Actual Pay to Win
One of the bogeymen of the MMO industry for years has been the concept of “Pay To Win” or the fear that those with the most money can end up with the best stuff. The cycle of what makes an MMO has been right or wrong built on this illusion of a meritocracy. The general idea being, that if you work hard and get really good… you can have the best items in the game for your efforts. The problem with this is that it in itself has always been a lie. Last night I spent several hours hanging out with friends playing Diablo 3, and during that time I simply was along for the ride… getting carried so unbelievably hard that during greater rifts I was gaining a paragon level damned near every-time my friend Carth killed something. Nothing about this situation is me actually having any real merit, but instead was a situation of I knew someone who was willing to drag me along for fame and glory while at the same time increasing their own magic find chances. The same has always been the case with raiding in general, that it is more about who you have an “in” with and that can get you into this or that raid… rather than pure skill. However these games are built under the pretenses that these obstacles need to be there in order to maintain the social order, and keep the gamers from rioting.
In the past when there has been even an hint of “Pay To Win” there have been riots in the streets. The problem being that, there are many games right now with ways to shortcut your way to victory. Granted in many cases they don’t take you all the way there, and you still have to do a lot of things to truly catch up. It has become perfectly acceptable for games like World of Warcraft or Everquest II to sell character boosts, that allow you to jump instantly to an end game equivalent level and be decked out in equivalent gear, saving you the time of actually leveling. So the question is… why is this acceptable but it is not acceptable to sell armor and weapons? I’ve been mulling over these questions while playing Warframe over the last few weeks. The truth is… that game is absolutely a pay to win scenario. If you were to spend multiple thousands of dollars on that game, you could in theory have the absolute best in slot gear for every single frame. The funny thing is that while I know this is the case… it doesn’t actually hinder my enjoyment. I don’t feel like I am somehow being robbed of my experience, but instead I know in the back of my head there is always an out… if I ever get down a path that ends up being too grindy.
Money for Time
“Pay to Win” in the case of Warframe is a bit of a misnomer, because in the purest sense that would mean you are getting something with your money that no one else can get without stepping up to the plate and spending an equal amount. There are lots of games with lootbox grab bags…. and these always seem super insidious to me… I am looking at you Rift and your mounts. Warframe however just feels honest about it. You can farm a planetary boss over and over until you get all three parts of a Warframe to drop… and then purchase the equivalent blueprint off the market for in game credits, or you can just bypass the entire process and pay 200-400 platinum to have it in your grubby hands right then and there. You are paying to speed up time… because there is the act of actually grinding the components… and then gathering up the materials through running missions on planets. Finally there is the actual time of crafting the thing. Each of the three sub components take about 24 hours to craft, and then the final Warframe craft takes between 2 and 3 days depending on if it is a normal or a prime frame. So if you absolutely have to have something right then and there…. you can pay a premium to get it delivered into your hands.
What I find more interesting though is just how thriving the secondary market is when it comes to purchasing items. There are so many things that you can trade in this game, and for almost every single one of them there is a secondary market. Players are limited to a specific number of trades per day, but you can often times find what you are looking for in the secondary market for prices cheaper than the official shop. So while you can’t actually buy the Prime Rhino Warframe from the shop right now, you can find a player that has collected the four component pieces and essentially pay them platinum for the act of farming it for you. So the cycle is interested, in that those who have the time to run missions over and over to farm up complete pattern sets…. can easily turn that time into money. The folks who don’t have the time, but can afford to spend some money… can turn that money into the resources that help them play the game more efficiently. It is far from a utopia, but it is nowhere near the apocalypse that most MMO players would predict.
Two Way Street
I think the key to this feeling overall “fair” is the fact that it is absolutely a two way street. There are lots of times in MMOs where the “house” steps in the middle and offers a not entirely fair deal to both sides of the equation. For example in the case of the World of Warcraft token… it is not literally a case of one human selling a commodity to another human. Instead there is an algorithm in the middle, that buys tokens from players for a floating amount of in game gold… and then sells that token back to players who want to use it in lieu of subscription time. The problem is… this formula takes human nature out of the equation, the thing that makes the whole experience interesting. In games like Rift and EQ2, that have direct exchange of subscription token to currency between two players…. the patient player can wait out the best possible deal. There were many cases where I sat on a token for weeks until I found someone who absolutely had to have that token right then to continue their substitution, and wound up getting a premium for it. Similarly I am sure there are players who took advantage of market surplus to stock up on tokens when they were cheap and ended up spending far less in game currency as a result. The reason why that felt better, was that there were options… that you were not essentially dealing with a vending machine that took its on theoretical cut.
What I think I like the most about this situation in Warframe is that it feels like I have a lot of options. I can go much more slowly and solo the planets trying to collect the items I need, or I can pester my friends to run it with me multiple times . I could go to the aftermarket and hit the trade channel and look for the items I need to finish out a blueprint set. Or if i am really desperate I can simply open my pocket book, but in all cases I have several different paths to the end goal, and as a result I don’t feel nearly as trapped as I often do in other games. For example right now I would love to have a Moose in World of Warcraft, but the raid I have connections with… that can easily get me one… happens to run at the same time as we record AggroChat. Do I want a moose because it is some status symbol, that somehow places me above other players? God no… I just like collecting mounts, and I like the idea that it looks like a normal group mount but can also fly. If I could plunk down money and pick that mount up on the store… you can bet I would rather than trying to do the copious amount of social engineering it will actually take to get me that damned mount. Warframe…. I can take either path. I can work with friends towards a goal… or I can simply grease the wheels and get everything I feel like I want faster. In truth… I feel like we as players are far more scared of “Pay to Win” than is really warranted.