Everyone Loses When You Pay to Win

by Zeus | 2013-11-10

I've recently decided to boycott Pay to Win games. This means I won't be playing Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, the new trading card game from Blizzard. I even quit a game I've been playing on and off since I was just a kid, Magic: the Gathering. I have plenty of fond memories, but one day it hit me: If somebody pitched the idea of a collectible card game to me today, I'd shoot them down the minute they started talking having to buy "booster packs" to build decks.

A Game of $kill

Pay to Win games award players an advantage over human opponents in exchange for real world money. Defenders of these games will tell you it's not just about cash, it's about skill. If you're too stupid to build a decent Hearthstone deck, you'll lose no matter how many cards you buy. Which is sort of like saying, look, I may have a six minute head start, but it won't do me any good if I forget how my legs work.

Don't worry, I got this.

There are two basic types of skill in videogames. There's player skill, your reflexes, muscle memory, tactics and strategy. And then there's character skill, the in-game statistics that govern your character's power. Both are increased by playing the game. Player skill is (hopefully) increased through practice, while character skill is usually a built-in system of advancement, so that no matter how much you suck at a game, you still have a sense of progression.

Pay to Win fucks up the system. Instead of getting better at the game, or at least playing it until his character gets better, a player can whip out their credit card and significantly increase their chance of success.

I Ain't Got Time to Lose

A weird but common defense for Pay to Win games is that they help the modern gamer who's too busy with work, family and other duties to stay competitive. That problem has existed long before videogames. And yet never before has bribery been seen as the solution.

If you're not good at a game, you deal with losing or find people who play at your skill level. You don't start flashing money and try to buy a handicap.

"I'm too busy to get my pawns all the way across the board. Can I just pay $5 and promote them to queens now?"

No, you may not. Maybe instead you can buy some goddammed dignity.

You've Met Your Match

A subtle problem with Pay to Win game is that they effectively monetize frustration. A balanced matchmaking system works sort of like amateur wrestling weight classes. The idea is to match players of similar skill, so new players can play a game without it turning into the graphic first night of a prison movie.

In League of Legends, there's a system in place to try and make sure newbies don't get their faces melted by accomplished players. People cheat the system, but Riot does try, because they have nothing to gain from your prolonged losing streak.

Compare that to a game where a frustrated player is able to buy a high-powered weapon -- or, God forbid, bullets -- with real world money. Throw players into no-win scenarios and the money starts rolling in.

And once that happens, it becomes less like a game and more like a protection racket.

That's a nice killstreak you got there. Be a shame if someone was to set fire to it. Fires happen. Things burn.

Revenge of the Preppies

Buying in-game perks for real world money is a shortcut. If you want to buy shortcuts in your single player game behind closed doors, it's none of my business. But in a competitive game, it just doesn't feel right. Maybe it's because I grew up watching movies where lovable underdogs faced off against wealthy, sadistic jocks. When the scrappy team of misfits started to turn the game around, the jocks had to turn to shady tactics and dirty tricks. In other words, they sweep the leg.

And that's what getting your ass kicked by some guy with a fat wallet feels like. It feels like you've been cheated, like no amount of cunning could have saved the day.


Your loss was a foregone conclusion. Because the loss was built into a system that rewards those willing to spend money. It's institutionalized bribery. They might as well be paying off a crooked referee, or having their daddy call the dean of the college. A bunch of beefy d-bags just tripped you, sending you face-first into the mud, and now they're going for a big round of high-fives.

But life isn't like the movies, and neither are games. There's no sure victory at the end of a long hard road, no guaranteed win over the jerks with pockets so deep, the only thing poor is their sportsmanship.

Because in the eyes of a Pay to Win game publisher, you are not the good guys. They are.

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