantages over another player. Though the definition varies from situation to situation, a game is generally P2W when you can pay a decent sum of money (whether it’s $30 or $500) and gain a numbers advantage over people who have played the game without paying a cent.
Even games that started with optional subscription fees like ArcheAge only had slight advantage over free players. Patrons, as they were called, had different colored mounts with the same skills and stats of a regular mount, better stamina regeneration that only affected life skills and had no effect on combat, and the ability to own land which was scarce and only helped you very slowly make money and have a cool house to show off. All these things don’t make me better than you in an otherwise even fight if I’m paying and you’re not. Those were the glory days of ArcheAge before it REALLY became P2W.
Let’s take a look at another game that was popular “back in the day” called Maplestory. Maplestory is an anime-styled MMORPG originally from Korea with cute, anime-styled graphics and a very heavy emphasis on grinding out levels for hours on end. The measure of your strength was your level and your gear. Unfortunately the game devolved to where you could buy gear and exp boosts for real money. For the player without mom’s credit card, it was frustrating to watch friends and others get ahead and do more damage just because they couldn’t buy advantages.
Yet somehow, Maplestory stays relatively strong for its age at over 46,000 Reddit subscribers (compare that to 100k Runescape subs and 76k EVE online subs). Numbers surely waxed and waned over the years, with major patches like the Big Bang raising interest when leveling got easier and changes like a global market that allowed for microtransactions creating an unfair advatage which dropped morale to the average player. The lowest Maplestory reached was probably right before the Reboot server launched. The Reboot server surely saved the game for non-P2W players because it took the game back to its roots before greedy corporations attempted to over-monetize (a.k.a. bleed the game dry) and everyone quit.
When games become so P2W that you lose your fanbase it’s because the players can’t compete with others. When a person can buy huge boosts to the tedious leveling process, pets that pick up items, new armor and weapons that quickly outclass anything a free player will get, etc., no one wants to compete with them. Soon, all the wealth is held by the few and everyone outside this chosen credit card-wielding alliance is left to starve.
We have pay-to-win games all over the place but we’re historically okay with some being P2W and some we aren’t. The distinction is: P2W isn’t the problem, P2W on a competitive game is the problem.
Most RuneScape free-to-play players were cool with having member friends because they could help free players out with higher stats, more skills and other things put to use free players don’t have. Plus no one could pay $500 and be better than a free player – the standard was a set dollar value per month. Paid players had no damage advantage on a free world over free players, keeping a blissful bubble around players without the privilege to spend money on the game. This meant free players still had competition in their own right and paid players could compete against other paid players with similar advantages. The game wouldn’t have been fair if a paid player could take all his subscription-required gear and stomp on free players in their own territory.
World of Warcraft charged a subscription from the start, only offering a short free trial. This way, everyone is paying a small fee to keep playing the game but you won’t be winning battles through your credit card. Everyone stayed on the same playing field this way.
ArcheAge was super popular at first because the slight advantages you had only sped things up and the fights were still fair. The game was doomed when you could buy damage boosts and pay $500 for endgame gear that honest work wouldn’t be able to afford for another year.
The problem with P2W is players get frustrated when your wallet is worth more than my skill. “Competitive integrity” is the term coined for this phenomenon. If a competitive game takes out competitive integrity no one wants to play it.
So how should a company make their profit?
If a company is looking to make money in the West, I’d point them at the pay-to-play model of RuneScape or the buy-to-play model of games where you pay once and never have to pay again. Cash shops should have convenience, never advantage. My all-time favorite business model is HiRez’s Smite. You can slowly unlock all the characters, real-money buy small exp and gold boosts for convenience, unlock some skins through in-game gold and events plus other skins are hilariously fun and makes you want to spend money on the game. On top of all that, you can practically purchase the game by paying $29.99 to get all the characters plus all future characters. It’s a great value and nearly guarantees customers will spend a few bucks on it or skins or both. But as I’ve said, dropping $500 won’t make you win a fight or even give a slight advantage. The only advantage you’ll have is some leveling boosts and some really fun skins that add nothing but smiles to the game. The competitive integrity of the game remains in tact.
As players, we have to remember that every game is looking to turn a profit. Games that don’t (I’m looking at you Dragon Nest) get sold or shut down. We all want to play for free; paying shouldn’t be something we have to do to keep up with others who play and try less but can pay more. Either keep your competitive integrity or never approach P2W.
Games like ArcheAge, Maplestory and Black Desert lost their fanbase fast after players could spend an unlimited amount of money for an increasingly ridiculous advantage (but let the record show BDO is going strong again after some misinformation and setbacks). Players grew tired of getting their hard work stomped out entirely by a credit card with no realistic chance to catch up. The competitive integrity died in the process.
With competitive games ever continuing as the trend, P2W has to stop being a trend. There are healthy ways to keep a steady income without bleeding players — and by extension their patience — dry. Keep a game’s competitive integrity alive or you won’t have much of a game left.