Pay-to-Win is not the problem

I’ve been reading up on it, and apparently mobile games are the future, so it’s time for a discussion on Free-to-Play.

I want to clarify at the beginning: I don’t mind the Free-to-Play model, and I think there are a lot of developers doing clever things with it. So if you’re hoping that this post is going to decry the scourge on the industry, it’s not.  Sorry.  I also want to clarify that this post isn’t going to be about how to build Free-to-Play games properly, and it’s not going to be a really detailed overview of every problem or issue surrounding Free-to-Play. Other people know a lot more about the nuanced details than I do, so they can handle all of that.

What I want to talk about are questions – specifically, what are some of the trends surrounding our conversations about Free-to-Play, and are those trends aiding the discussion?  What I’ve been finding recently whenever I read up on payment models, is that we’re engaged in a really big conversation about how much players are forced to pay and what happens to the players that are stubborn enough not to pay. As a result, the big question that players ask when encountering new Free-to-Play games is what they’re required to do.

I want to propose that the question you should be asking when you encounter a Free-to-Play system isn’t whether or not you can get around paying; it’s what part of gameplay that payment process is impacting and whether or not that impact is positive or negative.

People tend to have difficulty drawing analogies between different value systems.  Call it a side-effect of living with capitalism or just our inherent bias towards physical mediums, but we have a tough time understanding the similarities between spending actual money and spending time or energy, or even pushing ourselves into an undesirable emotional and mental state.  I bring this up because when I talk to people about Pay-to-Win situations, I want them to understand that paying money isn’t the only thing that may be asked of them, and payment systems don’t always get better just because money is removed from the equation.

What I find interesting when I talk about Free-to-Play is that people start to view money (and monetary freedom) as the highest priority in their evaluations, which I think ultimately detracts from their enjoyment when playing games. I’m not nearly as worried about a company getting more money than it “deserves”, as I am about making sure I, the player, have a positive experience.  So what I worry about when a company asks me for money isn’t whether or not I “needed” to give them that money.  I’m more concerned with the other types of value that I’m both getting and losing when the transaction takes place.  How have the existing systems just been changed by moving me to a new state in the game?

Theoretically, being forced to pay money to win a game or progress in a game should be workable – I’m very hesitant to claim that designers could or can never make Pay-to-Win models into a positive experience.  But I have no problem claiming that Pay-to-Bypass models, or payment models that remove or skip already existing features, are 9 times out of 10 going to cheapen a game.

Let me say this in a slightly clearer fashion -

  • Scrolls wouldn’t stop being a good game if Pearson only made new cards available for money, Magic: The Gathering style.  It would just be more expensive.  The question that we should ask is whether or not the pay system gets in the way of the grinding experience. Why would I spend money for scrolls when I already have such an excellent method of getting them : playing the game?
  • The problem with Tales of Xillia selling you gald has nothing to do with what you pay, because even if they gave gald away for free or as a pre-order bonus it would still get in the way of the game’s meticulously balanced economy.
  • The problem with Plants vs. Zombies 2 isn’t that you can pay for upgrades that let you beat the game. It’s that designers are now being forced to make the game’s difficulty curve unpleasant enough that you want to pay money to skip it.
  • The problem with Dead Space 3 micro-transactions isn’t that the base game already cost you money and EA is being too greedy.  It’s that giving players the option to tune-down horror and difficulty with overpowered guns misses the point of having horror and difficulty to begin with.

And providing alternative methods of progression doesn’t fix or resolve any of that.

Whenever designers ask you for something that’s valuable to you, be it time, effort, emotional commitment, or even money, you should ask yourself why they expect you to give it.  What is motivating you to pay?  With a Free-to-Play system, a designer may not be requiring that you pay them something.  But they’re still asking.  Which means they think there’s something in your current situation that is a net negative – something they can fix.

In a traditional pay-model, you’d probably be paying for gameplay.  But most of the time, Free-to-Play systems can’t do that, at least not without being tricky.  If you’re paying to skip an existing game feature, be it grinding for resources or grinding for unlocks, you’re not doing anything fundamentally different than paying up front, except now you have a secondary mechanic in at least some small way hurting the rest of the game.  The designer needs a way to get you to pay them, which means the alternative to giving them money must be negative enough to get you to occasionally cough up.

That you can theoretically get through Plants vs. Zombies 2 without giving the designers a penny is unimportant and irrelevant.  If the designer’s done their job well enough, you shouldn’t want to.

Basically, this boils down to something I would call purposeful design. The idea is that everything in your game should exist for a reason.  Don’t put systems in a game unless they add something to the experience – that goes for crafting, leveling, collectables, or anything.  Things ought to have a reason to exist.

With all of the examples I’ve listed above, systems already exist for progressing through the game.  In Scrolls, you unlock new cards as you play the game.  In Dead Space 3 you unlock and purchase weapons with limited resources that you need to manage throughout the entire experience.

Why do those systems exist?  Why doesn’t Scrolls give you everything right at the beginning?  Why does Dead Space 3 force you to make choices?  Theoretically, both of those systems should be adding something to the overall experience.  They have a reason to be there.  If a pay system allows you to skip those elements, it’s likely one of two things has happened: a player has given you money and in return you’ve taken away something necessary to their overall enjoyment of your game, or you’ve included something negative in your game in order to hurt anyone who isn’t paying.

Either way, your game just became a little bit worse.

I want to encourage our discussions of the Free-to-Pay genre to focus less on money and more on actual game design.

Your thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Pay-to-Win is not the problem

  1. There can be space in the “purposeful design” to allow the developers to make some money. To say the game is a little bit worse simply due to the inclusion of in-game transactions may be technically correct and is a succinct and apt conclusion to your article, but I also think it’s being very harsh. I don’t want to defend all forms of micro-transactions or their often egregious use, but if the only way the game or various features are even possible is to include some way of generating revenue post-release, it might be worth considering their inclusion.

    1. I actually think I’d agree with you. I have little problem with micro-transactions as a concept – I become frustrated when I feel it gets in the way of design, but there are ways to get around that.

      Magic springs instantly to mind as an example of a well-designed transaction, although I realize Magic isn’t really free-to-play in the traditional sense. In return for money, you get to go deeper into the game by getting more cards to play with, and the game is actually enhanced when you give money – nothing is broken or invalidated. Them asking for money as I acquire cards is an intuitive way to get around what would need to be a massive upfront cost to their game.

      In an alternate world, I can imagine Wizards coming out and saying something to the effect of, “you’ll be getting most of your cards through an online leveling system and you’ll never be forced to purchase from us, but if that’s too slow, then you can buy cards.” At that point, my question would be, “Why is there a leveling system included in the game? Why is it important, specifically to gameplay, that I be grinding for cards? And what does giving me the option to buy cards break in that system? What will that do to me emotionally or technically or to my skill, and is that reaction strengthening the core gameplay experience?”

      It seems weird to say that a game might be weakened by giving players more options, but if the mechanics of purchasing and grinding don’t support each other, I can’t help but feel that one or the other should have been cut. Which is not to say that the model could never work – just that I’d rather talk about how Free-to-Play supports core gameplay, rather than if it’s unfair or greedy – which is a (non-universal) trend I’ve started to notice in discussions about Free-to-Play. They seem to always end up talking about the money rather than the game.

      I value time, so when marketers tell me I won’t ever *need* to spend money, I usually still have doubts about the experience. Tell me that the game will be worth any time or money that I spend. That’s what everybody else does.

      Edit: I’ll mention quickly that Jesse Schell has some interesting thoughts in that direction. I’m not sure I’d agree with everything he says, but it’s a really good example at what thinking about Free-to-Play from a design perspective might look like.

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