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An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Pay-to-Win microtransactions

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Spoof of the cover of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations now reading ''The Pay-to-Win of Video Games''
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Microtransactions

Pay to win policies have always been a sure-fire way to ruin the game experience for most of your player base and yet developers and publishers keep doing it. It may be profitable in the short term, but should and will they ever stop?

First of all, in order to understand the pay to win basics, we need a definition. Pay to win in video games is generally defined as a video game ecosystem where players can gain an advantage over their opponents by spending real life currency.

Video games that thrive on such a system are frowned upon by gamers and as a consequence, they lose their playerbase very quickly. Prime examples of pay to win games that lost their players are APB: Reloaded and Star Wars: Battlefront II.

Games that have the pay to win system incorporated usually try to obfuscate this trait by allowing players unlock everything by in-game means. Their developers and publishers will claim that ''players can either invest their time or their money in order to unlock items or progress through the game''. This sentence is a red flag you should never ignore, as in all cases up to this point it literally translated into ''you will either cough up the money or spend hundreds of hours grinding and still be at a disadvantage compared to someone who bought progression''. Cue Ubisoft Starter Edition meme.

AltCharSpoof image of Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction, his head now bearing the Ubisoft logo.Ubisoft: ''Progression motherf#$%"# ! Do you want it?''

Not all players will be willing to pay for the mentioned advantage at first and the small amount of those who pay for it is at first negligible. This is typically followed by the game's developers and/or publishers trying to force more and more players into the paying group. They can enforce the pay to win behaviour by giving players the illusion of choice, claiming that microtransactions are just a shortcut for players who cannot invest enough time due to their real life obligations such as studies, work or children.

This is just a poor excuse for forcing the players to throw additional money at their games. If we don't keep throwing our money at the game, the developers will cripple our gameplay by forcing us to grind for hundreds of hours before we can be on equal footing with the rest of the players. I'm pretty sure I have just described blackmail. Sooner or later, the player base catches up to these malpractices and simply leaves for another game.

GamersFirstFemale Enforcer standing in front of her car in APB: Reloaded.APB: Reloaded - Literally everything you see on this character and the car is customizable. Remarkable system but ultimately made insignificant by GamersFirst's pay to win policies.

So why do developers and publishers do this?

I'm inclined to believe that publishers are the ones calling the shots with these decisions and developers tend to be silent accomplices, in part due to having no other choice. This sentiment comes from the fact that publishers do not care if the game is good or not, the only variable that is of interest to them is the bottom line. Or profit margin if you will. Publishers have the luxury of just ditching a studio after they rake in as much money as they can and move along. EA is the prime example of this malpractice, with enough dead developers behind them to fill a graveyard.

The developers' situation is a bit more complex. While they do need to focus on earning money, they also have to take care of their brand. If a game turns out to be a flop, or a pay to win, then the future games from the mentioned developer will flop and the studio(s) will be forced to close.

Back in Halo's prime days, Bungie was a studio loved by every fan of the franchise but after Destiny 2, the story became different. Same goes with DICE who were venerated for their work on Battlefield series and unrelated but interesting projects like Mirror's Edge. After the Battlefront 2 fiasco, however, a large part of the fan base will avoid them like the plague.

EAImage of Darth Maul from Star Wars: Battlefront II.Star Wars: Battlefront II : ''Come to the Dark Side, we have Pay to Win!''

In both of these examples we had similar issues. EA and DICE blatantly presented players with an ultimatum of being at a total disadvantage if they don't purchase Wilson-brand loot boxes. Activision and Bungie did it slightly more subtly, by secretly reducing experience games in order to push people into buying loot boxes. Granted, their Bright Engrams weren't pay to win but they still attempted to herd players into the paying pen. I wanted to put Ubisoft as an example here as well, but they were always shady and never reached the ''venerated'' status that DICE and Bungie did.

Both games suffered massive player count losses, and these were all direct consequences of their respective publishers' decisions - to maximise profits. As I mentioned before, all they care about is the bottom line, not quality. That's the first, and most common reason why games go pay to win. The second reason is that publishers barely have any use of the time you invest in playing their game, while they have a lot of use for the money you give them.

Lucasfilm ltd.Scene from Star Wars showing the massive Stormtrooper army.Star Wars - Publishers roughly value your invested time as much as Darth Vader values a single Stormtrooper.

Your invested time basically means two things for a publisher: #1 you bought their game and spent your money on the entry fee. #2 you will be one tiny number that expands their player base ever so slightly and if it's big enough, it can attract additional players that will pay for the entry fee and contribute to the player base growth. The amount of growth contribution your playtime provided in this case is microscopic.

On the other hand, when you pay £10, the publishers already have something tangible. If every player who bought the game buys anything from the in-game shop worth £10 then the publisher can literally see a 20 per cent increase in their sales. This is the publishers' shortcut to revenue, and the numbers I listed in this example are miniscule to the real amounts publishers are raking in from microtransactions.

To sum it up, publishers will claim that you are given an option to purchase a shortcut for your progression, while you're in fact giving them a shortcut to revenue.

AltCharAn image of a bag that looks like a clock and money stacks are protruding from it.Publishers value your money way more than your time.

The conclusion we can draw from the previous two paragraphs is that publishers and sometimes developers value your money much more than your time invested in playing their game. Value of the real life currency is incredibly inflated in this scenario while your time is in turn greatly devalued. This is where the two so called choices in pay to win games present themselves - cough up the money and be ahead of those who don't pay, or don't go down the microtransaction rabbit hole and waste your time grinding in vain. 

One thing that entrepreneurs agree on globally is that the most valuable resource is actually time itself, as it is the only one that can't be renewed. Are you willing to waste yours by jumping into a hamster wheel built by a greedy publisher company or will you turn your head around the next time you read or hear the red flag in form of ''you can either invest time or money in order to progress in the game''?