Possibly the best defense of pay-to-win games I’ve come across, if you can even call it that, is simply that the player in question “doesn’t care”. No elaborate sophistry about the existential nature of a win state in an MMO, no invention of obfuscating terminology like “pay-for-convenience”, just the simple statement that they don’t care. Sure it’s there, but if the player in question isn’t being forced to buy it, they’re not going to, and it doesn’t bother them at all that someone else can.
You gotta respect it; there’s absolutely nothing wrong here. Unlike specious arguments that developers would apparently be unable to feed their families without selling competitive advantages in their game’s cash shop, this is just an opinion. Kudos to these people for just being straightforward about it! What interests me here is the reason someone might not be bothered by pay-to-win to begin with.
I started with empathy. When would pay-to-win not bother me? Single player games immediately come to mind. Bethesda could pack the most awful, blatantly pay-to-win cash shop into Skyrim they could possibly think up, and while it might offend me a bit in the interests of good taste, I wouldn’t have any trouble simply ignoring it.
I’m also reminded of the “it’s only pay-to-win for some people” guy. While presented poorly, his personal judgment is essentially this: if I’m not going to be competitive anyway, do I even care if the game is pay-to-win? For me the answer is a resounding yes: it does still matter.
Apologists like to mischaracterize arguments against pay-to-win as being concerned with standing on an imaginary leaderboard in a manner suggesting their MMORPG experience comes from this scene on NCIS. The truth is that MMOs are much more complicated; being behind the curve can affect your ability to survive the next gank or contribute in your next dungeon run, and it determines a good portion of your earning power in the game’s economy. In a proper MMORPG, player communities interact in a complex weave of different ways – one pay-to-win infests insidiously throughout.
Except MMOs aren’t really proper anymore, are they? Social interdependence is on the decline in most recent MMOs, with weak-tie connections (people you know and rely on, but who are outside of your primary play groups) in particular having been almost completely eliminated by the advent and proliferation of conveniences like grouping queues and global auction houses. It’s lead to what I’ve termed The Massive Identity Crisis: essentially, the erosion of truly massive communities and player influence in virtual worlds.
In short, our relationship with other players and their actions just isn’t as impactful on our play as it used to be.
This all comes as a result of the marketing decision to design massively multiplayer games around players who don’t wish to interact with other people. Sure, it makes no sense when you frame it that way, but you can’t deny that a lot of people saw the appeal. For these players, it was more about playing in a socially saturated environment than actually interacting with other people. There comes a satisfaction in seeing people running around the world and watching the chat scroll by; just don’t make them interact with each other. The product is games that aren’t really massively multiplayer at all. It’s a brave new world, and we’re all playing alone together.
As the lines between massively multiplayer online games and massively single player online games blur together, is the impact reduced? In Elite: Dangerous, which I honestly think fits the criteria for MSPOG better than those for an MMO, would full on balls to the wall pay-to-win really bother me that much? Would ArcheAge‘s pay-to-win have been more accepted had the game not had such a focus on open world PvP?
Could there be causation in the correlation of the MMO market’s trend towards solo play with market acceptance of pay-to-win, or am I just picking out two trends I strongly dislike and mashing them together? I’m not sure. Maybe I’m just tilting at windmills. Either way, I’d like to think it’s interesting food for thought.