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Time is Fair

Tobold has a series of posts now in which he simultaneously blames players for the failure of F2P games and then denigrates everyone who, you know, plays RPGs for supporting/enjoying “Grind2Win.” Apparently it is unfair for someone who has played an RPG for longer than you to have any advantage whatsoever. I can only imagine what he thinks about XP as a concept.

In short: Tobold is against any form of progression that you can’t buy your way past; merely playing the game more is asking too much.

Perhaps I am being less charitable here, but I consider the entire “debate” to be, quite frankly, insane. If you spend more time reading a book than me, you will be further along in the story than I. That is… logic, working as intended. Meanwhile, time and money are not analogous; the former is distributed equally to all persons and the latter is not. Perhaps you could argue that more money allows for more day-to-day freedom (i.e. time), but that extra freedom still requires one to spend the same hours playing a game as anyone else.

There is literally no more fair a payment than time. Unless you are dying by mid-evening, everyone has the same 24 hours in their day and every single one of those hours is valuable. Conversely, money has a marginal utility such that $10 to one person is a rounding error and to someone else it’s food for the week.

One of Tobold’s complaints is that Grind2Win lessens the importance of skill. Well, yes and no. If two players of equal skill are fighting, the one who spent more time playing the game will probably win. And that’s… a terrible outcome, I guess? A great moral failing of design? I mean, how dare someone who spent more time in an activity have an advantage over someone who has not! A truly Just World would… have exactly that design.

In clashes of unequal skill however, the outcome is usually less clear-cut than what is being assumed here. Outside of level differences in RPGs and time-management games like Clash of Clans, it’s hard to say how big an advantage grinding gets you. Gevlon did demonstrate it was possible to clear an entire WoW raiding tier in blue gear. Indeed, the surprisingly large delta between skill and gear becomes obvious in most MMOs – squeezing in an extra attack per rotation (skill) will almost always trump a blanket 5/10/15% better DPS stats (time). In MMO PvP, 10% more health isn’t going to save you from being dismantled by a Pro Player.

So what Tobold seems to be really upset about is that small band of conflict between a mediocre player who plays a game often and the slightly-less mediocre player who doesn’t. Sorry, I can’t quite get worked up about the “inequity” of that situation. Not only is one’s time-advantage frequently capped – in MMOs via raiding tiers – it is not much to ask a player to… play the game. Even the most skilled Chess player in the world has to, you know, play a lot of Chess matches to move up the ladder.

All of this really ignores the fact that “Grind2Win” doesn’t even exist as a monetization strategy on its own. Without a cash shop bypass, “grind” really means “pacing” – you can complain about the pacing being off or too slow, but that’s about it. You can’t even argue that MMOs like WoW have weekly raid lockouts to milk subscriptions because it makes no sense. The world-first competition is over within a few resets, long before anyone can “grind” anything. And then the entire tier lasts six months or more, leaving plenty of time for anyone else that cares to get all the gear they want/need. The only scenario that one needs to be suspicious of is when a task is made arduous while there is a cash-based workaround.

The bottom line here is that Pay2Win and Grind2Win are not “equally unfair” and its insulting to even suggest it. I know it sucks to lose to a “no-lifer” who is really a human being that has spent more time playing a game than you, but it’s not even in the same league as someone buying their way to the endgame. A hundred dollars to a F2P whale is not of equal value to a hundred dollars from someone living paycheck to paycheck. Hours spent, though? That’s a direct correlation with how valuable a given activity is to you. And if you are unwilling to spend the time on something, what are you even complaining about?

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.”