Pay-to-Win and the Evils of Microtransactions that Ruin Lives

By David Piner -
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This is hell week here at Respawn as we look at the things that are bad in our industry, because it’s important to notice these things and avoid them or help others going through these problems. Today I want to talk about microtransactions and their dangers. I play a lot of free-to-play games, because I really enjoy variety, and being free allows you to try before you buy, but in some cases you’re not buying a product but instead are buying into a money making scheme.

A lot of people’s lives have been ruined, divorces have happened, and ever so much more off of games that offer what I like to call “unlimited purchases.” A veritable cornucopia of options that allow you to pay-to-win in the game. Depending on the game type, it can be innocent and only the most addictive personalities (who are probably going to blow their money anyway) are going to fall into the microtransaction trap or into the more hostile, building the game from the core around the idea that you need to make lots of very small purchases for some very big rewards.

This is primarily a thing in the world of MMORTS in games like Wartune, Boom Beach, Clan of Clans, and where I’ve seen the most: Stronghold Kingdoms, which is the game I’m going to highlight the most. There are other great offenders out there, like World of Tanks and all of our favorite MMOs, but see there is a major difference between active and passive purchases. If you buy some ammo or an XP scroll, you’re effectively paying your monthly subscription through these small purchases. They’re treated as finite materials, and you must horde them and only use them when necessary. The community encourages, beyond all, conservation.

Preface Statement

I would like to preface this by saying it’s not always 100% the fault of the developers. It’s the community to, which enables it. Developers just create the tools and the platform, and some can consider it nefarious, but let’s just talk about the issue from a 5,000 feet in the sky look at everything, before we start trying to accuse people of nefarious deeds.

It’s important to also acknowledge we all have free will and we can’t blame someone for selling something and someone making the choice to buy it. There are no games out there right now that force you to buy into their game. It’s a choice, a choice each person has to make. This is a discussion about the choices some people make - which aren’t examples of everyone. It’s about how this system can be used by people who go to far and how it provides incentive to do it. In fact, the vast majority of people who play any F2P game pay nothing at all and buy nothing at all. 

You and anyone who spends the money has a choice - so at the end of the day there are no bad people here.

Active vs. Passive

Let’s start with passive purchases. These are like going out to the grocery store and buying groceries in a game. You’re just purchasing supplies and there is the store, you walk in, buy your stuff, and you’re done. You hoard it like that mega box of hot pockets that you know has to last you until you get paid again. Conservancy is a major issue with ammo or spell scrolls or anything to that fact.

Then there are passive purchases like mounts or digital deluxe. You buy it, set it, and forget it. These are rather small purchases that come ala carte to you as you want them. There is little need for these and they’re vanity items, so it’s entirely up to you if you want it or not. These are unnecessary but totally optional purchases.

Then there are active purchases. These are situations where you either purchase something or fail. These are purchases where you either must give up real life money in order to obtain victory in a video game. My absolute best example is Stronghold Kingdoms. In SHK, there are card packs. These cards provide boosts in the game. These boosts are random, from extra materials to instant soldiers. These are all necessary if you’re to play the game seriously.

SHK Card System

When you first read about SHK, you learn a lot about how it’s lords and ladies battling for control of land. There is nothing at all about cards other than you can strategically use these cards to turn the tides of battle and boy can you. If you have a spare $500 a month and are a low ranking player and have the means to be online 18 hours a day. This is how the game works, you have faith which can be spent to grant immunity to your city. When you go to sleep, you must grant your city immunity or you will not be awake to defend it. Faith is a very slow regenerating resource and it is impossible to keep all or even most of your cities immune.

In addition, when under attack, various cards can help you keep your city. These are instant repair cards (once attacked, your castle is repaired), instant build cards (instantly builds a specific amount of time on your castle), decreased build time cards (these combined with the previous drastically decrease the time necessary to build large castles), resource cards (to instantly get resources to build components of your castle), and troop cards (to instantly build troops without resources). These cards come in packs that are full of fluff cards that provide little to no benefit or are special cases or whatever, which you can cash in and buy the cards you want.

So, position means everything. Every area has different rulers, from the local parish steward to. Each county is ran by a Sheriff, each province by a Governor, and each country by a king. Each level gets to vote for the next one, so a steward votes for the sheriff who votes for the governor, who they collectively vote for the king. Which person is in that specific position grants his color on the land he’s in charge of. The more areas of the map colored, the more a house gets in the glory race, which is how you “win” the world. Each faction belongs to a house, the winning house receives the rewards for a “world win.”

Here’s the deal, if you’re king and you’re reset (lose all of your villages), the next in line takes the throne. This works from parishes up to a country. So if you’re in any position of power, you will need to card to stay in it. Otherwise, the entire opposing force (whoever you’re at war with), will come and attack you endlessly. At the same time, to become relevant, and be in a posistion where people know who you are, you must take the lead when the server starts.

If you are just interested in building a little empire and developing it or farming as players call it, forget it. You will eventually become the target of some predatory psychopath that will ruin your game.

correllian via Metacritic

Which means you need to start and card your way to victory, by carding levels to get a high enough level so that people can vote you into a position. Then, everyone generally follows you. These people spend 1,000s on cards each and every world at the start in the first week or two, just to be someone on that world.

I know all of this is true because I was there, for a three month period of my life, all I did was live, breath, and be Stronghold Kingdoms, and it greatly impacted my wallet, and I was ultimately a no one. Holding any kind of power, any kind of parish, makes you a target. Having anything to do with the politics in the game makes you a target. The knife and dagger playstyle everyone has where your friends are those on at 4AM in the morning to kick you in the shins.

I would categorize people into five different spending tiers. The first two tiers are casuals, those who play for free and those who spend less than $10 a month on the game. They are usually landing platforms for enemy invasions. Without cards, castles are slow to build, and without the defenses, a single wave of troops can usually make it inside the castle walls.

The third tier would be those at about $100 a month. They’re able to hold parishes, without much issue, and can generally build up their castles and hold onto them. They pay attention, as much as they can, to what’s going on in their faction, but beyond that they could care less as long as their holdings are stood. This is about where I was, $50 to $100 a month. You don’t “know” it’s that much, because again, these purchases come in bite size chunks, and these people are going to be where all the revenue comes in.

The fourth tier are the fanatics, willing to go up to a grand a month. These are the big names, the people who get really high ranked really fast, and generally hold mid-level positions of power. No one is going to take them out without a dedicated force.

The fifth tier are the kings, the people who make king a few days after a server’s launch, the people who run all of the politics, make all of the choices, and are what everyone follows. They spend thousands a month, if not more. I knew one player who used up his entire line of credit on his house to win a solo war against an entire country, and when he lost, and he had to come clean to his wife, he was served divorce papers, effectively ending his career in the game.

I knew one guy who was maxing his credit cards out, and showed up one day on TeamSpeak with excitement as a new card had just come in the mail, and he was “back in the game.” Naturally, to my disgust, everyone was high fiving him, because it’s not their life, and they’re directly benefiting from it. People who spend money are nearly worshiped, because ultimately they’re the ones who benefit from this guy’s folly. His debt, his choices, and their profound negative impact on his life - mean nothing at all to others and he is lured willingly into it through peer pressure. Because if he holds that small bit of land, and he can trade off his castles to his friends, he’s the hero of the day.

Until the next day, when more attacks come, and it’s time to roll on over to the SHK card shop and buy a few more packs to hold the fort. The issue here is the peer pressure component - your friends and your allies judge you by your net results, and if you’re always losing castles, never able to attack, and unable to do anything, then you’re a no one. It’s just how the game works, that dude who is king in a few days who is sending attack after attack at you, you need to defend yourself, and you need to prove yourself, and real life cash is what lets you do that because the game has no way outside of that for you to operate, because let’s say 10 timed attacks come, without cards, they’re just going to bust through and win.

Just to reiterate - it's not the fault of Firefly studios that people do this. If they didn't do it, other players would escalate so much, and at the end of the day the game will always let you start over anywhere on the map you so choose if you're reset, and you do not have to be some major political player and the risk of losing everything is always there for everyone. I believe that games shouldn't encourage the behavior, but again, people make the choice to buy into it. I would say on any given world, only about 40 to 80 players buy any significant amount of cards, and only at the start of a world (the first 90 to 120 days). 

Candy Crush Saga, Addiction, and the Young

Online gaming already pulls in those with addictive personalities, because they get addicted to the game, so naturally, other sources or trigger for addiction are going to come. People are going to naturally be addicted and it’s when you exploit them that it becomes wrong. Now, I don’t know if these game companies sit and when they’re trying to monetize their games, I don’t know if they honestly sit and calculate this is how people will spend their money, or just turn their other heads as people ring up thousands in virtual currency.

Candy Crush Saga is an example of a game that does the exact same thing SHK does. You’re trying to get to the same level your friend is at, and as you’re trying to get there you just run into these roadblocks. If you spend a little bit of your real life cash you can pass the level, otherwise, prepare for hell and the limited amount of tries you have. King Digital claims it is worth 7.6 billion in March, off of a flash game on Facebook funded purely by microtransactions. Here’s a few articles to help explain other people’s stories.

Children are easy to exploit too, and while there are a few cases of them spending $2,500 in minutes, it’s generally accepted that they’re a major driving force, begging their parents for something that compared to a toy in real life, is very inexpensive for their happiness. At the same time, though, it becomes difficult to keep the fuel in the furnace burning, because they will always come back for more handouts to keep it going, much like quarters for a arcade game, they take the 99 cents to play just a little bit longer, before they need another go.

The problem is that it’s just exploitive, it’s these small purchases that just add up and up. For some games, it’s great and works wonders. I’ve spent a total of $25 on All Points Bulletin in the two years or more I’ve played it and I’m super satisfied. I know people who spend $20 or $30 a month on World of Tanks and that’s awesome. I also have known people to spend thousands a month, thousands they don’t have, and they co-exist in a community that enables them.

The Office of Fair Trading in Europe launched an investigation into games like The Simpsons: Tapped Out and found that children were being unfairly targeted and more. The Federal Trade Commission has also launched an investigation and found nearly the same thing - except pushing the blame onto Apple for not clarifying the purchasing process, including making Apple offer refunds to parents.

Light within Darkness

Wargaming is pretty much one of the coolest developers out there, for an indie studio that grew into something huge. They are one of the few developers who have made a stance against pay-to-win and offered most of the premium ammo for sale with credits, giving players the ability to restock their ammo without having to pay for it with cash. Which means it's smarter to upgrade to premium to get more gold from each match to be able to buy your ammo faster and with less consquence to your gold stockpile. So, the option is there to be able to farm without much effort for the premium stuff, while still giving players a reason to buy in.

More titles are taking a stand and saying they're not pay-to-win and many MMORTS's are ditching everything but paying for timers, and some are even limiting paying for faster troops, all in a way to make the games more balanced. At the end of the day, develoeprs have to understand that the more fun a game is, the more people are going to buy into it. Sure, you can make money off of people desperatly clinging to virtual land, but there is more profits to be made off of a larger playerbase of happy players.

Second Life

I'm not even going to get started on this, since it's not microtransactions, but turning real money into fun money, like buying carnival tickets. You pay other players to make your avatar look like whatever grotesque idea of a Human body or mystical creature, then proceed to sit around and whine about your life. There is a feedback loop where you have to spend more to be more and to be more you have to spend more, so you end up paying however much to show up in a new outfit every day. Let's just move on.

Enabling the Community

Here is the height of the problem, combine social gameplay with the option to be better than others through monetary compensation, and you end up with people mortgaging their houses to remain competitive. We see it all the time in poker tournaments and gambling, but there is some innocence to gaming that just seems sullied by these games that eat money off of the intentions of others to be better at the game or move further ahead in a game.

Ultimately, paying to win shouldn’t be part of any game, in my opinion. I can see it on the mobile market, but there are just so many games, too many to name, that do it right. Pay $.99 or $1.99 for unlimited energy and double coins, the cost if you just purchased the game on the market. If you like it, and you want to get ahead faster, that’s great.

It’s the entire “pay to defend your castle / island / plot of land on this map” or “pay to get to the next level, only .99 for 5 more tries come on beat your friends in the leaderboard.”

My closing statement is this - this isn’t going to change, games are going to take money from people, and people are going to continue to have very sad lives that aren’t publicized either from their addition or just pure desire to be better than their peers. It’s not the only outlet for this behavior and in terms of money, it’s hard to go past a grand or two in any game, so there isn’t much in long lasting issues, but I think that pay-to-win should be abolished and personally I only want to support games that are pay-to-play or pay-to-look-pretty. Any other type just isn’t on my hotlist.

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About The Author

David "Xerin" Piner
Get in the bush with Xerin every week for his column, Respawn, as he analyzes the hottest trends, buzz topics, and absurdities in MMO gaming. In addition to his ongoing war against early access titles.

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