The Continuing Adventures of Pay-to-Win Apologists: Black Desert Edition

Black Desert Vista

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.

18 thoughts on “The Continuing Adventures of Pay-to-Win Apologists: Black Desert Edition

  1. I used to think that pay-to-win and free-to-play games was a bubble that will be popped. In essence the nature of these games would drive away players and eventually a whole bunch of these games would die. And seeing what happened to Zynga maybe this is true. Probably not going to be a bubble is not going to pop it’s going to die slowly. Can’t happen soon enough.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember thinking the same thing. Even in the case of Zynga, I think their user base merely shifted over to game’s like Candy Crush, which I believe are just as bad.

      I guess we can never underestimate the ability of consumers to make decisions with serious long-term penalties when presented with short-term reward – in this case, the free cost of entry.


    • Yeah, ArcheAge’s prelaunch transition from a promising and exciting game to arguably one of the worst monetized MMOs on the market was extremely disappointing. The memory of that was probably the biggest reason I kept my distance from Black Desert.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree that given the game’s competitive PvP focus, these items constitute an advantage, so matter how small it may be in a 1v1 or guild versus guild scenario where many other factors come into play.
    However, I’ve by now read posts about the pets not being shop-exclusive for example (there are apparently at least 2 pets you will get as quest rewards?) – are we sure any of the stuff on the shop is truly exclusive?


    • I have heard about a couple pets being obtainable in-game, though the source indicated that they were only unlocked after thousands of hours of play (whether or not this was exaggerated I’m not sure). That said, I’m not sure that actually makes a difference in my mind.

      For example, if World of Warcraft were to throw its best PvP gear on the cash shop, would that not be considered Pay to Win simply because the gear was obtainable in game as well? Or take the case of games like ArcheAge, where gear is craftable in game through normal means, but locked behind horrific amounts of RNG to the point where you’re realistically going to have to pay up to guarantee crafting procs if you want to get gear. Even when you pay you’re still obtaining your gear through in-game means, only without the obstacles the designers have placed in the way of those who choose not to open their wallets.

      I’m not willing to accept that just because something is also available through gameplay that it automatically isn’t pay-to-win. In the case of Black Desert’s pets (only one of several sources of efficiency buffs from the game’s cash shop), people who shell out the cash will have these advantages from day one, and in the hundreds or thousands of hours it takes everyone else to catch up, that advantage is going to just continue stacking up.

      Liked by 1 person

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  4. I don’t go for leaderboards, so I spent 30 Bucks for a “huge” game. It is as simple as that.

    You might call it pay to win, but if it is that well designed. I would indeed go for more p2w games. Let the leaderboard guys buy their p2w items.

    This will only fund me great new content to enjoy.

    Removing the competetive factor, and having great gameplay though, is even more likely in a sandbox mmo.

    At the end of the day this model is like, people who play more, pay more. And this suites casuals quite well, since they’re playing less and are therefore do not need cash shop items, since they’re not able to compete on leaderboards anyways.

    Hope this might shed some light on the topic, why this kind of p2w gets more popular


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  7. All this post does is demonstrate your ignorance of the game itself.

    You’re underestimating the end game grind and not differentiating types of exp. The costume set you’re talking about gives +10% to combat exp, that’s it. Combat points are so few and far between at end game and skills take several points to level up, that bonus is a joke.

    As for pets, auto loot is nice. You get a pet if you buy the $50 release package and having 3 to auto loot for you is pretty sweet. I’d say this is the one thing you should go for if you were going to spend any money but looting from a stack of corpses is a very short break from grinding, you just spam a key for 2 or 3 seconds and resume. Even with 3 pets looting for me, I still have to do this from time to time because grinding in this game is like play Dynasty Warriors, you kill tons of mobs with aoe attacks. Pets only loot once every 4 seconds at the fastest and you have to feed them to keep them out, which costs you.

    As for the buffs on the pets, they are rng based and only the combat exp buff is applicable here. I believe that it’s 8% and it’s likely that people will have to spend a LOT of money on the pet system to get it because they would need to use the pet breeding system. Breeding consumes 2 pets to make a slightly better one with an additional skill. You either need to be lucky or spend a bunch of money on pets to get the combat exp buff. As noted earlier, that buff is a joke.

    The quote you pulled from the video is definitely accurate, You need hundreds if not thousands of hours committed at end game just to benefit from an extra 18% combat exp boost in a meaningful way (which is not the same as character level exp by the way). The edge you can pay for from the cash shop is so slight that it really is only for the hardcore players that are grinding several hours per day for months.

    Frankly, the “buy to play + cash shop” is my preferred mmo at this point. Free to play mmos are mostly a pay to win cash grab at this point and buy to plays with a subscription are out the question for me since I can’t justify $15 a month to play a single game. A buy to play with 2 price points for entry and a cash shop that offers cosmetics and a few VERY minor advantages allows the play to pick their own price for the game. The players that buy the game for the lower entry price ($30) can enjoy the game as much as anyone while the hardcore players dropping tons on the cash shop for pets, consumables and cosmetics keep the devs paid and the content coming for the rest of us.


    • You’re not actually arguing that any of these things aren’t pay-to-win (in fact you seem to agree with me), you’re just nit-picking the degree of impact its pay-to-win features have. That’s an entirely different subject than the one covered in the post you’re responding to.


      • Your black and white definition of pay to win doesn’t work with this game. According to you, a .001% advantage on any aspect of the game is pay to win. That’s dumb, especially when the end game takes literally 100+ hours of grinding to advance a character level and advantages in pvp are tied much more heavily to player skill and communication for gvg. You still have to loot, no matter what kind of pets you have. They loot 3 out of 7 kills at most. If you actually knew how the combat exp system worked (which is separate from character level), you’d see how absurd your claim is about the combat xp boost. +10% on 10 xp per kill when you need 100k+ for 1 out of 8 points needed for a slight increase on a skills damage is microscopic.

        These boosts only benefit the 1% of players that are hardcore about this game. Players putting in 2 or 3 hours per day will never see a tangible benefit from this, they’ll all be on a level playing field come end game because the gaps are so big. This post argues from ignorance and it would be a real shame if it turned anyone away from the game. You’re being irresponsible by leaving this up.


        • Again, you’re only arguing about the degree of impact. Selling an advantage is the definition of pay-to-win, period. Definitions are by their nature black and white. That’s why they’re defining to begin with; it’s their entire reason for existing.

          You keep accusing me of ignorance as if that has any impact on this when it clearly doesn’t. If you’re going to resort to personal attacks, at least make sure those attacks actually do something to support your position.


          • Personal attacks? Okay sorry, I didn’t realize you were a troll < that is a personal attack. Highlighting that you're ignorant on the topic of this game because you haven't played it is just stating a fact. Actually playing the game would make you understand the absurdity of your argument. Stating that someone is ignorant just means they lack knowledge about something. If you think that's a personal attack, you need to get your head checked.

            Degree of impact becomes relevant when it's as significant as specs of dust weighing you down on a scale. Yes, dust settling on you makes you heavier but by a laughable amount. That is the degree you can "pay to win' in this game. You're opinion on this is uninformed irrational and quite frankly, stupid. Hopefully your post gets buried deep into the bowels of the internet and no one is infected by your irrational opinions,


  8. I’ve been saying that too! I’ve seen people say this a lot too, “It is pay to go faster.” I’m like, “That is still P2W!” Their next argument is that you can still get anything in the game by grinding.

    If it takes me a year or more to acquire gear and items that it only took another person a month or less to achieve that is P2W. I don’t buy the argument that something is only P2W if they sell power directly in the cash shop.


  9. Some of the p2w features don’t really become apparent until you’ve gotten pretty deep into the game. Elion’s Tears comes to mind. It’s an instant ressurection item that lets you rez on the spot without losing xp. World bosses which drop the best items in the game (but only to the top dps, the rest get nothing) are designed to encourage buying Elion’s tears. They have a lot of unavoidable one shot mechanics that will leave you running back to the fight, unless you buy elion’s tears in which case you rez immediately and can continue to get your dps in for a chance at loot. Everybody is going to die multiple times during the boss fights. It’s unavoidable. Like any game though black desert has it’s diehard fanboys that will defend anything about the game to their death.

    Liked by 1 person

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