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Drawing the "Pay To Win" Line

As more designers experiment on free to play design and DLC, where is the line of requiring gamers to keep spending money?

Josh Bycer, Blogger

November 2, 2012

8 Min Read

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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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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