Playing Alone Together and Pay-to-Win

ArcheAge - Desert Trading

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.

5 thoughts on “Playing Alone Together and Pay-to-Win

  1. You may rant and rave but I will spend money to get the top score in every MMO.

    Also if pay-to-win is connected with Solo mmo’s wouldn’t that be a bit counter productive? It’s not as satisfying to beat a game when all you did was click a win button. Pay to win would seem to matter when your competing against someone. Witness Clash of Clans and its numerous ilk…


    • Nah, pay-to-win works great for single player games. Take Candy Crush, for example. Get players hooked on a few simple levels, then crank the difficulty to ten and offer them a way to buy more power to continue progressing. It’s a tried and true method that’s wildly successful for reasons that are beyond me.

      I definitely recommend reading this article I linked in my last post for more on that, as it specifically talks about Candy Crush a lot.


  2. It is interesting food for thought. While I found the idea of pay to win pretty reprehensible, to the point of considering Blizzard’s purely cosmetic shop to be purely evil after I purchased a game and paid every month for it, I never put two and two together. The drift towards the pay to win system (or just pay to do anything) being a response to the dwindling interaction between players in MMOs makes a lot of sense. It’s why I stopped playing WoW and it’s why I can’t get into anything else. Interaction has gone from being a joy to an obstacle for the average player. I personally didn’t feel that way but others seemed to.

    Looking back, your comment about being behind the curve made me realise how without keeping up, it was hard to fall in with a group that would actually interact with you. And yet social interaction was a necessity of keeping up with the curve. When the pay to win and more instant gratification ideals came out, further streamlining the whole process, it became easier to keep up with the curve and therefore play with more people. Yet you ended up playing with nobody. Grouping queues replaced what could be hours of tedium putting together a group; running somewhere; sorting it all out, with a push of a button. And as the people who don’t enjoy this leave, but the saturated DIY players rise, there is more money to be made from a lack of social interaction than from it, you’re absolutely right.

    I enjoyed interacting with other players, even if there were players who would have been better to avoid completely. It made MMOs what they were. Social tubs. Even when I wasn’t high enough level to do raiding with the first guild I rolled with, every time I logged in I was talking to people. Then I had a raiding guild and we were such a close knit team. Eventually that faded, raiding became the only thing and then soon that stopped too. Maybe the game changed (it did) but maybe we all just grew up. Maybe I’m just an old dog who wants the old days back. Good article.

    And I think ArcheAge’s pay to win would have been better accepted if it had not been such a butchered carcass.

    Liked by 2 people

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