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Skill Punishment

I continue to play Clash Royale on my work breaks, and often inbetween games while at home. On the ladder, the start of the Challenger 1 tier is at 4000 trophies, and I fluctuate between that and about 4200. The next tier up requires 4300, but the end-of-season rewards aren’t that much better, especially for the nonsense that one has to put up with on the ladder. Specifically, players with less skill but higher-level cards they got either from grinding one specific deck, or using cash.

Usually the latter, honestly.

The problem – or, rather, Supercell’s money-making feature – is that new cards come out about once a month. Sometimes the card is OP, sometimes it’s junk, sometimes it just makes the gameplay more interesting. Trouble is, my skill level is such that I am actively punished for changing my deck.

This high in the ladder, anything less than a level 11 common or level 9 rare card is mostly garbage, with only a few exceptions. New cards come out at level 1, and require you to both collect the necessary amount of cards (which is not a given) and the necessary amount of gold to upgrade the cards. Going from a level 1 to level 11 common costs 35,625g; rares cost about the same, 35,600g, to get to level 9. The cost of upgrades is exponential, with the “hump” between level 10-11 common and level 8-9 rare being 20,000g by itself.

It is not inconceivable to accumulate the 20k gold by normal gameplay within the month, but 35k gold is really pushing it. Nevermind how all the gold is being funneled into upgrading a new card, rather than the cards in the actual deck grinding the gold. The next level tier above 11/9 costs 50,000g, for example, and might be enough to start winning you games that you should have lost. Or you could play with the new cards and probably be rolled.

The latest preview shows that there are 5 new cards to be released, including one Legendary card. Seeing this on my screen after grueling matches between either equally skilled opponents or P2W whales is demoralizing beyond belief. These new cards could be something cool, something to revitalize my flagging interest in the game. But I can’t afford to keep up.

This is absolutely a Red Queen scenario too, because while you might not be upgrading, everyone else is, and that makes your own cards weaker over time. For example, one of my favorite cards is the Furnace, as it spawns little Fire Spirits every 10 seconds; people typically don’t know how to deal with it, and often end up wasting Elixir trying to play around it. Trouble is, if your opponent has a higher level Princess Tower (e.g. one of the towers you need to destroy to win) than your Furnace, the Fire Spirits get one-shot for free versus forcing your opponent to respond or take gradual damage. For this reason, I poured a lot of resources into getting the Furnace to level 9 ASAP. Nowadays, half of my opponents are level 12, which means my Furnace is practically useless. Over time, this is just going to get worse, as more and more people continue leveling up.

Supercell has ways out of this death spiral, although I’m not entirely sure it’s enough. The various tournaments you can play in cap the levels of cards such that everything can be relatively balanced. More recently, they re-introduced the 2v2 mode and allowed you to play it while earning treasure chests and Crowns. The 2v2 mode actually uses your potentially over-leveled cards, but the introduction of a partner and the general chaos of the fights obfuscates the level disparity at worst, and sometimes negates it entirely at best. For the past week, I have opted to fight zero regular ladder games because 2v2 is immensely less frustrating to lose. And even when you do lose, you don’t actually go down in ranks.

That being said, the situation still feels pretty grim. Supercell recently changed the matching algorithms such that you can’t really sandbag your ranking anymore; even if you intentionally drop 500+ ranks, you end up facing other skilled players who have sandbagged themselves too, potentially trapping yourself at lower levels. And while the 2v2 mode is technically here, it also has an apparent time limit. Nevermind the fact that if the 2v2 mode actually sticks around and “resolves” my issue, that means Supercell forgoes the thumbscrew that is the ladder system.

The ideal gamer response seems to be… being mediocre at the game. That way, upgrading cards doesn’t take tens of thousands of gold, and thus you have more free gold to more easily try out newer cards as they are released. Plus, you know, you are less likely to be as invested in continuing to play the game, thus less tempted to throw down cash to stay competitive.

Eroding and monetizing every inch of Consumer Surplus has always been the end-goal for these companies, but more and more I am understanding exactly how malicious it ends up feeling.

P2Setup

Although I did not mention it beforehand, I spent all of last week vacationing in Florida.

While I was gone, Hearthstone released its third expansion, Whispers of the Old Gods. As with the expansions prior, Blizzard ran a “sale” in which $50 bought you 50 packs instead of the usual $1.25/pack price. I had decided to not take advantage of this deal before the vacation, as at that time there still wasn’t a full spoiler. So I passed on the deal, which ended before I returned.

As it turns out, I really didn’t need it:

Hearthstone_Whispers.jpg

That’s a lot of eyeballs.

I ended up purchasing around 55 packs with gold alone (100g apiece), and received another 13 packs via the quests everyone gets for playing during the expansion release. And this reminded me that I had also purchased the League of Explorers expansion last November solely with gold too, for around 2800g, I believe. In fact, given my (casual) playing habits, there’s a good chance I never have to spend real dollars on Hearthstone ever again.

What playing habits? Hearthstone gives you one daily quest each day, and you can bank up to three. Most reward 40g, but the average payout is actually closer to 50g. I typically play twice a week or so, usually in Tavern Brawl mode (which also gives you a free pack once a week), for 1-2 hours each time to complete quests. If you do that consistently, as I have, that means you are banking 1200g-1400g a month just for dicking around.

You can grind more gold via wins (+100g each day) or Arena (+infinite/skill), but I like my method.

Thus, even if Blizzard releases two expansions and an Adventure each year as they plan to, I can afford to purchase the Adventure and 58 packs of each expansion via in-game gold playing just twice a week and completing 6 quests. Will that give me all the uber-cards necessary to be competitive in the Standard format? Well… depends on the deck. If you aren’t above playing Aggro, it’s entirely possible to hit Legend on a budget, just as it’s always been. Wallet Warrior? Not so much.

Having said all that, I’ve both been playing Hearthstone for a while and dropped some cash for packs early on. I have all the staple Legendary cards from the base set, at least for the classes that I routinely play. There are some clever catch-up mechanisms in place (Tavern Brawl pack, end of month rewards), but I don’t want to give the impression that Hearthstone is a pleasant experience for the die-hard F2P player. In fact, I imagine it sucks, perhaps more than ever.

However. Now that I’m all set up? I’m good to go. And even if there were some chase Legendary that I really felt I needed – there doesn’t seem to be an obvious Doctor Boom this time around – I accumulate a minimum (e.g. worst-case) of ~300 dust a month from free packs/rewards, or 540 dust each month on average, meaning I can craft whatever Legendary I wanted every 3 months. That’s a long time, granted. But sometimes you pull the cards you need, and it doesn’t count dusting unused cards from your collection.

So, really, I consider Hearthstone to be a P2Setup game these days rather than straight-up P2W. If you’re considering playing for the first time today though… well, good luck. If you enjoy the overall gameplay, it does get better over time. It will just be you or your wallet that endures the hazing.

To Discourage Their Purchase

Amidst all the flying talk, one of the minor details of 6.2 that you might have missed was that the Apexis Crystal gear was being changed from requiring, well, Apexis crystals to straight gold. The pricing information as it currently stands on the PTR seems… well, just look at it:

Hmm.

Hmm.

As a point of reference, the highest tier of Apexis gear is the same ilevel as what drops in the LFR version of the new 6.2 raid. As another point of reference, the average price of a WoW Token in the US is around ~22,000g. Hmm.

Some people are more than eager to connect the dots:

I don’t think you quite understand the concept of P2W. In 6.2 a player can get a high level armor set without fighting 1 mob, player, gathering node, pet battle, or entering 1 raid/dungeon. Buying gold from the Blizzard shop and then buying apexis armor with that gold is the definition of P2W.

Blizzard has never sold gear with such a high ilvl as they release “new” content, but 6.2 changes that. Also for years Blizzard fought gold sellars and buyers (limited bans were common), but they now sell gold themselves.

It’s a good talking point, aside from the fact that players will have to do something between level 90 and 100 before they can equip the gear. And, technically, this was possible the moment the WoW Token went live insofar as buying BoE items from the AH.

But then I read Blizzard’s response and all my sympathy simply evaporated:

Ah, yes. “To discourage their purchase.” So you introduced a new gold-for-gear system into WoW, which just so happens to be a few months after introducing purchasable gold… but don’t want people to use it. And you price it around the same rate as the WoW Token you sell for $20. HMM.

Hey, weren’t you guys pulling shit off the Black Market AH because you didn’t want to portray even the slightest hint that you were directly selling gear for cash? Whatever happened with that?

To be clear, this doesn’t upset me because I believe it to be actual P2W shenanigans. What exactly do you win after spending $120 and being on the same level as anyone in LFR? What upsets me is this slow-motion, amateur-hour PR disaster in the making.¹ That and the fact Blizzard has used the outrageous excuse of “to discourage their purchase” to justify $25 server transfers for years. Not because it’s a high-margin revenue stream with inelastic demand, heavens no! It’s for their customer’s own good. Blizzard is practically doing us a favor for charging so much!

For the longest time I have sought to moderate the absurd histrionics I’ve encountered regarding WoW. Things like the removal of atunements, introduction of LFD/LFR, hybrid taxes, Old Blizzard vs New Blizzard, and so on. Not to defend Blizzard for the sake of Blizzard, but to defend rational design decisions in their own contexts.

This shit, though? Holy Jesus. The individual components of the change are not necessarily bad on their own, but the roll-out and communication is absolutely tone-deaf and Blizzard deserves all the shit they (hopefully) get over it. “To discourage their purchase.” I just… I can’t even.

¹ I technically wrote this before the whole flying fiasco started to unravel.

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.

H1Z1, HotS, TESO

There have been a number of gaming developments in the past week, but I find them difficult to write about. First, because I remain distracted with the whole television vs projector search. Indeed, I went from 98% gung-ho for a projector to finding out I could get a 40″ TV for ~$205. For such a value-crazed individual as I am, it’s tough to imagine a better deal. But, projector, man. I could be playing Shadow of the Colossus on my wall, instead of on a TV a mere CD-length wider.

Secondly, I just don’t know how to feel about some of these news items.

For example: H1Z1. Much has already been said about SOE reneging on their promise of no P2W shenanigans, which the airdrops certainly were. Originally. The airdrops have since been nerfed to basically have a 10% chance of containing a pistol or shotgun, so… now what? Do we pack up the pitchforks and go home? Or do we stick around and stab some things since we’re here?

One of the terms being thrown around regarding the airdrops is “Pay 4 Content,” in the sense that buying an airdrop means luring other players to come fight you and/or others for supplies. I find it difficult to argue with that bit of cash shop jujitsu. Similar games like Rust already have random airdrops, so is there much of a difference beyond one’s ability to “advance the timer” in H1Z1?

Framed like that, it almost sounds cool. “This is boring – let’s shake things up a little.” If airdrops were exclusively a crafted or rare lootable resource, I doubt anyone would drop them out of boredom; the eccentric players would get one or two at most, instead of the effectively infinite amount they have under this scheme.

Aside from airdrops, I have been following the other bits of news from the game and it reminds me of why F2P is bad: it engenders cynicism and paranoia. For example, the looting system was described this way:

The lot [sic] system is very intelligent. It keeps track of where all the items are in the server and balances loot spawning accordingly. If everybody is all looted up and hoarding loot, then it’s time to hunt some players or steal from their stashes.

When a player logs out, the server knows that there is now less potential loot on the server and will begin spawning more. When a player logs in and puts the server over it’s limit, the server will stop spawning loot (of the kind that the player has) and you’ll need to begin fighting for it.

The first thing I thought of was: of course your looting system would be like this in a F2P cash shop game. Self-sufficiency isn’t profitable. Smedly was more than forthright in explaining the PlanetSide 2 implant nerf was intentionally done to squeeze extra cash out of players “to keep the lights on.” How would you trust any design decision under such a rubric? Your options are to imagine that SOE wanted a gritty, The Road-esque survival game with few resources, or… they’re just another exploitative F2P developer out to make a quick buck. I sure as hell don’t believe that there is a legitimate game design reason why my Town Hall takes six real-world days to upgrade in Clash of Clans, for example. Nor do I believe that Candy Crush’s candy placement/generation is entirely random either.

In the meantime though, it appears looting is getting buffed along with a number of other action items. The game is Early Access, which makes it difficult to feel justified in one’s outrage. This sort of thing is what Early Access is for, right?

Speaking of Early Access, there seems to be some internet consternation in regards to Blizzard charging $40 to get into the Heroes of the Storm Beta. Apparently, if Blizzard copies what everyone else is already doing, then… uh… er, isn’t that the standard Blizzard MO? People also seemed to have forgotten that paying Blizzard for Beta access already happened: the Annual Pass that granted Mists of Pandaria Beta access. While the Annual Pass was also tied to a “free” copy of Diablo 3, I know more than a few WoW players who bought it specifically for the Beta access.

The chances of Blizzard charging for HotS beta access having an effect on any other developer’s decision to charge for beta access is less than zero. Between Kickstarter and Early Access, the days of a privileged beta have long-since died. And even before those programs, people were selling GMail invites on eBay for hundreds of dollars. Beta access has value whether you choose to believe it or not, and I don’t begrudge these game companies cutting out the middle-man. As long as, you know, they slide me a few extra keys.

Finally, The Elder Scrolls Online has dropped its subscription and went Buy-2-Play. While such a scheme is dubious ethically, this sort of payment model trajectory could be a way out of the otherwise unfortunate design trap of $60 million MMO budgets for ~150,000 player audiences. Obviously these companies would prefer a million-plus subscribers, but chances are they wouldn’t be able to get their investment back if they released with B2P, or developed the game under a lower budget at the start. It sucks for the early adopter, of course, but life has always sucked for them.

We’ll have to see how this move plays out for TESO. The game has never been on my radar and more or less remains that way currently, even though I very much want Skyrim 2. When I start seeing it on sale for $20, perhaps I will take a closer look.

Pay2Winside 2

According to Steam, I have not played Planetside 2 in over a month. There are a number of reasons for this, but the bottom line is that it has gotten increasingly bad for “drop in, shoot faces” kind of gameplay, which is what I have spent the prior 433 hours doing. Maybe it would be more entertaining in a Platoon (i.e. guild), but if I wanted social obligation, I would be playing WoW. Besides, I’m not entirely convinced that Platoon-play is all that fun given that the “metagame” in PS2 mainly revolves around either zerging occupied bases or babysitting empty ones. If you want to shoot faces, you are literally better off finding the WoW equivalent of “Blacksmith Bridge” in Arathi Basin by yourself.

What completely astounds me however is how tone-deaf the developers are.

Implants were introduced into PS2 a while ago, and they represent an extra loadout choice slash gear progression avenue. You get them randomly whenever you earn XP, they require energy to power (something like 0.5/second for the low-level ones), you earn Energy Chargers the same way, and finally you can combine 5 of the same Tier N Implant to get a random Tier N+1 Implant. Or you could buy random Implants or Chargers with in-game Certs or Station Cash. Cue ominous foreshadowing.

Up until a little while ago, Tier 3 Implants were as high as things went. Then Tier 4 Implants were introduced. Then everything below Tier 4 was nerfed to make Tier 4 viable. Then the drop-rate for those random Implants (and Chargers) you get free via XP were slashed. Given how the Implants actually give you some legitimately quantifiable gameplay advantages, players started questioning SOE about P2W concerns. The response?

Palm meet face:

But perhaps you want to give Smedley the benefit of the doubt. Then mosey on over to this Reddit thread:

No I don’t believe I said that [Implants are big money makers]. They do make money but we’re continuing to make adjustments to improve that. (Radar_X)

So we should expect a bigger P2W experience?

Should probably just uninstall PS2 now. (Twinki)

Depends on how you define P2W. If implants are P2W, then yes you may not like everything in the future. (Radar_X)

Oh good.

On the one hand, I understand that they have to keep the lights on and all that. On the other hand… yeah, no thanks. I very nearly bought another $15 Station Cash card at Walmart because it seemed as though SOE was actually going to have a Triple Station Cash sale this past Christmas. Since the Walmart card has an extra 500 SC on it, it ends up being $60 worth of currency for $15. Then I realized that the only SOE title I actually care about beyond PS2 was H1Z1, which… well, yeah. Given how far PS2 is going to “keep the lights on,” I am beginning to doubt the promises that H1Z1 won’t be selling guns and/or survival tools in the store.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see sometime after SOE stops selling Early Access for $20.

WoW PLEX

One of the more interesting blue posts to come out of a WoW lately has been Blizzard’s flirting with a PLEX-like subscription option:

New Ways to Play
We’re exploring the possibility of giving players a way to buy tradable game-time tokens for the purpose of exchanging them in-game with other players for gold. Our current thought on this is that it would give players a way to use their surplus gold to cover some of their subscription cost, while giving players who might have less play time an option for acquiring gold from other players through a legit and secure system. A few other online games offer a similar option, and players have suggested that they’d be interested in seeing something along those lines in WoW. We agree it could be a good fit for the game, and we look forward to any feedback you have as we continue to look into this feature.

Reaction seems to run the gambit from “OMG P2W!!1” to “that’s not going to work.” Wilhelm has an exceptional review on the overall topic on TAGN. As someone who rather enjoys the economic side of MMOs, you might assume that I would be excited about this news myself. And you would be correct, in a sense. You would also be correct in saying that this both increases the chances I play WoW again and the chances that I do not.

To be clear, I think the argument that adding PLEX to WoW is somehow turning it into Pay-2-Win is ridiculous. People have been able to sell the TCG loot cards for ages, and I would argue that the ability to have multiple accounts (let alone the more recent instant-90 purchases) would qualify as P2W under similar definitions. This thesis is also being forwarded by Gevlon, whom believes EVE isn’t P2W, despite the advantages being demonstratively better in that game.

Because even if you bought full, top-tier raiding suit of gear in WoW, what then? What have you won? The personal advantage is immaterial unless you are also grouped with the best players anyway. And even then, the advantage is one that is easily met by anyone who has played WoW in the last ten years (i.e. anyone with alts). Or anyone who has taken advantage of Recruit-A-Friend. Or anyone who has a friend chain-run dungeons with them. Or, let’s be serious, anyone who has a friend, period.

Bhagpuss and Others may bandy about the whole “you’re getting paid less than minimum wage if you farm for gold” canard, but that’s completely irrelevant IMO. One derives a “virtual wage” from any form of entertainment, which is the reason you’re playing videogames and not working 18 hours every day. Indeed, every single day that you forgo the possibility of overtime work is a day in which that one or more hour of free-time gained is worth 1.5x your rate of pay. And if you think $0.18/hour or whatever is bad, think about the $0.00 you get from a single-player game!

No, the way that PLEX-like systems kill my enjoyment of a given game is by the transitive property of in-game currency. You are no longer spending 100,000g on that fun mammoth mount with the repair vendor, you are spending $45 or however many PLEXes you could have purchased with that 100k. I had this same issue in Wildstar, as you might recall:

Or, hey, maybe you just want to dye your clothes. Hopefully you enjoy pastel colors, because otherwise you are looking at 9.26 platinum (926g) to dye your clothes red, and a similar amount with the ever-suspiciously-rare black dye. That is quite literally $80. For one channel, out of three.

Or maybe you just want to unlock the AMP that is responsible for 20% of your class’s theoretical DPS. Sorry, it’s an ultra-rare world drop. Current price? 12p on the AH. Or $100.

Isn’t it wonderful what RMT does to one’s perspective?

And further back in Diablo 3:

…but today all of this has changed for me [when gold was directly purchasable on D3 AH].

That 722,500g is no longer a means of purchasing a better weapon with more Life on Hit for progression… it’s $2.24. Nor is the 900+ DPS 1H weapon I snagged for a 1.5 million gold bid (a true steal) actually 1.5 million gold – it’s a somewhat ludicrous $4.65 cash shop transaction. That I did not whip out my credit card is irrelevant; like most AH goblins, I have preached the opportunity cost hymn too much to ever look at such things differently. Given that I could use the weapon to help clear Act 3 and then resell it for 3 million, perhaps it is more like a loan. Or a Vegas gamble at the nickle slots.

Once I see the dollar sign in my gameplay, I cannot unsee it. The AH is no longer the fun little diversion that keeps me engaged for months, and instead becomes a subscription energy meter. Repair costs go from a figurative to a literal nickel-and-diming penalty. I start second-guessing my in-game purchases just as I second-guess my everyday IRL purchases. “Do I really need that BiS trinket, considering it costs $9.37?” The answer is always No.

So while it’s nice to see that my gold-hoarding tendencies might have a more useful function in the future, it comes at a… er, heavy cost.

Parity as Entitlement

I wrote a post about Entitlement and the problems surrounding its (ab)use in gaming discussions back in 2012. Nothing has changed since then – I still consider anyone who uses it in a semi-serious way to essentially be Godwin’ing their own argument. What I did not expect to see two years later is “entitlement” to be even further warped as a pejorative to paint even those that desire parity in their games. Or presumably, by extension, anyone who has any desires whatsoever.

From Tobold’s blog:

Gamers have a strong sense of entitlement. In real life the answer to the question of why your neighbor is driving a nicer car than you is relatively obvious: He paid for it (or got it as part of his job contract). Most people are okay with that in real life. In a massively multiplayer online game many people are not willing to accept that somebody else has nicer stuff because he paid for it. It is one of the principal objections to the Free2Play business model that somebody else might end up with paid-for nicer stuff. And special editions are based on the same tactics of price segmentation that Free2Play games use.

The context of this quote comes from a larger discussion on the escalating price of “Founder’s Packs,” e.g. the extremely clever corporate jujitsu that resulted in people paying $150 for the “privilege” of alpha-testing even F2P games. Tobold’s larger points are that A) “too pricey” is subjective, and B) game companies are better off selling digital goods in their Collector’s Editions (as opposed to expensive physical goods) if it were not for the fact that “entitled” gamers don’t like that.

“Entitlement” clearly being a trigger word for me, I asked: “Is an expectation of parity now considered entitlement?” Tobold replied:

I have never met ANYBODY who expected or even wanted parity in a game. What people want is a system that is skewed towards their strong points. Thus the person who has more available time than money wants a game where you are King of the Hill if you spend the most time in the game. While the person who has more money than time would prefer if he could achieve things by buying them. Neither of the two wants parity.

The reason why expecting game companies to reward time more than money is entitlement thinking is because obviously the game company would much prefer your money over your time.

(That almost sounds like game companies feel entitled to my money, but nevermind.)

Now, it seems to me that he is making the accusation that people only like what games they are good at. Which… is a bad thing, I guess? There really cannot be any other possible explanation for your friends getting mad at you bringing real-world dollars into a game of Axis & Allies (or Chess, etc etc) other than taking away their advantage of more skillful play, right? Those entitled jerks… it’s all the same!

I enjoy parity in games. In fact, I expect it. Arguably the hallmark of any “game” is consistent rules that apply to every player equally (assuming the game isn’t based around asymmetry). If someone beats you in a fair game by virtue of better skill or strategy, who could legitimately complain? Even if they won by virtue of simply having spent more time playing the game, how could you object? Tobold and others may point out that some people have more time than money, but I do not know anyone who has 25 hours in their day. In contrast, the dollar amount anyone could have on hand is effectively unbounded. You could have $10, you could have $1,000,000.

Perhaps this disagreement comes from differing definitions of parity. Tobold in later comments suggests no MMORPG features parity because different people have different amounts of time to spend playing the game. This is not a dilemma to me – as I mentioned previously, the both of us have the same 24 hours in a day in which to allocate our time. I have zero issue with you receiving greater rewards (etc) for having spent more time playing the game than I. In fact, it sort of boggles my mind that this is even a point of contention. Is that not how any activity should inherently work? “You spent more time reading a book and got farther into than I did… unfair!”

I might be able to see where people could get angry about someone meeting or exceeding your own skillful play by simply repeating a low-skill activity for days and days. But even then, the results of your skill is self-evident: you achieved the result more quickly with less (wasted) time.

Bringing real-world money into a game is NOT analogous to either skill nor time. The amount of money any of us have is the result of an entirely different “game,” which operates on entirely different “rules.” It is like me getting an extra Queen in a game of Chess simply because I won a game of Checkers last year. Did that giant pile of real-world money give you the freedom to spend more time playing the game than me? That is both okay and irrelevant. The uber-rich guy, the 12-year old on summer break, the dropout college student, or the oil rig worker on his two weeks off all value the time spending playing the game equally for as long as they do.

Desiring parity in the games you play is not entitlement. Desiring that fewer companies tether their business model to the rules of the games they make is not entitlement. Desiring to play games you are good at is not entitlement. Desire is not entitlement. When you use the word “entitlement” as a pejorative, all you are doing is asserting that someone has unreasonable expectations about something, without actually bothering to offer an argument or explanation as to why it is unreasonable.

 

Hearthstone, and the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis

When it comes to Hearthstone, it seems you can’t win for losing.

The basic gist is that Trump, one of paragons of Hearthstone streaming, recently hit Legend rank (skip to 1:24 for the last game) with his F2P Warlock deck. This makes the 3rd class he has hit Legend with using the F2P deck concept; the prior two were Mage and Shaman. Back in February, Reynad piloted a F2P Warrior deck to Legend. Additionally, the #1 ranked player in both the NA and EU brackets, Kelento, uses a Hunter deck with six Rares. That’s right: zero Legendaries, zero Epics. With five out of the nine classes accounted for, forum-warriors and Bad Player Apologists alike continue with the narrative that Hearthstone is just another P2W cop-out. “Let’s see them hit Legend with Priest!” “Pfft, anyone can hit Legend after 180+ wins.”

Other than, you know, themselves.

As has been mentioned before though, they might not be wrong: everything hinges on how one defines Pay-2-Win. If one defines P2W as any game in which additional dollars confers any possible advantage, I suppose it could be said Hearthstone is P2W just like any given CCG. Then again, all of the F2P decks that hit Legendary rank were made using Dust and Gold given by quests and wins. In other words, zero actual dollars were utilized. Is such a broad measure of P2W even useful as a definition of anything? One can imagine a scenario in which someone paid a pro player to actually play his/her character for them, which would seemingly fit the definition of P2W even if the game itself was otherwise structured to be anti-P2W.

This sort of musing has led me to imagine something I’m calling the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis. Namely, does having infinite money somehow confer infinite advantage? Under this rubric, there are a number of interesting conclusions. For example, we can safely state that games like Candy Crush Saga and even Dungeon Keeper are P2W; both games (seem to) have infinitely spammable features that make even the most difficult challenges irredeemably easy. For example, in Candy Crush Saga, you can buy extra attempts/turns on the same map along with Lollipop Hammers that break candy without taking up precious turns. Dungeon Keeper is a bit edgier of a case considering there is a hard time-limit of 3 minutes to assault a dungeon, but you can absolutely purchase infinite resources and instant build times with infinite gems.

In Hearthstone, a ~$600 purchase in booster packs guarantees you every card in the game. As mentioned above though, not only do you not need every card in the game to hit the highest of ranking, you often don’t even need anything other than cards any given player can acquire in less than a week of gameplay. But we’re talking about infinite dollars, right? In which case, all the instantly purchased/crafted Legendary cards in the world won’t save you from Kelento’s Hunter deck, by definition of he being #1 on two continents. Control-type decks seem to require a lot of Legendaries to be competitive, sure, but I think it’s difficult to argue that P2W equals “money improves poor performance” without that (indirectly at worst) applying to everything.

A P2W definition that restricts the advantage stemming from only cash purchases paints games like PlanetSide 2 as P2W (camouflage is SC only) whereas Hearthstone gets a free pass. And considering how “F2P” games like Candy Crush Saga and Dungeon Keeper are moving towards a random daily prize model (that either awards cash shop items directly or cash shop currency), suddenly we’re in a world in which the “obvious” P2W games aren’t actually P2W anymore.

Perhaps P2W is one of those nebulous concepts, like porn, relegated to the “I know it when I see it” category. Be that as it may, I think my own evolving opinion is settling on the Infinite Money Hypothesis. Because in a world where companies like Blizzard price things specifically to dissuade certain behavior (e.g. $25 server transfers), surely we can conclude that infinite money breaks whatever balance they believe they achieved through pricing. If everyone had infinite money, would the policy still work? If not, it is at best a blunt instrument. At worst, a cynical money grab.

All that being said, I’m willing to entertain counter-examples.

Hearthstone P2W?

Gevlon had a post up last Friday about Hearthstone that claimed the following:

My problem isn’t that you must pay to be anything but a punching bag. I’ve played 5 years of World of Warcraft, paying 720 euros in the process. My EVE accounts are over 1000 Euros, luckily they’ve been paid by bad EVE players. It’s obvious that you have to pay to use a product and can only get a sample for free. However – unlike in subscription games – there is no fixed cost. If I pay the subscription, I can play EVE or WoW fully. If I pay even $1000 on Heartstone, there is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll be competitive against someone who paid $2000. Even worse, there is no guarantee that my wins are mine, and I’m not just stomping on better players with smaller wallets.

So no thanks, I keep away from Heartstone and the rest of the pay-to-win games.

It is worth noting at the start here that the math is off: on average, you’ll have every Hearthstone card after opening 512 packs, or spending roughly $640. Or it could be as few as 215 packs, for $213. Or you could end up like me, who has just about every card I could conceivably want (not a full set) after having spent 3+ months and $50.

Gevlon countered that there will be more expansions and thus cards later on, but I don’t find that particularly relevant because a dude named Reynard took a 5-day old account and navigated a completely F2P warrior deck to the Legendary Rank, all on Twitch. This wasn’t a guy who spammed Arena games 20 hours a day for every card in the game – this is a guy put us all to shame with his brass balls, mad skillz, and a deck with six Rares (no Epics, no Legendaries). Granted, he is about a pro-CCG player as a person can get. “Results not typical” and all that. But how much money or cards it takes “to be competitive” is not quite as descriptive or damning a statement as it sounds. Is it possible to prop one’s lack of skill with more powerful cards? Sure, probably. Where exactly are those goalposts though?

The larger question of whether Hearthstone is P2W obviously depends on your definition of the term. Is having more/better cards an advantage you can purchase your way into? Yes. However, you can also earn your way to those same rewards using in-game currency. In fact, the whole Dust and Crafting mechanic is something about Hearthstone that has significantly moved my original opinion of its apparent P2W tendencies.

See, I do consider card games like Magic to be P2W for a few specific reasons. First, the power level of the cards heavily and unapologetically skews towards the higher rarities. While there are some very nice Legendaries in Hearthstone, the vast majority of even the top tier decks consist of Basic class cards and Commons/Rares. Second, and more importantly, you have zero control over acquiring any specific card in games like Magic. Yes, you can absolutely buy cards off of other players, but that’s exactly where the P2W part comes in. Or, actually, it comes in at the very beginning, wherein you have zero cards in your collection and have to purchase some to play at all.

Crafting in Hearthstone, along with your ability to complete daily quests and purchase packs with in-game currency, shifts the focus away from paying for advantage to paying for time. Given time, you will have all the cards you could ever want, with zero dollars spent. Is paying for XP boosts in other games considered P2W? Not likely.

But if accelerating the grinding process constitutes a win one pays for, that by definition should encompass most all MMOs, WoW and EVE included. Gevlon thinks dropping $1,000 on PLEX and walking away with a 100m Skill Point pilot inside a Titan as a Day 1 player “doesn’t count” because those were player-made, and thus there was no net increase in power in the EVE universe. But isn’t all power relative anyway? That new player in a Titan is at a significant advantage over all his/her Day 1 peers, not to mention anyone not flying around in a Titan-hunting band.

Besides, what actual difference is there between purchasing currency directly from CCP, and simply siphoning the currency generated from thin air by 1,000 players completing 1,000 missions? Or even completed ships built from ores from the ether? Rate of in-game inflation? If one is P2W, surely the other is as well.

In any case, my opinion right now is that Hearthstone is not P2W, even though it otherwise has most of the trappings of decidedly P2W CCGs. Your early games with the default card selection will suck. There are a number of strictly-better cards at the same mana cost, and they’re usually more rare. A Legendary card dropping at the other end of the table is liable to ruin your day.

That being said… it’s been proven that one can be competitive with a six-Rare deck. You will end up with all of the cards in the game if you keep playing (for free!) long enough. Hell, it’s not even one of those “you can technically get everything but it takes 10,000 hours” F2P payslopes. Other CCGs have allowed players to buy packs using in-game currency, but Blizzard’s willingness to allow Hearthstone players to craft the exact card they want should close the P2W debate once and for all.

At least, for now. We’ll see what the future brings with expansions.