Is Pay to Win Coming to an End?

I’m really liking what I see with payment models across the gaming industry in general. For a while there it was an obvious turn toward free-to-play, and no one had the model figured out. We saw most in the MMO space going with a pay-to-win approach, or a nickel-and-time model. The trend is still moving toward this idea that gaming should be “free,” and they are still setting themselves up to make a lot more money off their players, but the entire scheme is being marketed in a much better way.

Marketing gets a bad rap for being this sneaky, slimy way of seducing people in and (here’s the key) not providing any value in return–that sense of being tricked. Good marketing, which we’re seeing more of today, still entices people to play the game, but they do so with a sense of comfort that they don’t have to spend money.  It’s the idea that I can play a game, not spend any money, but still enjoy the game completely that keeps people playing and will entice more people to try. Believe it or not, a huge part of marketing in this industry is developing a product (game) that can actually stand up against the competition. I think people are also wising up to the idea that the ‘core gamer’ in the MMO market–the one who will stick around and be the source of revenue–isn’t cool with the pay-to-win model.  That same demographic wants AAA games. In past I would laugh in your face if you told me a F2P game could ever be AAA, but now if I’ll laugh in your face if it’s not.

A big company isn’t going to just one day say, “hey we should make all of our games free for everyone, stop selling games entirely, and sell in-game clothing.. and we should do that in games with a $20 million budget! That will make us millions!”  I believe in data and market research. Trusting your golden gut is like rolling the dice, even if you think you know the industry. Data should be one of the foundations upon which you make decisions and formulate a strategy.

As pay-to-win starts fade away let’s hope the new F2P strategies (hopefully backed by real data and smart marketing) will lead to better games. In the end, I’m still a firm believer in subscription models and virtual worlds, but what I most care about are great games designed to keep people playing and enjoying a rich and fun experience.

Thoughts? I think we can all agree that the insidious F2P model fading away is a great thing for MMOs and gaming in general. What are your thoughts on this newer more laid back, “hey, give us your money if you want. No big deal!” F2P strategy?

  • I’ll be interested to see how AA F2P works out. Clearly any serious player will want to be a “premium” player, which provides access to property ownership and faster crafting times. Of course this also comes with a monthly-sub fee. No biggie there to me. If I’m enjoying the game that much, $15/month has always seemed fair. I’ll be interested to see how the in-game currency works, too. Is it for purely cosmetic purposes?

    F2P appears to be transitioning to the AA model. Hardcore and very active players will sub, and micro-transactions will be available, hopefully only on a cosmetic basis. This makes alot of sense in a way. With so many MMOs to choose from, the initial price point of $50-$60 could prevent players from playing. So, you can try it for free and if you like it, then sub! Brilliant. I just hope the in-game transactions stay purely cosmetic. A minor buff to exp gain from pots, etc could be bearable, but this leads to a very slippery slope.

  • Was pay 2 win ever really a thing outside of Asia and mobile gaming? The closest I ever experienced on PC was Maple Story, which wasn’t even that bad in the US. All the mainstream MMO’s I’ve played in the last 5-10 years were fine (LOTRO, Rift, Aion, Wildstar etc).

  • @JJ Robinson

    I’m in the AA Alpha right now and the F2P features are much discussed throughout alliance chat. Trolls will be trolls as per usual to say things like “Trion is going to charge us just to get experience with the next patch,” and things of the like. Now from my experience thus far, I can tell that they will likely add things like experience potions and crafting potions into the in-game shop. The difference between AA and lots of other F2P games is that there isn’t really an emphasis on Leveling as much as other things (such as guild activities, building up a house/farm, pvp, etc.) As far as I’m concerned, I could care less if they add experience potions in AA cause leveling is pretty quick anyway. I think very highly of the game so far. The pvp is fun, the instances are sorta challenging (though not really my thing anyway), and the class diversity is huge.

  • I feel like things really started to take a turn in the right direction with League of Legends. You can earn everything in League without spending a penny, but you can choose to buy champs with RL money if you want, or buy cosmetic changes too. None of it had any real impact on how well you could perform in game. The only way you could gain power was by leveling up your account.

    I think GW2 really opened the doors up for MMO’s when it came to this type of model. Virtually everything you can buy on the trading post is cosmetic, and Arenanet even made sure to market it as a game where you could pay for vanity, but not power. Now that some really big market games have proven you don’t need to entice people into buying things by selling them stuff that gives them an advantage in game, I think you will see that become more and more prevalent. I think it’s also become pretty clear that for a lot of the people that want to spend money, fashion is possibly the biggest draw for them. Gamers love to look at their little avatar or character and admire how cool they look, I know I do!

  • @Tristan: LOTRO was definitely P2W… by far. WildStar isn’t F2P, Rift launched as a subscription game then changed, Aion and so did Aion.

    Not just MMOs though, gaming in general.

    @JJ Robinson: AA F2P is definitely on the edge of P2W in my book. There’s an absolute necessity to spend money for any serious player. I think you basically have to pay a subscription or something to access the features. That’s a very dangerous game to play when you have a “F2P” game and require a sub.

  • At a developper conference last week in London, Jason Avent, director of BossAlient (CSR Racing Studio is their game), now part of the Zynga umbrella, was quoted saying : “I think we’re moving away from the aggressive initial monetization. It’s getting people into that longer game. […] I don’t think paywalls are the future […] We need to move away from exploiting a small number of people, and instead work to make lots of people stick around.”

    It was said more in the context of mobile gaming, but I hope his diagnosis is right and that his conclusion is shared among developpers and producers accross all gaming platforms. The “whale model” isn’t simply viable in the long run in my opinion, neither does the “let’s copy the flavor of month” model is. Games should be about having fun and wanting to come back for more like other forms of entertainment.

  • I don’t mind giving players the option to purchase viable items with money. What I hate is being forced to micro-transaction just to play the game the way it was meant to be played. For example, SoE’s Free version of Vanguard, you could only choose certain classes/races for free, you couldn’t equip gear past a certain tier, you couldn’t raise either some skill or stat or something past a certain limit without paying. It was just garbage.

  • All this self entitlement gamers have to play MMO’s for free is reaching ridiculous levels, how are developers suppose to make money? Purely on Vanity items and other gimmicks? Nah gimme a break. I like subscription models, you like the game, you pay monthly end of story.

    AA may seem like p2w, but the developers need to make money, and they let you access the heart of a sandbox game (crafting) with a monthly fee. They let you try the game for free, and if you like what you see and want to craft you pay a sub.

    What annoy’s me is the rest of the free loaders bitching that they are not competitive. So they want to play for free AND compete with the players that are paying a sub? Bullshit I say.

  • Well in GW2 I could definitely have made an Ascended weapon a lot faster and easier by spending cash. That seems like pay to win to me. The whole game seemed cheapened by its pay or grind philosophy.

  • @Solarbear: Ah, I was not aware of that aspect. In that case, it definitely pushes the boundaries of P2W.

  • I can live with f2p is video games, but it would ruin any real MMORPG for me. People love to talk about cosmetics being ok, except in some ways cosmetics would be the worst offenders of breaking “the magic circle.”

    I remember seeing my first set of rubicite, first fiery avenger, etc. If the same look (or different but just as awesome look) was available for $39.99, it would have ruined EQ for me more quickly than someone paying for +STR boosts, which would not be obvious to me.

  • For whatever reason the Pay formula for League of Legends is really good. I know people who have hundreds of characters and hundreds of skins. And it doesn’t detract from the game at all, in some ways the cash shop simply enhances the game rather than detract. I am not sure how to copy that into a MMO. GW2 started out as an incredible bargain with relatively few reasons to spend cash, now the entire game is run by an Economist to make the players as a group spend as much money as possible. Every drop every item needed for an Ascended or Legendary item is carefully monitored and planned so that people will eventually skip some stage and just spend cash. It’s dodgy and leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I would much rather pay a sub and/or have a system where you pay by the minute like in some Asian MMO’s.

  • I spent $1000 on f2p games in 2012-2013 and $50 in the first half of 2014.

    It’s not shiny anymore.

  • Some people say if they pay money than they should have an advantage over free to play players but then where is the glory or satisfaction in being the best? It obviously satisfies some need or want in them but it certainly isn’t the thrill of competition and being the best because you’re not the best, you just spent more money. To follow their weird view on the world why bother training and playing any game when you can buy yourself all the trophies and medals you like, hang them on the wall and show people, or better yet, keep all the receipts you get grocery shopping at stick them on your wall, that will show everyone how good you are at buying stuff.
    I played free to play games before and sooner or later it became simply pay to compete or be cannon fodder for the people who pay. The first few times I did bite the bait because I had spent so much time building up my game and made a few friends along the way that I didn’t want to have it all destroyed by some credit card warrior. Eventually though there were more and more advantages being offered for the credit card warriors that the game became pointless, skill and tactics counted for nothing. I was left with that awful feeling of why didn’t I quit months ago.
    These games operators operate like the big casinos, they target the whales and addicts to make their money so your casual spender (people playing the slot machines ) doesn’t get much consideration let alone the people wandering around for free. I hope it is the end of this model because it may be profitable but everything else about it stinks. Paying to avoid the grunt work is fine, paying to win is morally repugnant and just plain pathetic. Hopefully whoever wrote this article is correct.