It’s a contradiction in the gaming world that the free games have the potential to be the most expensive ones.
The phenomenon is called “pay to win,” where to get to the top of the game and highest ranks and power possible, a player has to pay an insane amount of money. Players are told that a game is free, but are strongly incentivized to spend real money to access substantial content.
These tend to be online games that market themselves as free, hook in newbies and beginners, and then get them to the point where they realize they can’t level up even more unless they pay money for perks, cards, and power-ups.
Look, games are businesses. They have a right to be pay to win if they want to, but in the gaming community of both avid and amateur gamers, pay to win games tend to have a bad reputation because gamers don’t like that the person who shells out the most money tends to be among the elite of the game. I have personally played many mobile games, including Hearthstone, Clash of Clans, and even MapleStory in its later stages that were extremely pay to win.
It starts with something small — usually a card or some more gold coins to level up, and then as you ascend, you have to pay more and more. Pay to win games are a pejorative term for the free to play model of a game being free to start, but needing more money to be competitive and actually have fun playing the game.
Pay to win games capture a fundamental fact of life and psychology: we love shortcuts. Look no further than the famous college admissions scandal of actresses, business leaders, and other wealthy parents being caught for having their kids trying to enter U.S. colleges fraudulently. On a deeper level, we want shortcuts to happiness, to making money, to everything we want because as human beings, we’re naturally impatient.
The best pay-to-win games recognize our impatience and exploit it — and in a sense, they have to. But it doesn’t always work out. EA’s 2017 Star Wars Battlefront II faced backlash from gamers from the inclusion of loot boxes to enhance in-game experience. A huge uproar from the loot boxes led $3 billion in stock value to be completely wiped out after two weeks and permanent removal of loot boxes.
Pay to win games are also more marketable and acceptable in the East, with the exception of Japan. Eustance Huang of CNBC says that Chinese and Korean gamers are much more embracing of the pay to win model, being used to consuming games through the PC and original internet cafe pre-paid game time. As consumers in Chinese and Korean markets are used to paying recurrent costs, they have less of a problem playing games with microtransactions. In fact, microtransactions accounted for 88% of money made from PC games in 2016.
I do prefer other models for gaming when I do these days, which is more sparingly. The traditional model of gaming, pay to play, is gaming as we know it — paying a set amount of money for a game and having access to all the content. Most console games are pay to play, but pay to play games tend to lack the online competition and social atmosphere as free to play, but pay to win games that require microtransactions.
The social aspect is also a huge part of the appeal of pay to win games. Companies like Nexon and Zynga have reputations for making pay to win games, and perhaps part of the reason why I quit MapleStory was that it became too pay to win once it introduced extremely damage enhancing paid items. I was no longer competitive after that. I love MMOs with good social atmospheres and communities, but the toxic nature of pay to win quickly ruins even the best of gaming communities.
Like anything, it’s a balance. I think multiplayer online battle arena games like League of Legends and Dota 2 have a good ethical model where players can pay for cosmetic items but not for any performance-enhancing items. The exception, I guess, is that League of Legends and Dota 2 are very competitive that engage players in ways that a regular mobile game cannot. I remember when I played a really cool RPG named Zenonia on the phone and thought it was too good to be true — it turns out it was, since I’d have to pay an absurd amount of money to finish the story.
Anyways, there’s nothing wrong with a game adopting a pay to win model, because games are businesses inherently. However, it’s wrong for a game to be too pay to win, to prioritize the sin of greed over the very players and consumers that allow the game to exist in the first place. For the best customer satisfaction, even games that do require money to advance and win will not go overboard with it.
Pay to win games need to maintain a fine balance where they still make money off players willing to pay a lot of money to advance, but where players without the financial means to pay still have a good shot, even if it’s a harder path, at rising to the top.
Originally published on SUPERJUMP on June 6, 2020.