Category Archives: Pay to Win

Does RMT Have a Place in MMOs?

RMT. Real money trading. The nasty three letter acronym associated with gold farming, pay to win, and bots. It’s existed in MMOs for the better part of two decades, back when Ultima Online gold traded at higher exchange rates (200 gold to $1 USD) than the Italian Lira, Hungarian Forint, Indonesian Rupiah, Vietnamese Dong, Colombian Peso, and several other real world countries (250 to 14,000 units to $1 USD). This was in era where all real money trading took place on eBay (sometimes facilitated by company employees), before more specialized shops opened their doors.

ultima online gold pile

People will kill to become a Colombian millionaire.

Eventually, massive inflation sets in because wolves somehow drop coins and MMORPG NPCs print money on demand to buy player trash. Money sinks like repair costs and auction house taxes never offset the constant printing of game currency. Even the loss of capital when ships blow up on Eve Online can’t compete with the universe’s infinite resources. The effects of MMO currency inflation on RMT is as multifaceted as it is unclear. The obvious impact is the increased cost of goods. This drives players with more real world money, less time, or both, to seek out-of-game methods to acquire in game currency. And where there is demand, there is supply.

MMO RMT carries a host of problems. The chief issue being the devaluation of the most active players’ time. What’s the point of grinding for hours on end when top gear can be purchased for a day’s paycheck? Diminishing the reasons to actually play the MMO is a major negative for anti-RMT folks.

At some point it’s too lucrative of a money making proposition to pass up. In 2005, over 100,000 people in China reported working as full time gold farmers (“gold” acting as a moniker for all virtual MMO currency). These “players” contribute nothing meaningful to the game, mindlessly killing creatures for loot. At it’s worst, gold farming creates violations of human rights. To increase efficiency, gold sellers use bots to generate even more gold. This unnatural crowding of high end areas pushes real players out. Even if players can avoid the bot infestation, constant channel spam for “BUY GOLD $5=5000G WWW.CASH4GOLDMMOSTYLEYO.COM” ruins actual human communication. People need to be able to gripe publicly without fear of the bot takeover. The effect of the supply side absolutely damages the average player’s experience. That doesn’t even take into account the ethics of gold buying.

wow mmo rmt chart

Inflation occurs quickly.

MMORPGs are first and foremost games. It’s even part of the acronym! Real money trading is essentially cheating. Imagine playing a board game with friends. You offer to take another player out for the price of $5. They accept and cruise to victory. What’s the point in playing when money will decide the outcome? More topically now that the NFL season has begun, imagine paying $5 to a fantasy football leaguemate for Antonio Brown. That’s a big change that affects the fair competition of the entire league. At the same time, these examples ignore a major difference between MMORPGs and other games. MMORPGs are also virtual worlds with real economies and thus, inherently valuable currency.

In the cheating examples, the time commitment for those games is significantly less than in top MMOs. You also play to win, which is rarely part of MMORPGs, despite the oft-used “pay to win” label. Competition of a sort still exists, but ultimately time dictates who sees the greatest success. When top guilds in World of Warcraft spend a full time job’s worth of hours raiding, it’s pretty obvious that not everyone can compete. Here, money is the great equalizer. After all, time = money. Does that justify real money trading? I think it’s at least a fair argument.

As evidenced by just how many RMT stores exist, a significant number of players obviously agree. It may not be fair that players can use real money to purchase virtual goods. It’s also not fair that players have more time than others. This is what happens when progression is based on primarily on time rather than skill. Players don’t really improve at MMORPGs, they just dedicate more time. The only way to advance is to play more, and that’s simply not an option for many people. How else can these individuals keep up with top players except to turn to RMT? Admittedly, some are also the cheater types who will do anything to get an unfair edge. They’re not looking to just level the playing field, but to beat out everyone else at whatever cost. RMT doesn’t change that. There’s always hacks, exploits, and bots for cheating.

Let’s take away the negative indirect affects of RMT: gold farming, chat spamming, increased customer service expenses, and bots. If we could do away with those, is the time = money defense a good enough reason to support RMT? I can see both sides. It is cheating, but it’s not like all players are playing by the same rules anyway. Putting more time into an MMORPG is like getting more moves in a board game. I think it’s up to MMORPG developers to design a game that limits the appeal and usage of RMT.

guild wars 2 gem rmt chart

Even though World of Warcraft is rampant with gold sellers, I feel it’s designed well enough to limit RMT. The best gear must be earned in challenging raid environments and cannot be traded. The items people can buy with gold minimally impact other players. I’m not going to fault someone for spending $10 to buy a mount instead of hours of mindless grinding. Guild Wars 2 launched with the mantra end game gear should be easily attainable. Real money trading mainly leads to cosmetics in Guild Wars 2. I’m good with that. They also implemented their own developer-run RMT shop, which drastically cuts down on RMT’s outright negative ramifications. Horizontal progression may lessen the need for RMT given that there’s little to vertically separate players.

Virtual currency will always have real world value. MMORPGs will always require time to advance. Real money trading will always exist because of these perpetuities. I do not dislike RMT inherently, but don’t enjoy the environment it creates. I doubt even active real money traders do. Still, I think it has a place to eliminate tediousness. It just takes foresight to build an MMORPG with RMT and it’s effects in mind. After all, we’ve come a long way from buying gold in Ultima Online.


Is Augmented Reality the Future of MMOs?

Pokemon Go is a huge hit. There’s no doubt about it. The mobile game sensation earned over $200 million in its first month of operation. Much of the game’s design and locations originate from developer Niantic’s first augmented reality title, Ingress. Real world locations act as key destinations for players to visit and interact with in both games. In Pokemon Go, these are gyms where players fight their Pokemon and Pokestops to collect resources. It seamlessly blends in with the real world and requires only a phone to see the virtual overlay. Pokemon Go boasts many similarities to MMOs so it got me thinking. Is Augmented Reality the Future of MMOs?

augmented reality ingress

Augmented Reality, Present Day

Few games integrate reality with core gameplay. Of those, only Ingress and Pokemon Go come close to the offering of a fully fledged MMO. It’s certainly a step forward in the evolution of mobile gaming though. Pokemon Go encompasses all of the basics of an MMO. There are tons of players who can interact directly and indirectly with one another. Players also gain levels in order to access more challenging content. None of app’s gameplay is very complex, which is no doubt a huge reason for its success. Anyone that can flick an object and tap a screen can play.

This simple gameplay has created an environment for friends of all skill levels to play with one another. Unlike MMOs that segment players by level, Pokemon Go’s augmented reality locations benefit everyone. Grouping doesn’t confer any direct benefits, but players can help other players by sharing locations of rare Pokemon, setting lures to increase Pokemon appearance, or capturing gyms to place Pokemon in. People playing Pokemon Go are often hard to miss so it also acts as a potential discussion opener. Like MMOs, this conversation is not always welcome, but there’s no doubting augmented reality offers a rich social component.

The freemium cash shop sells some nice incentives for purchasing real money currency without enraging free players (so far). It permits Pokemon Go to operate on the popular free to play model that’s allowed numerous MMOs to thrive, or at least survive. Finding MMOs that aren’t pay to win can be a rather difficult task. Pokemon Go might just be in a class of its own with its freemium model. There is some argument over whether Pokemon Go is pay to win, but the masses seem to have no problem with it. Ultimately, that’s what counts when it comes to future game development.

Augmented Reality as MMO’s Future

What augmented reality lacks compared to traditional MMOs is depth. The gameplay in Pokemon Go and Ingress can feel repetitive pretty quickly. The game revolves around a rotation of catching Pokemon, leveling up Pokemon (basically by catching more), and conquering gyms (to get resources to catch more Pokemon). Everything comes back to catching Pokemon and the faster one does that, the faster they progress. There’s only one real path so if it gets too worn, the player may not stick around.

augmented-reality-pokemon-go

That’s not to say Pokemon Go is in danger of going extinct anytime soon. I do think we’ll see revenue taper off in the face of this repetition. Complete MMOs and even browser MMOs produce a wealth of content that could be enhanced via augmented reality. Imagine for a moment an MMORPG like World of Warcraft with it’s crafting, raiding, questing, and PvP. Now consider how much more engaging these activities would be with a real world tie in. The core mobile elements with deeper gameplay systems would be revolutionary. If only it were as easy as that.

Mobile bandwidth can really dampen the play experience. Pokemon Go ran into some serious server issues at launch and Niantic is still working on a consistent experience for its users. This is with relatively static, asynchronous content. If an augmented reality MMO developer wanted to introduce something more dynamic like PvP combat, lag alone would ruin it. Phones, especially in more rural areas, can’t always maintain consistent connections. Really, complex combat of any kind would limit any potential audience on a technical level alone. The bright side is that with 4G LTE, bandwidth is becoming less of an issue. Yet, connection consistency and speed is only half of the battle.

The attention span of mobile users is another serious hurdle for augmented reality MMOs. Pokemon Go is succeeding in large part due its pick up and play nature. The gameplay is easy for anyone to grasp and light enough to be rewarding with just a few minutes of play. By contrast, MMOs often ask players to commit to hour long sessions. That’s not a time commitment the majority of people are willing to make. Most would be Pokemon masters are transient passersby. On the flip side, several people can be seen playing at major Pokestops for hours on end. A potential augmented reality MMO would need to appeal to a range of play styles without blocking off content for more casual players.

Why Augmented Reality?

It’s one thing to think that augmented reality MMOs are a possibility. It’s another to ask whether it’s something developers should consider. I think the answer is a resounding yes, for a few reasons. One is that grinding and leveling in even the best MMO can get repetitive. Real world tie-ins mask that. The social component of augmented reality games dwarfs any classic MMO. Face to face interaction is a healthy human interaction that can’t be replaced by emotes and voice chat.

I like that augmented reality games promote exercise. Spending too much time sitting on an MMO will damage one’s health eventually. It’s easier to feel less guilty when walking from place to place to accomplish anything. Finally, it’s good for businesses. Many retail stores are using Pokemon Go to spur sales. This interest by local establishments could be used to enhance the game with cooperative tie ins. Instead of a player-developer relationship, a third party enters the picture. This opens brand new doors for content interaction.

All in all, I feel that augmented reality MMOs are on the horizon. It’s a merging of genres that makes a lot of sense. That doesn’t mean we’ll see traditional MMOs and MMORPGs die out. Desktop and console gaming will always deliver more complex gameplay than a mobile phone. Still, Pokemon Go and Inress are just the kindling of augmented reality’s bright future.


We Love Pokemon Go Despite Hating Everything About It

Pokemon Go has certainly taken the world by storm. Nintendo’s stock has risen a tremendous 44% since Pokemon Go’s release last week.

Nintendo stock up 45% from Pokemon Go

Nintendo stock up 45% since the July 6 NA/AU release date of Pokemon Go.

The augmented reality (AR) game is certainly making news, both good and bad. It’s encouraging people to walk, which fantastically combats increasing worldwide obesity rates. However, not all is well as criminals used the game to locate groups of players to rob late at night. It’s also steering focus away from the real reality, making a Pokemon Go related car wreck seem inevitable. Nonetheless, Pokemon Go is clearly the latest hit in the gaming universe. It’s funny too because it is full of things we as MMO players and gamers in general say we hate.

Grinding

The core gameplay of Pokemon Go revolves around walking to Pokestops to gather pokeballs to catch Pokemon that wildly appear while walking around. When the wild Pokemon appear, the player flings the pokeballs in order to catch their prey. To level up these Pokemon, players must catch more of the same ones to acquire the necessary materials. There’s no real critical thinking involved, either in the capture or evolution mechanics. Thus to become a legendary Pokemon master you will simply embark on an epic adventure of repeating the same activities over and over to raise the seemingly unending combat power (CP) value. Meanwhile in other games, people bemoan comparable methods of grinding to progress.

Tutorial

It’s incredibly frustrating for a game to hoist activities on you while leaving critical components of those activities unexplained. Pokemon Go isn’t very complicated, but it’s also not very intuitive. Trial and error and logical deduction will eventually teach everything, but the game explicitly explains very little. The game shouldn’t really necessitate guides, and yet lengthy articles such as this one on tracking Pokemon are continually cropping up. Core systems such as the aforementioned Pokemon tracking, combat, and gym PokeCoin generation are left to the user to simply figure out. Players can get by without these subtle nuances, but they’ll be at a disadvantage without that knowledge.

Hardcore Commitment

MMOs requiring hardcore time commitments are falling by the wayside. Pokemon Go, however, can only be fully experienced by those who put in serious effort. The endgame of Pokemon Go takes place in the gyms around town. Players align themselves to one of the game’s three different teams to conquer and defend local gyms from teams of opposing colors. To conquer these gyms, players must use Pokemon with high CP in order to compete with other trainers. Holding onto these gyms at certain points of the day will reward gym guardians with PokeCoins, the game’s premium currency.

Pokemon Go Gym

Pokemon Go Gyms, the only place where combat takes place.

Players can also store Pokemon at friendly gyms but only if space is available. Players can make space by training at the gym but will ultimately require high CP Pokemon in order to do so. To realistically acquire PokeCoins without paying, a player is going to need some strong Pokemon. As already discussed, that’s only possible through grinding. This creates a cycle where the rich get richer. Even ignoring the items that only PokeCoins can buy, not being able to participate in realistically winnable battles can be frustrating for those without a hardcore level of commitment to Pokemon Go.

Pay to Win

To be fair, I’m personally not labeling Pokemon Go as a pay to win game. Players cannot purchase untenable power. The size of one’s wallet does not impact the need to go out and grind Pokemon captures. Reaching Pokemon master status will always require a certain level of “work”.

That said, the PokeCoin store’s inventory is full of time saving advantages such as EXP boosters, egg incubators, and Pokemon lures. Assuming equal time commitments, a paid player will quickly outclass a free player. The balancing mechanisms here are teamwork and the maximum levels and CPs of trainers and Pokemon, respectively. Eventually a free player can catch up to a paid player, but early gym dominance simply adds to that difficulty. Many players deride “time = money” cash shop purchases as pay to win so it’s worth pointing out.

(Sub)Optimization

Pokemon Go is surely not a friend of environmentalists. The game drains battery at lightning speed. Minimizing is not an option, lest Pokemon go uncaptured without optional push notifications. I’ll give the bugs and server issues a pass because it’s nothing new to online game world launches. The design decisions and lack of optimization options need to be brought up though because it impacts the long term enjoyment. A game isn’t very fun when it won’t work because it killed the power source (i.e. your phone). It’s similar to major PC releases that cause slowdowns and video lag due to poorly optimized code.

Love Transcends Hate

Let me sum this up in way MMO veterans can understand. Imagine if you took everything that made World of Warcraft a worldwide sensation and did the exact opposite. Pokemon Go would be the result.

world of warcraft pokemon go opposite

Flip World of Warcraft upside down, get Pokemon Go?

That said, the game is clearly addictive. I still have it installed and open it up during my regular walks. It’s probably the most social game I’ve played in a while. It’s pretty obvious who is clearly capturing Pokemon alongside me, so it’s easy to strike up a conversation. (I’m eagerly awaiting the first marriage proposal to arise from this game.)

The simplistic capturing mechanic, achievement addiction, exercise encouragement, nostalgia, teamwork, and augmented reality all make for a wholly unique experience. It’s quite simply why we can love a game when we hate so much about it. I’d argue the game element isn’t even that good, but we’re willing to overlook a lot of faults when the full package delivers this much fun.


The Enemy Is Pay to Play, not Pay to Win

There was a time when lengthy ruminations on MMO business models were a staple of the community. You’ll still see people arguing the merits of free to play versus subscription from time to time, but it doesn’t have the vigor it used to. The industry has mostly stabilized, and while some games still maintain mandatory subscriptions, these days free to play and buy to play are the norm.

A warlock character in Neverwinter, a game with a very overbearing cash shop

That means cash shops are now the new normal, and there is always a great deal of anxiety around them. “Pay to win” is the frightful term whispered in the dark corners of the MMO world, a dark specter that destroys games by allowing people to exchange real world cash for in-game power.

But is it really so terrible, though? Because the more I play MMOs, and the more I think it over, the more I think we’ve been afraid of entirely the wrong thing.

On pay to win:

This thought began germinating in my mind a few weeks ago during an ill-fated return to Trion’s MMO shooter Defiance.

Pay to win is an incredibly nebulous term with no set definition, but at least a good number of people would probably say Defiance qualifies as pay to win at this point. Randomized packs bought for real cash have a chance to include legendary guns that are at least as powerful as the best items earned through gameplay.

And you know what? It didn’t affect me at all. I never even noticed it making any difference. The game felt the same to me as it did before those powerful cash weapons became so ubiquitous.

Then I hit the wall as the result of a perfect storm of grindy gameplay, over-tuned encounters, and my own poor planning. Due to my previously casual play, I found myself unable to progress the story without weeks of grinding, which I’m not interested in doing.

DLC content in the MMO shooter Defiance

In my desperation, I considered turning to the cash shop for help, but I realized even that would not be enough. I might luck into an awesome legendary gun… but it’d still be scaled to my level, just like all drops in that game, and I’d still need to level some ways to be able to tackle the content I wanted to. I might have an advantage, but it wouldn’t solve my problem.

Thus the realization dawned on me that not only was I okay with Defiance being a little pay to win, but I actually wanted it to be more pay to win. If I could buy myself a 5K EGO character in full epic gear right now, I would. Gladly. (Are you listening, Trion?)

And that got me thinking about the whole concept of “pay to win.”

Not a lot of big name games offer huge advantages for cash, but plenty of the games I play have blurred the lines a bit. The Secret World offers signet boosters that can provide a significant gain. Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft have legalized gold-selling. Defiance has its aforementioned lockboxes.

None of this has ever impacted in me a negative way. They’ve all made me squirm in discomfort when they were added, but within a few weeks I forgot they even existed.

I’m not saying these things don’t offer unfair advantages. Of course they do. But so do lots of other things.

The ugly truth that no one in the MMO community wants to admit is that MMORPGs are by their very nature incredibly bad at offering fair competition or measuring individual skill.

The character Cass Ducar in the MMO shooter Defiance

There are so many ways you can get ahead in an MMO other than being good at the game. You can mindlessly grind your way to outleveling or outgearing challenges. Better players can carry you. You can just be lucky with RNG.

Another thing no one wants to admit is that you are not a competitive player. At least, you’re probably not. MMOs are not full of people competing to be the best. Like most things in life, they’re full of an ocean of mediocre players (like me, and probably you) and a tiny, tiny minority of people who are actually the best.

The sad truth is that if you play an MMO, there’s pretty much always going to be someone more powerful than you. Probably a lot of someones. At the end of the day, does it matter how they got to be better than you?

This was why I stopped caring about cash shop gear in Defiance. Yes, a wallet warrior might beat me on the scoreboards. But so would someone who’s just played longer than me, or had better luck on drops than me, or who just happened to be the first person to the Arkfall. I had no way of knowing which option it was, and at the end of the day, it didn’t matter.

Think about how many people buy carries to the best rewards in WoW. It’s a fundamental part of the game economy by now. Raiding guilds support themselves by industrialized selling of carries. In this manner, absolutely anyone can earn the very best gear, cosmetics, mounts, and achievements.

Even I’ve done it. I didn’t earn that Grove Warden mount my Night Elf is riding around on through any skill of my own. I just dumped a lot of gold on some raiders.

The Grove Warden moose mount in World of Warcraft

You can argue I still earned that gold through gameplay, so it’s okay, but I don’t really see how clicking a few buttons to do my garrison missions is any more worthy of reward than going out and actually earning a wage in the real world.

I suppose to some extent it all ties into that pernicious fallacy that free time equals skill, but that’s a rant for another day.

The only place where it’s worth worrying about pay to win are PvP games that would otherwise offer a level playing field. If Heroes of the Storm suddenly added a cash shop item that increased your hero’s stats by 20%, that would be a problem. But for the average MMORPG? Pay to win is an illusion, a bogeyman we’re all scared of but are almost never impacted by.

I’d personally still prefer cash shops focus on cosmetics — my Defiance example notwithstanding — but that’s just not the world we live in.

That’s not to say cash shops can’t cause problems, though. We’re just scared of the wrong thing.

On pay to play:

Generally the term “pay to play” refers to MMOs that require a traditional monthly subscription in order to play. That is one example of what I’m about to discuss, but for the purposes of this post, I’m choosing to broaden the terms.

A hunter-ranger character in Neverwinter

When I think of the negative experiences I’ve had with MMO cash shops, it never has to do with power or what other players can gain by paying. It has to do with obligation, with a lack of options.

When I stopped playing Neverwinter, the cash shop was one of the big things that drove me away from the game. And while you could argue that it’s an example of pay to win, that wasn’t really the issue.

I reached the point in Neverwinter where there was basically nothing I could do to progress my character without either paying cash, or grinding until my eyes bled. And it wasn’t a one time fee I could pay and then be done with it. The game systems were designed to require steady infusions of cash, indefinitely, for you to keep playing and progressing.

It’s the endlessness of it that’s the problem. I don’t mind paying for a certain specific item or service. I can even live with paying to overcome a certain restriction or to unlock a certain feature. But when you reach the point when you’re playing the game with your wallet more than your character, that’s when everything starts to break down.

Subscription games are also an example of this, though a significantly less destructive one. At least they lay things out clearly: They’re upfront about the need to pay regularly, and the amount you need to pay is consistent and usually reasonable.

But the core problems remain. You’re repeatedly paying for the same stuff. You can’t play without paying. The game becomes a constant drain on your wallet, and there’s nothing you can do about it short of giving up the game entirely.

A skilled raid carries lesser players to free moose mounts in World of Warcraft

This is what we should be worried about, and I think this is at the heart of a lot of concerns about pay to win. Nobody wants a world where games are played through cash shops more than anything else. That’s when the fun is drained from the game. That’s where it all falls apart.

Simply trading cash for power, while viscerally distasteful, is not all that harmful in the end, at least for most games. It’s only when monetization begins to take over all of gameplay that things get ugly.

Thus, the enemy is not pay to win. It’s pay to play.