|State of the Game PvE 46: pay2win
Autor: 4thVariety, letztes Update: 04.05.2012
If I tried to explain to you what a t-shirt was, you would, no doubt, declare me an idiot for trying to do so. Everybody knows what a t-shirt is and there aren't that many arguments about what does and does not constitute a t-shirt. So unless you are a member of an Amazonian rain forest tribe who never met anybody beyond his own group of people, you know what a t-shirt is. We are all the same kind of naked without it and we all know what wearing a t-shirt means; hence the universal understanding of the appeal of having wet t-shirt contests without ever having seen one. Currently, community and ArenaNet alike are tossing around a buzzword. Arguments are put forward with passion on both sides, however, there seems to be a slight problem. In contrast to the word t-shirt, this new buzzword and what goes into it does not have the same meaning to all the people discussing it. As a result, a lot of arguments from both camps utterly fail to have any sort of meaningful impact on the other side. If you haven't guessed it, the buzzword is:
The problem arises from Guild Wars 2 being an MMO. In a football game, a quizshow, or a match of Street Fighter, the definition of winning is practically a given. If I told you, I won today's football match, then everybody knows what that means. If I were to tell you that I just won at Guild Wars 2, then most people would be at a loss as to what I just achieved. Different players have different definitions of “winning” at Guild Wars 2. There is not that one state which defines having won the game. “Winning” being such a complicated mess of entirely different concepts, means paying money to win applies to far more things than anybody is willing to admit.
The definition of winning championed by ArenaNet is the one applying to coordinated PvP matches. It is very simple, two teams of five each get assigned a character with the same statistical baseline on their character spreadsheets. Different characters exist, but they are in a state of balance, wherein one class is not inherently better than all the others. Pay2win in this environment would be the ability to pay money to get a class which is stronger than all the other classes, or simply get a level 85 character instead of a level 80. ArenaNet hedges its legend of winning in PVP being something that is achieved by the player and not by the character the player is controlling. Which is a common thing for a first person shooter, but a rather uncommon thing for an RPG. The ability to gain five extra levels over all opponents is totally out of the question, whether you need $10 to unlock them or grind PvE for 10 more hours. This is what ArenaNet is talking about when they mention pay2win and it is this paid advantage they reject first and foremost.
Sure, the pool gets mighty muddy once tournaments with price money are involved, or companies want their product advertised. After all, if I found a sponsor to fund my inevitable victory at the Guild Wars 2 world championships and I started recruiting the best players in the world, by paying them the money the sponsor gave me, then we are back to pay2win. If I used the community forums to befriend the best players, it could be called socilize2win. One way or another, the ideals of ArenaNet can be circumvented. It is never just the holy grail of player skill winning the match. I hope this helps understand that ArenaNet respecting the definition of winning the players come up with for themselves is more important, than the players respecting the way winning is achieved in the end.
Because in PvE winning is a great many things. Winning can be the race to hit level 80. Winning can mean you completed the storyline. Winning can mean you earned all the achievements. Winning can mean you maxed out your equipment, your guild hall, all the collectibles, and, and, and. The most important thing to realize is winning being different for every player. One player hates raiding, the next cares for little else but raiding. Winning is reaching the goal you set for yourself, because no MMO is going to afford you with a “You Win, now go home” screen anytime soon. That is a relic of arcade machines wanting the next person in line to drop a quarter for a change. Winning is not something which has to be based entirely on your own ideas. Chances are, peer pressure and competitive spirit drive you to perceive winning as something very hard to come by that originally was not your own idea. Maybe winning is you having fun playing the game with your friends? If that is the case, there is no microtransaction in the world ArenaNet could sell you to win the game. Unless you are the press, in which case every PR person is your best friend to play the game with. You might observe a similar effect when shopping for a car and every car sales man is your best buddy in the world. There is always a way around everything in order to make you feel, as if you just won and nudge you to do the bidding of somebody else.
The challenge for a player, who just defined winning for himself, is now to find out how winning is achieved. Which irrevocably brings us to the concept of time. You have to spend time in order to win Guild Wars 2. No matter how you define winning, no matter how intricate your min-max strategy guide is, there is an aspect of time. You have to spend time grinding gold, just as you have to spend time training PvP. Time is the only resource you can pour into the game. Time is even the only resource you can spend on your dayjob; after getting it for having the right skillset. Few people get paid for piecework these days, the majority is paid by the hour. Time being money is a concept everybody understands today. But go back 300 years, when most people were not paid by the hour and the very idea of time being money sounds rather ludicrous to the general public. The contract with the local guild masters allotting you the exact amount of shoes you were allowed to produce in one year, that was money. If you made more shoes in less time, that did not amount to more money, rather a different distribution of work hours and off-hours. Don't you even think about getting a second job back then. Time being money is a concept of industrialization and free market enterprise.
If there is one thing we did to our MMO gaming habits, then it was having them industrialized. Everything is optimized, follows a concise plan and is target oriented. By the way, this does not only apply to games, in case you were wondering, your fitness crazed neighbor is pretty much on the same type of self-brutalizing enjoyment schedule. Back to gamers, we do not just spend time in MMOs anymore, thanks to being educated by advertisements, we spend valuable time. If money is valuable and time is money, then time is valuable as well, right? If you see trailers or articles advertising a game, then the message you see repeated over and over beneath the flurry of audio-visual special effects is that the game is worth your valuable time. $60 is not a problem, because your time is worth that investment. Monthly fees might affect the costs of a game, but they do not affect the perceived value of your time spend playing the game, no matter how ridiculous the time requirements inside that game are.
The only thing having an impact on the perceived value of your time spent are Chinese goldfarmers. Those people stand for your valuable time being outsourced to a country where time is of lesser value, hence labor costs are cheaper, hence items produced are of lesser value; even if they are exact duplicates! Publishers respond by implementing anti-botting, anti-hacking and anti-goldfarming measures, not to protect the ingame economy, but to protect the value a player's time has inside the game. The worst case scenario has to be stopped, which is people arriving at the conclusion a game was no longer worth their time, or other player completely ruin the value of any time-investment. At such a point, there is no state of winning left to spend their time on. Once players think they reached that point, they are gone. Deleting 11 Level 85 characters in the process? Not a problem, when the perceived value of their time has collapsed. You might have heard people making the argument some MMO was better than Guild Wars 1 because it had 200 levels instead of 20. These players do not believe in the practical value of having 200 levels, there is none. They are saying it, because levels are one of the major payments players receive for spending time and how they feel a game should give them measurable feedback on how much the game values their efforts over time.
This is courtesy of the fact of the western world living in the age of the protestant work ethic. We value 'working to achieve' higher than 'paying to achieve'. Subconsciously, we all know the demon of wasted time. We just learned it is best not to listen to him all the time, unless we want to end up with burnout syndrome. Multiple entertainment industries exist to ensure we can have carefree enjoyment and a “waste of time” is instead considered an investment in the personal pursuit of happiness. From birth, we consume entertainment industry products tailor-made to make our time as pleasant as possible. Naturally, all this entertainment is highly educational and useful for personal development as well.
But as every fairy tale has its villain, the gaming industry has a dark shadow looming over it. They are called free2play games. They are not called free2enjoy games, because they most certainly are anything but enjoyable out of the box; download inbox that is. Those f2p games do not try to make a sale by agreeing with the player on the value of the time he is spending. Instead, f2p games undertake every effort to disrespect the time of a player, by dragging out every tiny thing that much longer than even a game with monthly fees would dare to do. The carrot on a stick, dangled before the player, is not achievement, it is an end to being frustrated with delays. Two entirely different approaches have been developed to capitalize on this carrot. In the East-Asian market, the time of the player is disrespected to make him spend money on the game. Money plus time then equals entertaining time and hopefully the player values that. If the player has no concept of valuing his own time, then I suppose he can play for free. For all the other players, who are paying, money buys them respect for their time one microtransaction at a time.
This concept of doing microtransactions has taken some root in the west. By far the the bigger market is the western alternative to this Asian approach. Zynga, often called the scourge of gaming does it best. They are the western counter-concept to the Asian free2play game. Instead of paying money so that the game starts respecting your time investment, the game asks you to drag your friends into it. That will result in the game starting to hand out more rewards which the player can then spend on “winning” the game. The game starts to attribute more value to your time, not because you bought an item for $5, but because you brought a friend into the game. Playerbase is something to be sold to advertisers/investors and you can still buy the $5 items regardless, with nobody complaining too much. The trick was not trading inflationary amounts of time for those cash-items, the way GW2 suggests, but friends playing the game (or random idiots from your past that pop up on Facebook after 10 years). Earlier I said, if playing with your friends is your definition of winning, then ArenaNet does not have a microtransaction for it. Now I hope it is painfully obvious that Zynga does have that microtransaction. Your friends are a commodity the game happily takes in exchange for respecting your time more than it did before. Which is a good thing, since all friends benefit from the game doing that. Blizzard is doing the same with its promotions to bring back people into their games. Blizzard are not trying to mimic Asian f2p grinders to boost profits, they are going the Zynga route in their own way. If Blizzard is doing something, I would be taking notes, because they are not in the business of making 90% of their profits in Asia the way NCsoft does. 90% of Blizzard's annual $1.2 billion come from America and Europe, as detailed in their public financial statements. Respecting the time of players in the West is more profitable than trying to sell premium time in a country where $200 a month is considered a fair wage.
This is, in essence, the challenge ahead for the Guild Wars 2 microtransaction shop. It needs to respect the time players put into the game and not turn it a commodity. The shop must not undermine the definition of winning people have chosen to apply to themselves by selling “the state of win”. All concepts of all players, not just the concept of winning some PvP fans at ArenaNet have. Because I, personally, as a PvE player could not care less for a +5 level microtransactions you need to compete at a tournament. If I want to win a Badminton tournament, I do not enter it with a $10 off-the-shelf racket and plastic shuttlecocks, so why would I enter a GW2 tournament with an off-the-shelf level 80 character?
I hear your PvP brain scream “oh, but the game is supposed to be about skill, not entry fees”. Nicely put, because that is exactly how I wager every single PvE player is thinking as well. However, most PvE rewards in GW1 were a result of time spent after gaining some form of knowledge on how to min-max that reward; self-proclaimed min-max strategies of pure stupidity count as well. The same applies to GW2. For example, crafting is not a minigame based on skill, it is a game of sorting your inventory after playing for extended periods of time. Outside of core combat, there is no skill based gaming, there is just time based reward allotment. But when time is the only thing you can spend as a PvE player and the developer is then publicly stating that it wants to make your time more efficient by taking more of your money, things are bound to get ugly. Because at that point, the respect for your time is gone and you have the world's first free2play game sold for $55. Suddenly you might find your personal definition of winning is no longer just an issue of spending time training and having skill, or just spending time grinding. Your definition of winning is also subject to your willingness to spend money accelerating the process of winning. Not something you know from all these other $60 mainstream games.
This is when the nasty itch sets in and you second-guess everything in the game. Do things take that long because I am a bad player, or am I supposed to pay more money to accelerate processes and systems to convenient levels? It would also be a grave mistake on part of the publisher to believe this was an issue of pricing. It is not the price of the microtransaction that drives you away, it is what the item does to how you perceive the time you spend. Paying $60 for another game which treasures your time more, is not that big a deal for those who earn money. Spending $5-$10 on one of 2000 Steam games in that price category is not that big a deal for kids with allowances now targeted with microtransactions. In the end, it is not convenience which is being sold in western gaming, it is the appreciation of your time by filling it with something fun. The sale is done in small and large increments. But it may never hold your time hostage, because when push comes to shove, games do not have the leverage of a masked man holding a gun to your kids and wife. Groups of friends might have that leverage, which brings us back to taking cues from Zynga and entirely different reward mechanisms compared to the average free2play grinder from Aisa, which only exists because it was a little risk project with only localization costs. For every player who is happy about goldselling being sanctioned, there is one for whom it means cheating has just been turned into this year's hot product. The cold reality being, that in a room in Korea, there sits one person weighing extra profits from one group, against the loss of profit from the group, for whom legalized goldselling is a dealbreaker. Call it irony when those players buy another game to win there, or call it the Matrix having you.