Pete over at Dragonchasers gave a few parting shots concerning the Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot boxes a few weeks ago. Who still cares, right? I do. Not just because I feel someone is wrong on the internet, but because it highlights one’s entire constellation of opinions on gaming, fairness, and life in general. And that sort of thing is interesting to me.

During our back and forth in the comments, the following argument was floated:

Even if [loot boxes = god mode] was true, there’s always going to be someone better than you, whether it is because they supported on-going development of the game, or because they live in their mom’s basement and play 8 hours a day, or just because they’re naturally a better gamer. Online gaming is never going to be an even playing ground. That’s what match making is suppose to solve, though it rarely does.

First, it should go without saying, but the better-skilled player winning a game is basically the axiom of fairness. So there really should be no possible complaints about losing to a “naturally better gamer” aside from the possible lack of fun if one is constantly matched against superior opponents. It is hardly sporting for anyone to have a Chess novice play against a Grandmaster, after all. But if the game is testing skill in some way, it is achieving its purpose if the better-skilled player is winning.

Second, there is no distinction between natural skill and skill derived from time spent. It boggles my mind any time someone tries bringing up the “unfairness” of those who “play 8 hours a day in their mom’s basement.” Are they more skilled than you, yes or no? If yes, they deserve the win. How is it unfair that someone who dedicates more time to something achieves greater results? Is practice itself unfair?

Even in the scenarios in which one can accumulate advantage via time-spent – perhaps by grinding levels or gear – I find it difficult to imagine the unfairness. Is it unfair that those who read more pages in a book are further in the story than we are? There are certainly long-term game design concerns if the game is set up with insurmountable advantages, but the concept itself is fine.

What we’re left with is the “supported on-going development of the game” to get an advantage.

Really, just repeat that sentence to yourself out loud. You became more competitive in a game because you paid money to the people who made the game. The difference between that and bribing referees in traditional sports is… what, exactly? And just like in traditional bribery, its mere existence suddenly makes everything suspect. Was that bad call because you didn’t pay, or was it legit? We just cannot ever know.

All of this sort of presupposes that fairness is possible. Pete certainly doesn’t think so:

If I give you $100,000 so you can quit your job for a year and devote yourself to playing a game full time, how is that not pay to win? Silly example, I know. But time = Money, Money = Time. Paying cash for an advantage or having the luxury to be able to spend significantly more time playing… either way one person has something others don’t. There’s zero difference in my mind. For that matter, on PC the person who can afford the rig to run at the best frame rate and has the fastest internet connection has paid to win over the person who has a modest PC and lives somewhere that broadband is still very slow. There’s dozens of ways one player has an advantage over another.

So, for the first part, that isn’t P2W considering they are practicing to win. That’s legit. Whether they have that time to dedicate to practicing is because they were given $100K or because they’re unemployed or they’re a student or a retiree or whatever, is irrelevant. They put in the time, they put in the effort. If that is unfair, show me your rubric in which fairness as a concept has any meaning.

Now, the second part is a little tricky. As even Raph Koster points out:

Pretty much every physical sport uses pay to win. You buy a better tennis racket, better sneakers, better racecar, better golf clubs, because you think it will get you an advantage. We just don’t like it in videogames because digital in theory frees us of that unfairness. Though of course, we cheerfully buy Alienware computers and Razer gaming keyboards… ahem. Anyway, pay to win is basically one of those things that people are, shall we say, deeply contextual in their disapproval (though they will deny it until the cows come home). There are lines where it’s excessive, but defining them is hard.

If you pay the money for a high-end PC with a 144 Hz monitor and fast internet, you absolutely have an advantage over someone who doesn’t in FPS (etc) games. By strict definition, that is indeed P2W.

The key difference, of course, is that your payment is not contributing to the perversion of the game’s underlying design. When you bought that GTX 1080ti, the developers didn’t transition all of the best-looking gear into the cash shop. That Razor keyboard didn’t pay the bonus of the asshole who turned progression into loot boxes. In other words, there wasn’t any impact to the game itself, its rules, and/or the closed system it represents. Your consumer surplus is not under assault when someone buys a fancy keyboard.

So even if you believe “P2W is P2W regardless of form,” or that natural skill and practice are inherently unfair, you cannot deny how only one form of possible advantage adversely affects the game’s fundamental design. Hint: it’s the one where you are bribing “supporting” the game designers beyond purchasing the game that they designed.

Posted on December 6, 2017, in Philosophy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. But would you say that the payment model of a monthly subscription also adversely affects a game’s fundamental design? In that developers are then encouraged to design games that take up a lot of your time so that you don’t get anywhere fast in a month and are encouraged to continue spending more time and paying for that next month?

    Or that a bought box + DLC monetization model then encourages developers to produce only the bare minimum in the box, and then relentlessly churn out DLC to get more cash out of the paying audience?

    Payment model adversely influencing design doesn’t seem limited to lockboxes.

    As for competition, it’s inherently unfair. It’s just a matter of ‘how much perceived / actual unfairness a player is willing to tolerate and consider the playing field still even’ – maybe it boils down to the chances of each side winning. If I buy a P2W sword that gives me +100 damage, is this in a world where everyone else is doing 10-20 damage, and this makes me overpowered and pretty darned likely to win?

    Or is this a world where non-payers are around the 80-90 damage range, in which case I’m a slightly better whale and would win a one on one trading blows fight, but when ganged up on, or if some of my blows were dodged via skill, would die too. I think some players would be ok with this, enough to keep such a game paid and going, while others would immediately draw the line and refuse to pay/play.

    Or is this a world where I can pay to get said +100 damage sword immediately, but non-payers start at 50 and can get swords in the 90-110 damage range eventually, depending on how much they grind / time invested? Some players would accept this too.

    Ultimately though, I think there’s more to business than blindly scrambling for the highest profit. It’s a short term gain that will shoot companies in the foot eventually. Ethics and social responsibility are also important for a long term business – it’s just that the game industry and its patrons have not quite matured to that realization yet, and we haven’t built up enough collective discernment to impact pocketbooks yet.


    • I used to think that companies like Blizzard were being nefarious with monthly subscription models. Why else would raids have a weekly lockout? But over time I saw how A) having shorter lockouts would just lead to more burnout, because if we could raid 10 times a week, we would, and B) the incentive to extend playtime through a whole month is actually complementary to gamer desires. Some things like Reputation grinds can be annoying busywork, for sure, but steady progression over the course of X amount of time is precisely what people should be hoping for in a MMORPG.

      Also, it’s a fixed cost. You know exactly what you are spending each month and what it is for. It’s incredibly sad that this sort of thing – expected value – is no longer the norm, but here we are.

      The only DLC worth condemning is Day 1 or on-disc DLC. I will certainly criticize Map DLC in FPS games for how they divide the playerbase, but in principle, I am not necessarily against DLC as a concept. My typical procedure though, is to not buy a game until it gets bundled with all its DLC.

      My ultimate point about P2W-ish practices (implemented by devs) is that any step is too far, and it doesn’t even really matter how other players feel about it. When your revenue stream is X, you get more X. Look at Guild Wars 2. Compare how many fantastic weapon/armor skins have been added as drops since release, versus how many are released exclusively in the cash shop now. How many mount skins can be unlocked from simply playing the game? There really isn’t any P2W going on, but we have developers who take away potential content (e.g. earnable rewards) and place it behind a paywall because… that’s the model now. The entire GW2 endgame is grinding gold to convert into gems to buy the actual rewards. Which is sorta like “old-school” Valor Points, except you can also just outright purchase those rewards for $20.

      When your revenue stream is box sales, you craft the best possible game to sell the most copies. When your revenue stream is $15/month, you design content that is fun and takes a month to complete. When your revenue stream is cash shops and loot boxes, the best stuff is released in cash shops and loot boxes.

      In any case, I do not feel the game industry is ever going to solve the dilemma on their own. What incentive do they have to be ethical? It’s a volatile industry full of potentially easy money which will sink the most stalwart idealists at the drop of a hat. Plus, as I have very much discovered, there are plenty of people out there completely fine with loot boxes and P2W and giving away their Consumer Surplus. Nothing matters anymore.


  2. I reply just to say that I agree 100% with your article.


  3. I mainly agree but strongly disagree on one point : If grinding allow to have more in game power (VS becoming better at playing game), in a short multiplayer match I find it unfair.

    Let me clarify by giving exemples :
    – Gating out better gun in a FPS behind grind is unfair
    – Allowing to use PVE armor or even PVE level in an arena in MMO is unfair
    – Grinding in-game money to buy better starfighter in a PVP MMO (Eve) is fair
    – being able to have another Queen in Chess after 100 win is unfair
    – Buying Legendary (or whatever the name) card in Magic The Gathering that are more powerful is unfair
    – grinding better character during the match (Battlefront 2) is fair

    But as Jeromai say, some unfairness is considered acceptable by some player, as long as the game is still fun – World of Tanks is unfair, but if you stick to low level tank, still fun without paying.


    • Those are some interesting examples. “Grinding ISK in EVE for better ships” is fair… but you can also just buy the ISK directly and get a Titan (or whatever) if you wanted. But buying Mythic Magic: the Gathering cards is unfair? Grinding points within a SWBG2 match is fair, but what about those who grind better upgrades in-between matches? Does the existence of the latter make the former unfair?


  4. Pay-to-win goes far beyond just undermining the design of the game. P2W by its very nature DICTATES the design of the game. Once you’ve crossed that line, you’re forced to architect your entire game around it. Balancing your P2W game requires you to account not just for player time and skill, but for player spending, which is all but impossible. You’ve entered into a feedback loop where high-spending players need fodder to recognize their paid-for advantage, but low-spending players will quit if they realize they’re fodder for the spenders. Then add in player skill and the complexity that brings. Good luck trying to figure that one out.

    Additionally, the differences in player advantage as a result of hardware purchases in these types of games are mostly marginal, and when they aren’t they aren’t particularly obvious. If you’ve got a 150 ping and your opponent has a 50 ping in a given match, they have a slight advantage but it isn’t at all obvious that they have that advantage because they PAID for it. Meanwhile, the loot box advantage of a player in a game like Battlefront 2 is rubbed right in your face when you die, and these differences are easy to quantify because they literally come down to a number on a screen: this player does 10% more damage than you. In a straight firefight, all else being equal, you lose. That has an incredibly powerful psychological effect. EA seems to believe that effect will spur the loser to spend money to compete.

    In reality, they will get pissed off and quit, because EA does not understand their audience.


  5. Basically agree.

    Also I want to add that ‘buying an Alienware’ doesn’t mean as much today as it did in the past. The most popular game out is LoL, and any toaster can run it at full frames. You also don’t need a top-end internet connection for it either. It’s rare today to have a situation like in 1999 with UO, where if you had a better comp and connection, you’d load significantly faster and literally move/act faster than most other people.

    Today spending decent money on a gaming PC/hardware is so you can run everything fully maxed out for the eye candy, which in a lot of competitive FPS games everyone turns off anyway because lower graphics are the advantage (less clutter).


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