H1Z1 from Sony Online Entertainment.
Show Hide image

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

OLI SCARFF/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era