About — Selling Power

With the rise of big AAA game studios adopting the “pay-to-win” game model, now is a good time to talk about selling power to your players. “Pay-to-win,” a nickname given by the gaming community, are games in which the mechanics and upgrades are designed to encourage players to spend money to immediately access the best weapons, and thus instant power. Third party developers have been savvy to this tactic for a while, but now that big studios are implementing it too, I thought it a relative moment to discuss the mechanics, pros and cons of this industry wide trend.

When games sell power, they make it clear to the player that if one wants to actively be at the top of his game, one must pay more money to do that. Now this is fine if the game itself is initially free to play, excluding the morality of these “skill-boosting” microtransactions in the first place. When a game costs money, say, $60, and has power locked behind additional payments that optimize the player experience (microtransactions), it may get some people to pay extra, but in the long term players will catch on and begin to question the legitimacy of the $60 experience for which they are paying.

With Electronic Art’s release of the Star Wars Battlefront 2 beta, players’ number one concern was the randomized loot crates that can be bought using microtransactions within the game. Aside from the loot crates unlocking cosmetic items, players will also have a chance to win upgrades. Not only is the game $60 at launch, but if anyone so chooses to drop more money on it, he or she will have a chance at an edge in the arena. The game will continue to give the player upgrade slots as he logs time, rewarding even the most inexperienced players for their sheer loyalty and dedication. The longer you stick with the game, the better your chances.

In this way, the game rewards players with virtual skill, like in traditional role-playing games where your hero levels up, and your sword suddenly deals +1 more damage.

Now, I’ve played a lot of games with similar pay-to-win systems to what EA is doing, namely APB: All Points Bulletin Reloaded. It’s a cool Cops vs Robbers game that was advertised as ‘free-to-play,’ although I payed-to-win. So, for the low price of subscribing to the game, plus $15, I received their special weapon, “Whisper.” It is the game’s only submachine gun with a silencer that is easily accessible without completing hundreds of hours’ worth of content.

Let me tell you, the fifteen bucks were worth it for that gun. My opponents would complain because they couldn’t hear me coming. The only time I had trouble was if the other team had the jump on me, or, of course, if I encountered another Whisper.

As a game designer, I shake my head, because I know this is so wrong. It’s a cheat to be able to buy your way to the stop of the boards with virtual skill, rather than put in the hours learning to master the mechanics of gameplay, and win due to your own sheer skill. Why didn’t everyone get a Whisper? To me that would make for the ideal game play. But for a free-to-play game, I can forgive them. I got hours of fun out of it and the gunplay was only a good third of that fun.

If Star Wars Battlefront 2 wants to be a collectable gun game where you can buy loot crates for a chance to win these parts, like buying a pack to increase your odds of drawing a good card in a Trading Card Game (TCG), that would be acceptable, but that is not the game’s experiential core. As it stands now the game’s core is the gunplay and tactics that come with it, which is completely different than the experience of drawing that legendary card in a TCG. Not only that, but the game is $60 dollars.

As you can see I am against this business model, but to be fair, this will not ruin the game, it will just give players a reason to feel cheated (in game and out).

With Activision patenting their own system to increase microtransactions through matchmaking, I think their best bet is to market it at as a gambling game. Tricking people into making microtransactions to gain their money in exchange for power works at first, but eventually players catch on, and the business model becomes unsustainable.

We have a problem in the game industry with selling power, or rather, the illusion of power. Even the creators of Halo are doing it. Creating an advantaged gun that serves as a pre-order bonus is a good idea in theory, but by doing so it alienates the rest of the player-base, the players that want the gun, and its awesome advantage, but were unable to afford it.

Game Designer with a Bachelor of Science. I talk about techno life and design ethics while I make games.