H1Z1 from Sony Online Entertainment.
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Should videogames let you pay to win?

Many multiplayer titles offer in-game boosts - for a price. But is it fair when someone beats you by getting out their credit card to bypass learning skills and grinding through upgrades?

When SOE released their new Day Z-style zombie outbreak survivor game H1Z1 on early access the outrage took several forms. There was the outrage that a company would deign to release a game intended to be free to play early for a fee. There was the outrage that it was very similar to the many other survival games being served up with increasing regularity. There were those outraged because the game was, in their opinion, not particularly good even allowing for its early build state, and of course there were also plenty outraged that people had apparently taken a dislike to their newly anointed favourite game.

One set of outraged players however apparently hit a nerve, citing that, contrary to statements from the developers, the game was “pay to win”, and thus bad. SOE seemed to acknowledge this and offered a full no questions asked refund. Possibly they were outraged when they did this, we can only speculate at this time.

The allegation that a game is pay to win can still carries some weight even now when games are absolutely riddled with it. It is an old hatred, an established fear in gaming, the sense that your opponent has an advantage because he or she got their credit card out. For all the negative connotations of gamer behaviour that have come up over the years, video games do try remain a refuge of fair play, albeit increasingly unsuccessfully. The concept of pay to win undermines that fairness to the core.

So what constitutes pay to win? Simply it is what it sounds like- it is paying for a competitive advantage, usually in a multiplayer game. It used to be almost unheard of, and in the sense that there are very few games that will just let you fork over your money for an “I WIN” button this is true, but games are designed more carefully than that these days, and you can buy a leg up in a great many of them, to the extent that the practice has become almost standard.

For example, in single player games, pay to win will often take the form of pre-order items or DLC items in a game that are a direct upgrade over the items you might otherwise have. This is perhaps the saddest form of pay to win, because it can be unintentional. Very few players of single player games intend when deciding on a pre-order or DLC purchase to damage the experience of playing the game. The problem is though that you can end up wrecking the planned difficulty curve of a game just because you pre-ordered it, or wanted to expand the game.

In multiplayer competitive games the most common form of pay to win in use is the pay-to-bypass-grinding model. A lot of online multiplayer games, especially those that are free to play, will withhold their content behind immense amounts of busywork or repetition. Games like War Thunder and World of Tanks operate on this basis, pay the money and get quicker access to the higher end content.

H1Z1 appears at the time of writing to be operating in a similar manner to another SOE game, Planetside 2, which operates on a system where anything practical for fighting the enemy can be acquired through the rewards earned in game, but you can pay money to improve your speed of getting them. In Planetside 2 this meant paying to improve the rate at which you gained points to unlock things or just outright buying weapons, in H1Z1 this means calling in an air drop of supplies, albeit with no guarantee you’ll be the one who gets to collect on it.

A teaser trailer for H1Z1.

In theory if all the content in a game is eventually accessible to the people who don’t pay, then it shouldn’t be considered pay to win, right? Well, no. Simple fact is that if you’re able to pay to bypass the barriers the game puts up to block content you’ll have more access to better things for more of the time you are playing. For example in Planetside 2 if I spend money to upgrade my tank I can use that tank to batter my enemies in greater numbers than achievable with a standard tank, the rich getting richer so to speak.

Some players will pay a little bit to ease their time in a free to play game and take the edge off the grind, especially if they hit points where progress really gets slow. Other players will play for free, forever. Others, known in the industry as “whales”, will spend money in large amounts. For a free to play multiplayer game a developer has to know how to keep all three groups of players on side, because to lose one is to inevitably lose them all.

So how do you keep the players who are paying nothing interested in the game? Well the first thing you have to do is to convince them that they are not there merely as targets for the paying customers. This is not easy to do because anybody who plays a free to play game without paying money for it is exactly that. If you are playing a free to play game and you’re not paying anything you are not a customer, you are content. Maybe you’re a target in PvP, or maybe you’re there to make a town look more crowded, but you’re still there to keep the paying customers happy. That said the developers still need to keep the free players happy, if they lose them the game starts to feel empty and the other players leave. This means that playing a free to play game, even without paying, can still be fun.

The players that spend a bit of money need to be made to feel like they are dodging a bullet of hard repetitive graft by spending some cash. They need to like the game enough to want to spend money on it, but not like it so much that they’d gladly sit there and plough through the same content hundreds of times to unlock new things. Ultimately if you don’t frustrate their attempts to play through the game sooner or later they won’t ever feel compelled to spend. The developer has to purposefully discourage these players enough to crack their wallets open, but not so much that they grow disheartened and quit.

Lastly the whales, they have to be made to feel special, like they are the VIPs of the game, because for all intents and purposes they are. However this needs to be tempered, because if you can spend lots of money and absolutely dominate the free players, regardless of their skill level, then the free players will smell a rat and leave. No free players means an empty game. But if there is no discernable advantage to be gained from throwing a huge fistful of cash at a free to play game then nobody will do it, or they’ll only spend what they need to bypass the repetitiveness.

It is not in the best interests of a developer to have potential whales merely coasting along rather than spending big, so you have to offer them the best stuff. You only have to look at Star Citizen and what some of the backers have spent on that game, before it has even been released, to see the sort of money that a game can take from a really big spending player.

This cheeky red Focke in War Thunder costs about £20. For some reason

So if pay to win has become largely standard for free to play games, what can be done about it? Well the simple answer is nothing. Games designers need to get paid and this business model works incredibly well for them. The companies that adopt it will flourish and those that do not will suffer and short of never playing a free to play game in any capacity there is no challenging that. For now this seems to be the most profitable model, take as much as you can from those that’ll pay it, and let everybody else pootle along for free to keep them company. Any company that drops the ball too badly when it comes to fairness between players will doubtless get a reputation and be called out on it, which will cost them players and money, so the incentive is there to keep things balanced.

The upshot, such as it is, is that there will always be an extra satisfaction in beating people who have tried to buy their way past you in games. Just remember not to do it too often.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood