The Biggest Problem With Video Game ‘Pay To Win’ Business Models
I’m not much of a multiplayer gamer in the competitive sense but I still loved EA’s Star Wars Battlefront. When it came to the lack of a single player campaign, I shared the same disappointment as many fans but it was still fun. So when it was announced the upcoming sequel would include a robust campaign featuring a canon storyline, I was excited.
A while back, I wrote about the cost of video games and how inexpensive it is to avoid new releases and focus on cheaper back catalog titles. Star Wars Battlefront II became the one game I considered paying full price for in 2017. Why? Because Star Wars that’s why!
Then the beta happened…
People got their hands on the multiplayer and began to report giant flaws in the game’s approach to micro transactions. This is a major issue that’s been bubbling to the surface ever since the mobile market popularized the ‘free to play’ model. The idea is, you get a game for free and along the way, you’ll be tempted to pay real currency for upgrades and better items. To those that get addicted, this can be lucrative for game developers and publishers.
I believe the ‘free to play’ system for most games is fair because you have a choice. You can choose to pay and advance yourself quicker in games or grind it out and achieve the same goals over a longer period of time.
Larger AAA titles have taken a different approach over the years. Loot. The idea of a loot box/crate is not a new concept in video games. The majority of big titles tend to offer cosmetic upgrades and character costumes etc… You can unlock weapon skins, hidden areas, bonus levels and more. The tricky balance is how publishers extract money for these perks. Most games offer in game currency you can earn slowly. You can then purchase items and loot boxes outright. Or you can choose to purchase items right away with real funds. I’ve never been one to seek out alternate costumes in games. The cosmetic side of things is interesting but I’d rather play through a good story with strong gameplay. So, for the most part, I’ve avoided the main issues gamers have with micro transactions.
What worries me now is a troubling trend emerging in games today. It begins with Star Wars Battlefront II and the dreaded ‘pay to win’ system.
I’ll let IGN’s Alanah Pearce bring you up to speed on the controversy:
The big issue here, isn’t the story mode. I’m still excited to play through that campaign someday. But as someone who casually plays multiplayer matches, there doesn’t seem to be a point to jump in. I’ll never be able to catch up to people willing to spend hundreds of dollars on day one to purchase upgrades that increase health, strength and level up character abilities.
I have no problem spending money if I feel like there is value in return. A good game is built by talented artists and they deserve to be compensated for their hard work. But that doesn’t give the right to take advantage of the sheer competitive nature of gamers. We all want the best gear. We all want a competitive edge. But not all of us have limitless amounts of disposable income. It’s a gross issue in gaming right now.
Let’s take a look at a mobile game I’m currently playing. Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes
There’s a surprising amount of depth to this ‘free to play’ Star Wars game. I have no issues with the business model overall. I can play the game for free and when I reach the limit of my in game currency, I can add more with real money or wait. For the last month or so, I’ve chosen to wait it out. Every day, I get to play a certain amount of matches and collect power ups etc… It’s a slow burn but I’m enjoying it. Also it’s a free game so I can’t complain about the obvious rigging to make purchases more enticing. At some point, I may even spend some money in the game. Maybe…
My issue with that game is the way things are priced. If you do spend money, the lowest amount of ‘crystals’ you can buy is 220 for $2.79. Pretty cheap right? Except if you want to use those crystals to buy characters there is NOTHING available for that price. You need 350 crystals to but a ‘chance’ at getting a character. So you have to pay more or earn more crystals slowly in game. It’s a tricky setup but, again, I can’t complain because it’s a free game.
This is why Star Wars Battlefront 2 has a big problem.
Pre-ordering Star Wars Battlefront II costs 100 dollars (CDN). 100 dollars for a game that looks absolutely incredible and features a single player story I can’t wait to play. But I’m not going anywhere near that 100 dollar price tag. The campaign is something I can wait for. There will be sales down the road and I’m currently playing games I missed for 5 bucks.
Still, it’s the 100 price tag that annoys me most about the ‘pay to win’ structure of the game’s multiplayer component. How can you charge full price for a game that pressures you to spend even more to keep up with the competition? Imagine someone who has saved up 100 dollars only to discover that on day one, other players are far more advanced thanks to in game purchases.
The loop hole here is how EA will matchup players. Stronger players typically get put into groups for matches but that only goes so far. Gamers know a slight edge in health statistics means everything in a one on one confrontation. Two players with similar skills can’t compete fairly if one of them spent $2.99 on an upgrade before the match began.
In my opinion? If you’re going to charge players for in game advantages, you have no right to charge 100 for the game. It doesn’t have to be free to play but if I pay full price for a game, I expect the full experience right out of the box. (DLC is an exception of course but we’ll deal with ‘season passes’ another day.)
In the end, people will still pay and company’s will still create these types of loot crate systems. These systems work perfectly when you’re waiting for that perfect weapon skin or costume upgrade. But it’s tough when all the best items are hidden behind pay walls.
If you give me a single player experience like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War, I can look beyond the ‘pay to advance’ tactics because it’s just me and a controller. If I choose to wait that’s fine. As long as I have access to the same items as everyone else who choose to pay. No problem. I’ll grind it out.
But games like Star Wars Battlefront II are built on their multiplayer experiences. Changing the competitive nature of the game to make more money is a dangerous risk that may turn gamers off. When I started playing the first Battlefront, I got my ass kicked for a week. Slowly, I leveled up my character and started winning games but it was a process. A process that was fair because everyone was grinding out the levels like me. I have no problem with people who have more time to play matches and level up faster. I take exception to competing with people willing to pay to get there faster. That’s not a shot at the players either. If you have the money and the desire, by all means, pay EA and dominate. All I’m saying is that first week wasn’t very much fun.
In the end, if loot crates, card collecting and special bonuses affect gameplay directly, you can’t alienate the gamers who don’t want to pay more than the 100 price tag.
You just can’t. But they are… So what do you think? Are ‘pay to win’ games okay in addition to the steep price tag? Should games with this kind of pay structure be sold at a discount? What does the future of in game currency hold for gamers?