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Pay-to-Win is Not the Problem

The conflict between free-to-play and pay-to-win systems has become one of the major focal points of our both our understanding and evaluation of micro-transactions as a whole. But the dichotomy has never actually mattered and probably never will.

This article has been adapted and expanded from an older post on my blog.

Some Setup

I might as well start by clarifying: 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.


I also want to clarify that this article 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.

The psychology of spending money is, well, complicated. And I'll be upfront and say this article isn't going to do that topic full justice. There are nuances behind any topic that that make it difficult to, at least in one sitting, ever encompass every part of that conversation. This article isn't meant to answer every question about Free-to-Play or to end any of the debates surrounding it. Indeed, even while I talk in generalities below, I don't mean to imply that there aren't legitimate questions, exceptions, and other debates to bring to the table about pretty much every point I make.

So rather than stating a broad theory of design, what I actually want to talk about are questions – specifically, what are some of the trends surrounding our conversations about Free-to-Play, and are those trends adding anything to 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, and 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.

Making systems fight

I've read a lot of people claiming that Pay-to-Win and Pay-to-Progress systems are inherently flawed, which I disagree with, at least in theory if not in practice. I woud begin by disputing the supposed differences between a player's enjoyment of gameplay and their enjoyment of any other part of a game, but that's a subject that would be best suited for another post. At the very least, I know that games like Magic seem to use similar systems - you spend money to buy better cards, increasing the flexibility and diversity of your deck and, in a sense, unlocking new ways to play the game.

 But regardless of the merits of Pay-to-Win systems as a whole, what I really have difficulty explaining to myself is how a game benefits from subverting that process, at least from a pure-design perspective. What is this supposed "alternative" to payment, and what business does it have in the game?  Is it meant to be an inferior way of playing, and if not, how does any company expect to make that person pay?  What exactly have we fit by adding additional modes of progression onto a game, by making payments optional or unneccessary?

The selling point of many free-to-pay games, namely how much content they offer and how little customers will be coerced into spending money, doesn't fit into any context of design I've ever seen used before.  And I don't believe that a payment model justifies breaking years of common sense.

I'm beating around the bush here, so let me try to summarize my main points in a slightly clearer fashion -

  • Scrolls wouldn’t stop being a good game if Porser only made new cards available for money, Magic: The Gathering style.  It would just be more expensive.  The question that we should ask instead is : what the payment system does to 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 currency or experience has nothing to do with what you pay, because even if they gave everything away for free or as a pre-order bonus it would still get in the way of the game’s meticulously balanced economy.  There's a reason that resources take effort to get - and buying it invalidates that purpose.
  • 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 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.

Providing alternative methods for progression doesn’t fix or resolve any of that.  The problem isn't money - it's design; and there's no way to have your cake and eat it - either something is worth paying for, in which case the people who don't have it are going to be upset that they don't, or something isn't worth paying for, in which case it's silly to expect people, at least while they're in their right minds, to give you money for it.

My conjecture is that in 9 out of 10 cases, a Free-to-Play system can't simultaneously be on both ends of that spectrum.

Transactions can be simple

The best way I can think of to describe this self-inflicted dichotomy of gameplay is to drop money out of the equation entirely.  Lets say that something happens - suddenly your studio comes into billions of dollars, and you decide in response that all of your micro-transactions are going to be for $0, in fact, the entire game is going to be free.  Would you still include the gameplay options in that case?

Would the designers of Dead Space 3 have put a button into the game that just, well, upgraded weapons, that you could press basically whenever you wanted to, in that situation?  Would a Facebook game with a meticulous energy system put a button in that you could press, whenever you wanted to just ignore that?

Yeah, yeah, I know - some games do; we allow difficulty adjustment, we allow people to customize an experience before they begin it.  But try to think of an experience where every single time you encounter a puzzle or a challenge or any mechanic, you're given the option to ignore it, with no acknowledgement that the mechanic ever existed?  World of Goo allowed you to skip levels, but it didn't mark them as solved afterwords.  Games may allow us to change difficulty settings, but at the very least they acknowledge that we have done so - and there's a mutual understanding between player and designer that in doing so you are interrupting and, in at least a small sense, redefining the original experience.

A transaction is, in its most simple form, an exchange of value between two parties.  You give me something I want (usually money, I really like when people give me that), and I give you something you want. The premise behind all of this is that you would want what I'm offering prior to the transaction taking place.  The money is the price, the reward is separate.

It's not to say that you couldn't talk about a lot of current free-to-play models using those terms: The player wants to level up, so he gives me money, and in return I give him something he wants: a level.  But generally, we have always had an understanding in all of our design-discussions that player motivations aren't that neat and tidy. It's not really correct to say that the player wants to level up or progress, and leave it at that. That understanding of player motivation is the reason why we throw challenges at the user, it's the reason why many games lock their difficulties at the beginning of the game, it's the only reason why games like Kirbie's Epic Yarn or Animal Crossing work at all.

Even the most base, purely psychological and chemical understanding of a game, understands that the euphoria of playing a game, of achieving a goal, is not directly tied to the moment that goal is realized. In short, no one plays a game to get to the end.

Games aren't about winning

I've come to the conclusion that although avoiding Pay-to-Win games can currently be a useful heuristic for both designers and players, like Newtonian physics the formula starts to break down when you think about it too much. "Winning" and competition in general are one component of an extremely large and diverse modern philosophy on games, and there are very few designers that would ever think about games in specifically in those terms until they encounter micro-transactions. For the moment, we have avoided thinking too hard about the current heuristics because we've restricted the Free-to-Play genre to specific areas - multiplayer games, casual experiences, an MMO or two.  We're losing that luxury though.

The future of Free-to-Play is not in Call of Duty or League of Legends. We will have purely competitive games, and they will be Free-to-Play, and people will worry about how they're balanced and designers will tweak formulas endlessly. But very little will be changing there, and very few innovations will be happening. There are, quite frankly, only so many ways you can do skill trees and skins and alternate guns before everyone realizes you're just playing fancy dress up with the same exact payment model over and over again. I'm sure there will be exceptions to the rule, and I'm sure whole dozens of games will come out in those genres to prove me wrong. But I don't that's going to be the norm.

Which is fine - it doesn't need to be the norm, and there's nothing wrong with sticking with a formula that you think works.

But outside of Battlefield and Call of Duty, there are going to be swaths of games that actually do innovate on the Free-to-Play model, and they're going to look very different than what we're currently used to seeing - the MMO Animal Crossing where you can buy furniture and public-works projects, the Disney Infinity and Next-Gen Minecraft where you can purchase new building tools, the single-player Ryse and Dead Space where you purchase upgrades that will never find their way into an online match, and so on and so on.

The problem is that in all of these future games, "winning" and "losing" are extremely vague concepts. These are games that don't have beautiful, simple, black-and-white definitions of a player's motivations, and without the ability to stick every purchase into a category of "necessary" or "optional", our methods of evaluation break down.

But lets be honest: these lines have always been fairly vague. We avoided Pay-to-Win games because we wanted a strong competitive scene, and the best way to do that was to make the competitive scene fair. But the pleasure neurons firing off in your brain don't care whether you competitively crushed someone within a gameplay context or if you simply felt superior because you have the coolest hat.  If there is anything to learn from the meta-games like Team Fortress, it's that not all players value the same things in a game, or what we would deem the correct things. And some values aren't arbitrarily more or less correct just because we as designers like them more.

Of course there are differences between collecting kills and costumes - we could talk about skins being a form of asynchronous progression, or putting less pressure on the player to pursue them because they're optional. We could talk about competitive perks being less satisfying because they feel less genuine, or the dangers of creating an arms race.  There are all sorts of things we could debate.

But we don't.  We talk about whether or not you can buy guns, and whether or not rune-pages really are enough to carry a match, and whether or not difficulty is adjusted on the fly to make you need the purchase more.

Purposeful Inclusion

Back to what I was talking about earlier with transactions: a lot of this boils down to a concept I call Purposeful Inclusion. It's the idea is that everything in your game should exist because it does something.  Don’t put systems in a game unless they add something to the experience – that goes for crafting, leveling, collectables, 3D, or anything at all really.  Things ought to have a reason to exist.

When I talk about Free-to-Play I like to drop money out of the equation because it reveals to me what exactly is being offered to the consumer.  When we allow people to skip grinding for an in-game currency, or to get faster upgrades, what we're doing is shifting their experience away from one mechanic into an entirely separate but parallel mechanic - often with no indication at all to the player that we're doing so.

People are giving us money, and we're taking mechanics away from them - fundamentally changing the way they experience the game.

Again, I don't care about costs, or how much money someone is making and whether or not that's greedy, or anything along those lines.  But I want to know why any alternative to spending money existed in the first place.  Why can you grind for cards in Scrolls?  Why can you unlock new decks in Duels of the Planeswalkers by playing the game?

What do those systems do?  What is their reason for existence? And why, as a designer, would I want to allow a player to bypass that system?

When I design a system that allows you to pay money to skip or remove a section or piece of gameplay - a piece of gameplay that ought to be adding something to the experience in a unique and elegant way, even if it's something as trivial as grinding or progression through the game, I realize one of two things is happened - 

  • This game has bad, poorly designed mechanics, and I've made you give me money to remove them.
  • This game has good, valuable and well-designed mechanics, and I've made you give me money to remove them.

And this is the crux of the matter. There's no such thing as a well made Free-to-Play game where you will never want or need to give the designers money. There are Free-to-Play games that are basically freeware games, with a Free-to-Play system on the side you don't personally care about. There are Free-to-Play games that give you everything up front and never have anything of value to sell you. And just like a demo that doesn't make you want to purchase a full game - we need to recognize these systems have failed at their original purpose, not laud them for never "pressuring" a consumer into spending money.

A well designed game; a tight, elegant complete game, relies on all of its mechanics to create a cohesive experience.  And when it locks part of that experience away from you, because you love the cohesive, totality of the system, you will want that piece.  And you will pay money to unlock it.

And that is perfectly OK.

It's not evil for a company to put a paywall in front of you - it's not evil in any fundamental sense for a game to try and get you hooked on microtransactions, or to make you feel like you're renting gameplay, or anything along those lines.  The problem has never been money, or Pay-to-Win, or Pay-to-Progress; it has always been about design.

But when we focus on the wrong things, nothing ever gets fixed or progresses.

What exactly are we scared of?

I understand that one of the advantages of the Free-to-Play system is in the way it decreases the initial investment of players. And I understand how that can make a consumer or a designer feel wary about the practice. I understand that the first question that pops into someone's mind may possibly be, "what's the catch?"

If I had to guess, despite being in no intellectual position to do so, I would say that when we first started talking about Free-to-Play, we were so worried about the implications of that question that we dropped talking about a medium and spent all of our energy trying to convince players that there wasn't a catch. They could grind for points, and the things we were offering was all stuff they didn't care about anyway, and there was so much extra content that if they payed a dollar or two they'd have already invested hours and hours, and so on and so on.

And the really vocal players started to respond and issue their own demands: These are the things we don't really care about, so you can charge for them, but it would be immoral if you stopped charging casuals for what they want and started charging us for what we want, and this is the amount you're allowed to advertise your product, because hiding a purchase behind two menus has a direct influence on its moral and artistic merit, and so on and so on.

If I had to make a statement about that, despite not being in a position of authority or credibility to do so, I would say that is was understandable for us to have those reactions. But it was also stupid and hurt the entire industry.

So I want to encourage our discussions of the Free-to-Pay genre to focus less on money and more on actual game design, I want to encourage designers to stop treating the Free-to-Pay market like an island that plays by its own entirely separate rules from any other artistic medium, and I want to encourage consumers to talk less about whether or not they need to spend money, and more about what actually happens when they do.

Your thoughts?

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