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

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses