Performance Enhancing F2P

As I was browsing reddit a few days ago, I found my way into a thread talking about how you can play the Star Citizen alpha for free until March 15th (or March 20th depending on the code used). This is a game that I am somewhat interested in playing, but not 22gb of files interested. Makes you wonder about what the final download size is going to end up being. The Secret World is already over 40gb and making me think deleting it would be better than keeping it around in the off-chance I feel like… Googling the answers to ridiculous in-game riddles.

In any case, I continued reading the various comments to try and glean where Star Citizen was in development. As it turns out, they’re still in the “sell $2700+ ship packages in the store like it ain’t no thing” stage.

A bargain at twice the price.

A bargain at twice the price.

The Completionist Package is actually much more expensive at $15,000, although for some reason the $2700 tier galls me a bit more than the other. I think it’s because at some point the amounts are too ridiculous to contemplate, but these smaller ones are more “reasonable.” Could you even build a gaming PC that cost $15,000 without spending money on the equivalent of Monster Cables?

Once the game officially launches, the idea is that the cash shop for ships is going to close; thereafter, the only things sold for real dollars will be customization options… and a “small” amount of in-game currency, with a daily cap. The amount is supposed to be “miniscule” and the equivalent to whatever it costs to refuel and rearm a ship. Whether that amount will just cover a normal ship maintenance cost or one of the $200+ ships you can outright purchase right now, is anyone’s guess.

What is not anyone’s guess are the fascinating arguments being made that such purchases aren’t P2W:

There is insurance on the ships, if you bought the ship early you are granted free insurance.

Insurance will be cheap though, so if you lose your ship without insurance you kinda have to blame yourself. You won’t get a huge advantage with free insurance.

And what’s the problem with buying ingame cash? If I only have 6 hours/week to play the game I should be able to spend cash so I won’t get left behind by the players sitting 6 hours/day.

This bolded sentiment simply boggles my mind. I don’t even know where to start.

Perhaps I could start with an analogy: performance enhancing drugs in sports. If you only had six hours/week to train for a competition whereas your opponent trained six hours/day, I think everyone would still say that that is fair; if you wanted to legitimately compete with this person, you would put in the necessary hours to do so. I don’t think there is anyone here that would say you should just pop some steroids so you “don’t get left behind” by the person who is clearly more committed to playing the game than you. But suppose you do believe it’s fair, and everyone should have freedom to take whatever drugs give them an edge. In such a scenario, what happens to your advantage when the 6 hours/day person just, you know, takes performance enhancing drugs themselves? You end up where you started, except now everyone with even a modicum of desire to win is taking drugs.

Meanwhile, the people selling steroids are making bank.

The other problem I have with the bolded sentiment is what it says about time spent playing the game. If you are paying dollars to skip content, that implies the content being skipped is the unfun, grindy parts of the game. Which means all the players you are bribing your way past are stuck doing content they probably don’t find fun either. Which means that the game designers have a dilemma: they can either make the unfun, grindy parts more fun for everyone (and lose money), or they can do nothing and make more money. Or, you know, make that payslope even steeper.

This is not even my final form.

This is not even my final form.

Is that a little too tinfoil hat thinking? Maybe. Maybe there are good, legitimate reasons why my Air Defense tower in Clash of Clans takes six real-world days to upgrade. Whatever those reasons are, they can’t be too important though, as I can buy my way past the timer. As I’ve mentioned before, these sort of cash shop designs immediately throws every designer action under suspicion.

The final problem I have with the bolded sentiment is difficult to put into words. It’s like, when did we start expecting to have better outcomes than other people who play a game more than us? I would agree that a design in which no one can catch up to Day One veterans is bad, but I feel like there is a crazy expectation that skill should triumph over time-spent and yet the game still have character progression somehow. How would that work, exactly? And when did it become unfair for someone else to spend six/hours a day playing a game? And then fair for you to bring resources completely outside of game (i.e. cash) to make things even?

Sometimes I feel like we’re all just lost in the woods here.

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Posted on March 16, 2015, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. I don’t understand why can’t they plainly say that they are adding P2W. I mean, it’s not like they’re the only ones doing so. And at least there will no more assumptions about the game design being slave to P2W, it’ll be a certainty, and if you are against you don’t play.

    In the same line, the “pay to skip grind” would not be a problem if it weren’t that it makes clear that the grind has been artificially added only to make you pay…..

    BTW $15k is not so far-fetched. On the ArcheAge forums I spotted someone complaining about the latest patch (= 1 room, cut and pasted around 200 times, +5 level cap with exp/level increased by a factor of 100), he was saying that he’s spent $5000 in the game “to see it succeed”…… he probably single-handedly paid for the entire patch developement :)

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  2. It’s a game, not a sports competition. Nobody cares if you take some steroids as long as you don’t attend a tournament.

    And as I mentioned before, in sports it is common to spend money on better “gear” to perform better. Even some stupid running shoes are more expensive then most of these cash shop space ships.

    I don’t see why it’s a problem to buy an expensive ship to “catch up” but it’s ok to spend a lot of money on a better tennis racket.

    Translated to real life activities what you’re saying is, that if you start to play tennis you should be forced to use a very generic, basic racket. Probably not fit for purpose. Typical “starter gear”. And you must earn your better racket by either playing a lot of tennis (grinding) or looting better opponents.

    And who wins a tennis match should be determined by who invested more time to get a better racket, not who is more talented.

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    • I’d actually prefer sports equipment to be standardized IRL, for exactly the reasons you just mentioned. There might be logistical issues with that though. Of course, then you start drilling down into who has more money for better trainers, dieticians, who doesn’t need a day job so they can train all day, etc.

      That being said, we do clearly have some arbitrary limits, regarding steroids (etc). I’d say cash directly gaining a benefit is closer to that than buying a better gaming mouse, which is like buying a better racket.

      Regarding IRL grinding, correct me if I’m wrong, but most sports competitions require teams/individuals to face off against dozens and dozens of opponents before they can make it to the top tournaments, regardless of how talented they already are. So there’s a little bit of that already.

      But to answer the implicit question, no, I don’t have any problem with outcomes being based on both time and skill rather than skill alone. In games with character progression, that makes intuitive sense to me. Certainly more sense than just being able to buy your way to endgame.

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  3. That analogy is so bad for so many reasons.

    Players with excess time and players with excess money are both beneficial for MMOs to maintain a community. The former are always going to be the hardcore “core”, around which guilds and servers revolve. The latter though are not as beneficial to the community.

    In a subscription game without any cash shop they are both equal, so still the former are better for the MMO. However, if you give the latter a legup at the cost of money in to “time”. The MMO gets more money, which means more development and profit. The latter get excited to kind-of keep up with the Joneses.

    It becomes win-win for everybody. Drugs in sports is not win-win for everybody.

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    • “The latter get excited to kind-of keep up with the Joneses.”

      Except they don’t. Anyone who is really serious in a competitive game they spend a lot of time on will also spend money, so the casual still can’t compete, just in a P4P game he also spends more money to still not win, or doesn’t spend and is even more behind. The only one winning in that setup are the devs, at least until most players realize the scheme and leave, but that’s why most P4P games are cash-grabs rather than anything serious and long-term.

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    • As Syncaine mentions, it’s actually lose-win-lose-lose. The hardcore are spending more money than they would have had to normally, the whales flop around doing whatever, the people who play 6 hours/day but don’t pay fall behind through no direct fault of their own, and the 6 hours/week players are confined to newbie hell.

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  4. In CoC: buying that air def upgrade with gems won’t really help you vs waiting for it. In a clan war (the only aspect that counts really) you are matches up by total player strength, so that upgrade you bought just means you face a slightly harder opponent.

    It’s actually why playing against people who spend a ton of money (gemmers) is usually a good thing, and often hilarious; they skipped ahead and are now in the deep end without knowing how to swim, and the deep end in CoC is one of the deepest in gaming (mobile or otherwise).

    SC is different because those who paid are flying in the same space as those who didn’t, which is certainly P4P, and as you said, at a silly scale. But it’s working for the devs, and will make the inevitable reality shock when the game doesn’t deliver on all of its promises that much more entertaining to watch from the sidelines.

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    • So gemmers are the CoC equivalent of EVE players who blow cash on PLEX so they can buy a ship that they are barely qualified to undock – and then get it blown up hilariously?

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    • Well, not waiting the timer out certainly helps me avoid getting as screwed by an air-heavy attack, nevermind how much of a weak-link I become in a clan war while my defenses are offline. So while I understand your point about stronger defenses begetting stronger opponents, that still doesn’t justify a 6-day timer. That aspect is Grade A F2P bullshit.

      What changes about CoC’s depth if A) the timers were orders of magnitude shorter (but still cost the same), and/or B) you couldn’t buy your way past them? I would imagine that the existence of B) directly influences the length of A).

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      • Defenses don’t go offline during a clan war; if they are upgrading, the pre-upgrade level is used in your base (if its a new building you get the lvl 1 version). Only heroes can’t be used, which is a technical issue they are working to solve, because yea, it has a huge impact at TH9+ (though the opt-out feature for wars helps now).

        If timer were much shorter, juggling builder times would be easier/trivial. That would result in people always being able to farm until they have just enough (since you always have a free builder), and then spending that loot right away without worrying about using up a builder on something that is going to run for 6-14 days.

        That in turn would make raiding for loot much harder, as more bases would have low resources, which is something people ALREADY complain about all the time and come up with crazy theories that SuperCell disabled abandoned bases and such. Not to mention if I can always spend/dump resources, designing a farm base that holds up well becomes less of a factor, which currently is a very important part of the game that separates the average player from the great.

        Certainly B exists because that’s the business model, and clearly that business model is working pretty much for everyone (SuperCell is stupid rich, CoC has a huge fan base). I’d much rather have whales rush ahead and make fools of themselves funding the game than having to pay $10 a month for it, to say nothing about a different (worse) F2P model. ‘A’ is a result of both the business model and game design. Removing it or making it trivial would not only hurt the business model (possibly forcing SuperCell into something else/worse), but the game as well.

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  5. The simple answer to all this is to stop calling these things “games”. All the arguments over fairness and competitiveness derive from the mistaken assumption that all MMOs are “games”. Some of them are, some of them aren’t. Most of them are hybrids.

    Leaving aside considerations such as political ideology, most people probably wouldn’t suggest it was “unfair” that some people get to watch more movies and tv shows than others, or to own more box sets, because they are either willing to spend more time or more money or both on making that happen. MMOs, Star Citizen included, have far more in common with entertainment options such as watching movies and tv or reading a book than they do with playing competitive sports or even competitive board or card games.

    As long as the descriptor “game” is appended to these things a subset of the audience is going to keep reacting as though they were in some form of competition with other parts of the audience. Unfortunately for them, there’s a whole other segment of the player base that believes they are enjoying a shopping simulator not a game. You can guess which audience segment the game producers are going to value most.

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    • I think it would be a bit of a hard sell to not term these things as games. Do you play them? Do they have relatively consistent set of rules and systems? Then it’s a game, IMO.

      I’m more sympathetic in regards to the “it’s not a competition so it’s irrelevant” argument, especially in PvE games. I still don’t like that there’s this $ variable that leaks into the systems, but it’s not as bad as a game where I can solve most every problem by throwing more money at it.

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  6. I suspect the best thing an individual player can do is to be more discerning about which ‘game’ he or she chooses to compete in. Some of these avenues are plainly set up to be an uneven playing field, skewed towards one subset or another, people who have more time, people who have more money, people who have more stats or levels or some kind, people who have all of the above on top, etc.

    In fact, one might even argue that the ‘fair’ playing field games favor players with more ‘skill’ – except is that people with better reflexes, which favors the young and the practiced and the twitch-inclined, or is that players with more knowledge (time to read/watch guides, etc.) or whatever.

    Is it not more optimal for someone who has more money than he knows what to do with, but no actual reflexes or patience to learn an esoteric amount of game knowledge to pick a ‘game’ where he can win by throwing money at the obstacles?

    Folks who actually value ‘skill’ which comes down to reflexes and game knowledge and practice should then pick games that offer a competitive playing field where stats and gear do not matter or rather, are equalized/standardized across the board and so on.

    If one values social cooperation and finds ganging up with superior numbers a valid strategy, then find a game that rewards that. If not, find a game that pits you 1 vs 1 or at least equalizes numbers with matchmaking.

    And if one thinks all this competition over who wins a game is nonsense, then find a game which stresses cooperation more and where both players with more time and players with more money can both contribute to the longevity of the game.

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  7. Buying your way past the grind becomes understandable when the game becomes about grind. Most people are OK with the idea of someone more skilled than them having an advantage. Most of them will even concede that the guy with more time to practice will probably be more skilled, all things being equal. Unfortunately, most MMOs reward time spent rather than skill developed – hence, for example, why you have AFK leeches and bots. There’s no virtue in being able to sit in your parents’ basement wearing stained underpants and gaming for 14 hours a day, so I don’t see the troglodytes get on their high horse about people who work for a living wanting to exchange some of the salary they earned during the day to make up for the grinding time they missed. And let’s be clear – grindy gameplay was a staple long before the F2P model landed in our laps. F2P games may have an incentive to add grind that players can then buy their way past, but is that so much worse than original EQ or DAoC where you HAD to grind, with no way past it?

    Now if someone wants to market a game where tests of SKILL, rather than time spent, earn progression, then I’d be all for that – and against people buying their way past it.

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  8. Short note on the coc point: your defenses are never offline in clanwars, even while upgrading. (The king queen and spellfactory however can be offline for attacks if upgrading so the point still holds, allthough on a smaller scope).
    I am of the oppinion that coc might be doing well (i.e. Earning the developers money) due to the p2w aspects, but its a good game ‘despite’ them. However there might be reasons other than earning money for the upgrades to take so long. If they were vastly shorter at least one aspect of the game would suffer. Managing builder working-time (trying to keep them all busy always) would require (assuming same prices) a LOT more raiding for ressources. Which i know I, personally wouldnt be too happy about.

    Also it is important to remember that when people like syncaine calls coc a good game, they are talking about how it plays in an organized guild doing regular clanwars (correct me if im wrong). The clanwars and the tactical and strategical play that comes with it is the “only” reason the game is good. If these aspects were absent, it would be a radically less praised game. (Subjective fact warning :-) )

    Regarding the actual point of the article: i totally aggree, could we stop with the paying for advantage thing… Just because it might be present in other avenues of life does not make it a GOOD thing.

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    • Didn’t read this before making my reply above the repeats a few points, but I agree. Prior to clan wars CoC was fun but ultimately pointless and more ‘P4P’, since the only somewhat defined goal was top trophies, and top trophies requires a max or near-maxed TH10, so buying a TH10 base at least got you closer. With clan wars trophies became a niche little thing for the super-hardcore to worry about in terms of ‘winning’, while basically everyone else doesn’t care and instead focuses on trophy range for farming purposes.

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  9. @Jeromai
    This may be putting things slightly on edge, but what if one values dedication (i.e. Time spent), what game should one then play? Original mmorpg gameplay seems like a great example of what one would want, but games with this structure (grinds that cannot be bypassed by using $) seem to be falling out of favour. At least in the multiplayer versions.

    I think the reason why I object to pay for advantage is somewhat different, but it seems that those people who value dedication are definately being “cheated” in the current gaming-environment where you can buy your way past many of the activities that was usually dedication/time demanding.

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    • I’ll take a stab at walking in this hypothetical person’s boots and say… a subscription game. One that rewards veterans and gives them loyalty bonuses for uninterrupted monthly payment. This person won’t need too many modern games with this structure – because a dedicated player has to invest at least a year or two (or more) into one game, right?

      The stuff that randomly comes to mind are the Everquest MMOs, things like A Tale in the Desert (which has some of the most time-consuming activities I’ve ever encountered – we’re talking real life months and years to develop an -outstanding- wine from grape to fermentation barrel) and possibly even Eve Online (where uninterrupted veterans will have lots of offline skill training time banked up to give them tons of options.)

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  10. Rambling inc

    im not intimate with eve, and ive never played or read much about a tale in the desert. But oldschool eq is definately an example, and by the sound of it so are the other two. But in the case of eve and eq (at least eq2, im not current with monetarization in EQ) $’s will actually buy you past some of the grinds now. EQ2 even has the instalevel function. (And id argue that the offline levelling in eve is not the sort of dedication my fictional person values, as its not really time spent playing the gamr)

    I’m not arguing that these games don’t exist anymore, but the trend has been to allow options into games that ordinarily rewarded “dedication” to buy your way with cash past the time spent. And some people have objected against this. My point was that an argument against this could be made from the point of view of someone who actually wants “time spent in the game” to be a value. I termed it ‘dedication’ to make it sound positive.

    Also I am not claiming that dedication is not being rewarded. Time spent is very clearly still a powerful factor in determining progression in a lot of mmorpgs, it is just no longer (in many mmos) a neccesary factor. And by that i mean that you can skip (parts of) the grind that others do if you are willing to pay for it.

    For someone who values dedication to the extend that others value “skill” this is no different than paying for a “skill” advantage. If i in some competitive fps-game could pay to have the game increase my accuracy (imagine a fps without rpg elements where people are on a level playing field otherwise, thereby removing the time spent playing metric), i would clearly be paying for an (unfair?) advantage to help my lower skill level (for me personally I would still lose, but thats just cause i suckat fps games). Most people would argue that this is the unfair sort advantage. But that seems to be because that game is supposed to be a game of skills.

    In a game where dedication is a factor, like any game with “rpg” elements (call of duty even), paying to skip spending this time is, for a person who values dedication most, just as bad as paying for increased “skill” in the above example.

    My personal problem with pay for advantage of any kind is that i feel offgame wealth simply shouldn’t be a factor in ones success in the virtual worlds/games we spent our spare time on. Or at the very least not in all of them. Just like Azuriel I would argue that this ought to be the case in RL sports as well, but obviously that would seriously hurt the business, so thats very likely not a feasible suggestion.

    In a game of soccer who wins ought to be decided by factors that does NOT include who has/is willing to spent the most money.

    Tldr: if you value dedication as a factor, someone paying to not have to spent time doing x is just as bad as someone paying to get a “skill” advantage like f.ex. Increased accuracy in an fps.

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