Note: WriOps is the intersection of writing and opinions on controversial topics in the gaming industry. The opinion of this article does not necessarily reflect the official opinions of NextLevel Gaming Online as an organization.
Games that rely on people using certain gear or skill sets should reward a player for developing their skills and putting time into the game in order to get better. A lot of people enjoy games like Counter Strike for its excellent ability to reward skilled players by letting them play with equally skilled players. The only things you can purchase in that game are decals and skins for your guns to show off how much of a cool kid you are.
Though there are some games out there that allow player to purchase items, boost themselves, or to gain them some sort of advantages over other players through monetary transactions. I’m not exactly talking about buying double XP boost in the way of Mountain Dew Game Fuel. Rather, I’m talking about games that give players unearned high-level characters, gear, or unlocks for paying real money. For instance, in Battlefield 4 you can purchase kit, weapon, and vehicle shortcuts which unlock various items for you. Say you were to purchase the Vehicle Shortcut Bundle for $17.99, you would instantly unlock all 105 upgrades for the land, sea, and air vehicles. For an additional $24.99 you can also unlock all the weapons, gadgets, and specializations for all four classes with no input required.
“But Evan!” you might be crying. “So what if people want to spend an additional $20 to get all the unlockable items in the game?”
Well, the thing about getting those unlock kits is you don’t invest your time into the game. You don’t get to experience it from the ground up like countless people have done. You don’t get the opportunity to experiment with lower level/earlier game items and tailor them to fit your constrained needs, nor do you get to see how the game develops itself in a progressive manner. You just pay a few extra dollars and boom, you have all the cool gizmos and gear the people who have put 400 hours and have learned all the curves and facets have. No need to learn the mechanics of the game or the items, just pick up and go. This can really skew the competitive aspect of the game because it can place low skilled players with more money to spend at the higher tiers, where players with higher skill may be stuck at the lower tiers.
Quite honestly, if you are trying to have a game that is supposed to bring people enjoyment and a challenge, why would you implement this? If you do, then you seem to be telling people that taking time to learn the system and increase your personal skill set isn’t necessary when you could spend a few extra dollars and unlock the best items in the game without having to learn the system.
Like the weapon and upgrade unlocks you can pay for, World of Warcraft had something similar to this with their previous expansion Warlords of Draenor where in purchasing the expansion would get you a free Level 90 character (Level cap of 100). Much like with Battlefield where you can cut dozens of hours from your game play, you can cut corners by spending a little bit of money ($60 to be specific) and get a free near-maximum level character. And in WoW, it takes hundreds of hours of playtime to get to level 90, so spending a comparatively nominal amount of money to get a maxed out character is frustratingly tempting, especially when the competition is already doing it. After some time, even Blizzard seems to have realized this feature was a bad idea. They have removed this “Level 90 character” from the list of features of the expansion, which is a welcome change for me.
Along the same lines of this whole shortcut scheme, other games exist that have the same presence of paying more money will allow you to have an advantage, competitive or otherwise. One game that sticks out to me is Magic the Gathering. In this classic card game, the cards all have different values based on how much they are used in competitive play, or the relative power of the card. It is because of this that a competitive Magic deck can easily cost $250, depending on the tournament. Some formats in magic change every few months, which could mean you would have to spend almost another $150 on new cards or replacing the ones in the deck to keep it relevant. Granted, there is this high entry cost; a good player still needs to understand the meta or flow of the game in order to be able to play well. Just because you own a deck that costs hundreds of dollars does not mean you know hot to play its cards well. If a budget deck is what you seek, you can build one for around $50, but its efficacy in competitive play will be less than one costing five times as much.
I realize that Magic’s card prices are heavily influenced by supply and demand, but I still feel that it’s unfair to price competitive decks so high. This system feels like it’s aimed at players with more money, rather than players with more dedication and skill. There are some things that Wizards of the Coast, the people who make Magic, can do to prevent the prices of these cards from skyrocketing, but to them the forceful deflation of prices doesn’t seem to outweigh the idea that a cheaper product can increase its number of consumers, prolonging the lifespan of a game.
Titles like Counter Strike and Overwatch are competitive games that offers purchasable content, but it in no way affects the playing field. In both games you can acquire differing cosmetic skins for your characters or items which only make things look pretty. Even in something like Team Fortress 2, you can pay for items that give your character a boost in power, but it isn’t such a big enough boost where you can easily sweep games from beneath your opponents’ feet. This would be a good example of how games of a competitive nature should include paid content, cosmetic items or items that do not grant a pronounced edge in a competition. If making a balanced competitive game, removing as many components of pay to win is a good idea to level the playing field. Similarly, for games of the RPG nature, they reward dedication by giving high- leveled players better items for being committed to the game for as long as they have been.
I can say I do not support the idea of a pay-to-win game. It can cut out the learning curve that can be the line between a mediocre player and a great player, it can tarnish the integrity of a competitive environment, and it can send the wrong message out to a game’s player base, damaging the reputation of the industry for good.