A few months ago I briefly touched on the troubling and frustrating trend of gaming consumers becoming increasingly accepting of pay-to-win systems in MMORPGs following my reading of a terrific op-ed on the subject at MassivelyOP. The most ubiquitous pay-to-win defenses trotted out by its apologists center on whittling away at the scope of its definition with the introduction of new terminology delineating forms of presumed lesser offenses like “pay for convenience”, “pay to skip grind”, or “pay to avoid RNG”. I refuse to accept this, maintaining my old, straight-forward definition that any real money sale by a game’s developer providing a competitive advantage is pay-to-win, and no amount of semantic distractions revolving around what exactly an MMO’s win state is will convince me otherwise.
Fittingly, my comments section for the aforementioned post was visited by one such apologist who shared his thoughts and personal rationalization for the acceptance of pay-to-win. To his credit, his comments were well reasoned and articulately expressed, which aren’t qualities you often get the pleasure of attributing to internet comment sections. Irrespective of the justifications though, I believe it still stands that pay-to-win systems are anti-consumer and only serve to make games worse, so I continue to see them as deal-breaking in my MMOs. Now I’m not highlighting this poster’s comments to shame him, but rather the opposite; I believe that his posts are useful as a well written example of the types of arguments pay-to-win apologists usually put forward.
Which brings us to Black Desert Online, the new shiny hyped up MMO on the eve of its North American launch. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked for my opinion on the game a lot, which makes sense, given that I like sandboxes, it’s a sandbox, and I even wrote optimistically about it nearly two years ago. Up until now, my position has been a wait and see stance based on the tendency for Eastern MMOs to insert offensive cash shop elements in a patch shortly before their launch. I waited, I saw, and that’s exactly what happened. Now the pay-to-win apologists are out in full force, and they’ve even got a new shiny argument.
Now when a video posing the titular question of “is it Pay to Win” sports a ten minute duration, you can pretty safely surmise that something in the game’s cash shop is materially affecting performance or progression, and this instance doesn’t except itself from the generalization. There is something rotten in Black Desert, and the mental gymnastics through which this apologist justifies it is fascinatingly novel.
The exciting new argument he poses stems from Black Desert‘s potential for functionally unlimited progression. Black Desert has no level cap, so characters will always gain in power by grinding indefinitely and continually leveling up, which is a core piece of the conceptual basis for the game’s endgame progression.
Black Desert Online features three distinct pay-to-win items in its current pre-launch cash shop:
- Ghillie Suit with unique effect that hides nameplate from enemy players
- Pets that autoloot (increasing grind efficiency), grant an experience bonus (again, grind efficiency) and give non-combat bonuses that provide a competitive edge, like detecting nearby flagged players, gathering resources, or elite mobs.
- Costumes with stats, including an experience boost.
For the sake of this discussion, it’s the experience boosts and autoloot functionality that provide the greatest competitive advantage, given the game’s system of perpetual leveling progression.
Now I’m going to be brutally honest here – if you are a player who does not play 8 hours or more a day, the game is not pay-to-win. At most you are looking at a stereotypical pay-for-convenience game.
[“You can’t ‘compete’ anyways” is displayed on screen at this time]
This ridiculous defense perfectly illustrates the obtuse semantic game that pay-to-win apologists play, because what he’s essentially saying is that it’s fine for you to pay for power – it’s only pay-to-win if what you pay for lands you specifically at the top of the leaderboard. Never mind the fact that every single top player will be required to purchase these upgrades to both obtain and hold on to their place at the top. Never mind all the mid-level players that shelling out cash allowed you to surpass because you paid more than they did. If this line of thinking is to be believed, the game is only pay-to-win for the ones who are winning over everyone else; for the rest of the player base (the losers), it’s only pay-for-convenience.
A game is not pay-to-win for some and totally okay for others depending on whether or not the players in question are actually competitive. If the developer is selling in-game products that give players who pay a competitive advantage over those who do not, then the game is pay-to-win, irrespective of whether or not it guarantees winning. Conveniently though, this does serve to highlight that pay-for-convenience and pay-to-win are fundamentally the same thing, which is what I’ve been saying all along.