Worst of All Worlds

A few days ago Tobold made what seemed to be a reasonable argument that F2P games are just like cell phone plans – some plans work better than others depending on how much you use the phone. That seems fine, until you realize that phone carriers typically give you a choice between subscriptions and buying minutes, even for the same phone model. But more than that, what I want to talk about is how/why I feel that F2P is always bad for me as a player.

I’m one of those people that derive pleasure from “optimizing the fun out of games.” Of course, I don’t actually see it as fun reduction at all; if anything, I get the most entertainment possible when I can lever the whole of my mind in opposition to the game designer. It is not that I want to discover the ultimate ability/gear combo to make the game trivial (most games have cheat codes, Save file hacks, etc), it is that I want the game to be difficult or deep enough to drive me to discover it using the tools the designer gave me. The optimization part is simply the nominal destination of a thoroughly engaging and fun journey getting there.

This brings me (back) to the topic of F2P. One of the common defenses of F2P is that it evens the playing field between the time-rich and the people with limited time. Frankly, I feel that is bullshit right off the bat. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars. If killing that many boars takes 15 hours, then yes, someone who can spent 15 hours a day playing the game will have an “advantage” over someone who can only play two hours.¹ Then again, a particularly skillful player might be able to figure out how to kill the required number of boars in only 10 hours, perhaps by optimizing his/her equipment, farming strategy, and/or ability rotation. The “time-rich” player might still have the “advantage,” but their brute-force approach is inefficient.

The typical F2P experience is thus the worst of all possible worlds for players like myself. I am both time and money “rich” (i.e. I have disposable income), which already presents uncomfortable gaming decisions on a daily basis. If you have no money or no time, the solution to any F2P problem is pretty obvious: grind it out or pay to skip the grind. Conversely, those of us who can do both are stuck rationalizing every possible decision all the time. “Do I grind for another 2 hours, or do I just spend the $5?” Maybe the default should be pay-to-skip in that scenario, but what about all the other games you could be purchasing with that same $5? Is “saving” two hours in one game worth purchasing a different game that could last you 20 hours by itself?

The real kicker though is the fact that F2P more or less invalidates any real sense of optimization. All of us already know that the most efficient move in a F2P game is to load up on XP potions, convert cash into in-game currency to clean out the AH, and open lockboxes all day until we have everything of any value. There is no possible way to beat that. “Just figure out the most efficient path without spending money.” Playing with an artificial handicap is simply not as engaging to me. You can technically increase the difficulty of a FPS by decreasing your mouse sensitivity, but that will never feel as satisfying as having more intelligent opponents.

Where I agree with Tobold is that F2P is here to stay. Outside of the CoDs and Battlefields and Counter-Strikes of the world, I’m not sure many multiplayer games could exist on their own in sustainable numbers. Astute readers will also know that I have been playing PlanetSide 2 for 230+ hours now and that’s a F2P game. Then again, I also spent over $100 in Ps2 thus far, including being “subscribed” for the last six consecutive months (efficiency, yo). Not to mention how I bought helmets and camo for my characters almost entirely because of the extremely slight advantage that they bring (arguably P2W).

I am not against F2P games on principal, it’s just that they quite literally cannot be as fun to me as they could be. I play these games to submerge myself in their fiction. Being constantly reminded that for the low, low price of $4.99 I could have X, Y, and Z not only breaks the immersion and puts a price tag on my hitherto priceless time, it also serves as a reminder that the solution to every problem is just a credit card away.

¹ Advantage is in scare-quotes because I don’t recognize an advantage as being “playing the same game more.”

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Posted on June 28, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Free2Play doesn’t always have to be Pay2Win. We are so used to item shops selling items for real money, such as lock-boxes, XP-scrolls, the Sword of a Thousand Truths and so on, that we have become a bit blinkered. However, there are ways that Free2Play games can be monetized other than by selling (for real money) in-game items that give you a competitive advantage. I mentioned some of them in Free2Play need not be Pay2Win (snappy title, huh?)

    • You present some good examples in your linked post.

      Honestly, I would go further and say that Tobold took his “everything is P2W” argument to an absurd extreme. That might have been his point (reductio ad absurdum), but I reject it. How is mount/hat collection a “competition?” Who are you competing against? Do they even know there is some kind of race going on? Compare that to something like gold ammo, or the hypothetical scenario of two raid guilds fighting for world-first when one side purchases BiS gear. Win conditions can be personal, but any rational competition is not.

  2. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars.

    I imagine this sentiment is common, which probably explains why it causes such consternation when content is nerfed or otherwise made less difficult/time consuming some time after its introduction.

    I guess a F2P advocate could claim that everyone still plays by the same rules–you can pay to advance as well if you like.

    What I don’t really understand about so many F2P games is that the cash-shop portion seems to bypass the entire game. This is what is often referred to as “pay to win”, but I can’t figure out why anyone would pay money not to play a game. Or why a designer would make a game in which they have so little confidence that they provide ways for people to bypass the playing thereof. It would be like if WoW started selling gear and levels. You could pay to level up, pay for gear, and then what in the world would you actually do?

    To use an example, think of something like Hay Day on the mobile platforms. If you haven’t played, it is basically a more advanced Farmville, where you have crops and production buildings. Creating things takes time, but you can pay diamonds, the cash shop currency, to make them happen instantly. You have limited storage space, which you can increase with randomly found items or just buy them with diamonds. What I don’t understand is why you would want to…the logistics of managing production, especially with limited storage space, is basically the entire game of Hay Day. You would be paying to bypass it and have…what?

    That tension is always there, because the cash shops are always more profitable when they sell things of value–i.e. things that will help you advance in the game. If pay to win is averted, the cash shop ends up being something you can totally ignore, which honestly seems like the best outcome. That to me is the ultimate problem with F2P.

    • “You would be paying to bypass it and have…what?”

      Immediate gratification. They’re literally buying a bump of dopamine.

      • Technically, I suppose. My years playing MMOs have led me to question the virtue of delayed gratification though. Is it really more noble, or are we really using effort justification to resolve the cognitive dissonance of having spent X hours doing boring/unpleasant tasks?

    • This is what is often referred to as “pay to win”, but I can’t figure out why anyone would pay money not to play a game.

      The funny thing is that I would have been interested in directly purchasing levels in WoW. In fact, I did just that in multiple ways: dual-boxing for Recruit-a-Friend bonuses (and transferring the dummy character to my main account), getting full heirlooms, and most recently taking advantage of the Scroll of Resurrection deal where I got an immediate level 80 druid.

      I am not interested in another leveling experience. I had nine level-capped alts in Catalcysm. Nine. What I wanted was a different endgame experience. I was tired of the paladin, the shaman, etc., in dungeons and BGs. If I was going to be running dungeons and LFR all day regardless, why not do so with characters/play-styles that I actually enjoyed? Or more accurately, giving me the opportunity to do endgame activities based on my mood at the time. Running Arathi Basin as a rogue is worlds different than running that same BG against even the same players compared to running as, say, a warrior. Or a priest. Or a DK. Leveling up, though? That is exactly the same, every time.

      I do not begrudge the gamer that wishes to buy their way out of the boring parts. I would (and occasionally do) do the same. I begrudge the designer for forcing the dilemma on me, and possibly designing the game to have an unnecessarily boring grind solely to extract more dollars.

  3. Although ultimately it may lead to the same conclusion, I have a different take on F2P and XP bumps. I have a sort of personal philosophy in any game in which a certain amount of grinding is involved. If I’m tempted to speed up the game via XP potions, buying levels etc., I’m probably not enjoying the game enough to justify playing it at all.

    Having raided in WOW with multiple alts and to a lesser extent other MMO’s I understand the temptation to hurry up and level an alt to 60, 70 or 85…etc. But I found a certain enjoyment in the leveling process, or in doing quests I’d done many times before simply because..they were really fun quests! I recall getting my alt rogue or priest high enough to run Scarlet Monastery and being pretty thrilled. My enjoyment lessened with dailies, but some of them were fun. I hated leveling a character from 80 to 85. Let alone 1 to 85 after Cata changed the world. And that’s about the time I started losing interest in WOW.

    Part of my reasoning is the love affair you have with each character as you develop them. Just like any character from a book or film, when they have an interesting arc in the story, they are much more compelling. Leveling up is your character arc. It’s your story. You actually care about them and are therefore much more fun to watch the drama unfold around them.

    Anything that skips over this process can only kill that feeling. It also kills the pride you feel having earned that max level. And if the process isn’t fun enough to spend the time doing, you have a game not worth your time.

    To further clarify, I give you Diablo (the original). That game is just one big 2D grind, but I can put it in right now and play for hours.

    F2P is fine once you realize if you feel you are losing something by not paying, maybe the game isn’t that great in the first place. If it’s fun only when you pay for the perks, then don’t advertise it as a F2P game. That’s like selling a Ferrari with no wheels.

    • I’m not sure I ever felt pride in having a max-level character. I mean, beyond my namesake paladin, I feel that all my other characters are merely different gameplay opportunities. Do I feel like having fun in BGs today? Log onto the warlock or rogue. Feel like healing a dungeon? Log onto the priest or shaman. Getting these alts to max level was mostly a “payment” of time I was required to make. I suppose I felt a bit of pleasure each level up, but it was more similar to the pleasure of seeing that 5pm was fast approaching and I could soon leave my boring job.

      Now, is it good design to require 20+ hours leveling alts? Probably, yeah. It makes the world populated, and gets me to log on for longer durations than I might have otherwise (thus talking with guildies, etc). But after the 2nd or 3rd alt, it was never much fun in of itself.

  4. It really does seem to be a preference thing and I do relate to max level being a “payment” of sorts. But then again, I have never lasted long in a job where I didn’t enjoy what I was doing no matter what the pay was.

    I completely agree about alts populating the world giving more social opportunities. I’ve made many gaming friends and even recruited guild members while on an alt. But in each case, we were having a blast playing the game no matter what level we were. had I skipped certain levels or blown through them…might have never met them.

  5. Wether or not having more time is an (possibly unfair) advantage depends IMO on wether content is lasting, or made obsolete by Power Creepish Expansions/Patches that come too quickly.

    If (like was the case with Vanilla WoW) you essentially have years to finish getting your Dungeon Set, it matters less if someone else got it faster than you, and back then people still had the assumption their effort would ‘stick’.

    Now, since the Tier Reset system and the MoP-hyper Patches, longevity of effort is very fleeting and paradoxically ‘Pay to Skip’/’low in time’ a real topic.

    Personally, I’d rather have had a cash value put on eg doing some of the pre-Cata gruelling Rep grinds and no nerfs (ie Pay to Nerf) , then the current system where you expend a lot of effort and then it goes up in smoke for free (Play to see it Nerfed). At least in the Pay to Nerf scenario some real world effort replaces in-game effort, instead of pure freebies.

    • That is an interesting argument, considering that vanilla had two dungeons sets and 3 tiers of raid gear. Do you draw a distinction here based on the timing (6 months = bad, 12 months = okay)? Or because these upgrades are more accessible than they ever were before? Or perhaps a combination or other reason.

      • A combination of the two, in the sense that the whole feeling of being rushed was absent and if you picked up the game after a ‘WoW vacation’ , you could basically just continue with what you were doing (at worst, in case the rest of your Guild had progressed to the next Tier- something many Guilds never did, most certainly where Naxx was concerned – and wasn’t willing to do that content anymore, there were plenty other people still at your ‘rung’ and you could change Guilds.)

        Now every Guild is working at the current Raid, and so if you ‘fall out’, you simply will not get to see the ‘skipped’ content as originally intended, and any progress you might have had is invalidated.

        What also helped was that aside from argueably (in broad strokes) Naxx gear, a lot of Gear was more side-grade orientated, making ‘missing’ Gear progression more ephermal.

        In short, were before it was more players who decided their pace, now the Devs decide it for you – and with their peer/target group being decidedly hardcore, we see all manner of time-locks and what not to babysit ‘overeaters’, instead of a rich buffet to be enjoyed at your leisure.