In a genre dominated as much by raiding as it is by grinding for that next level, these two revenue models invite two different styles of play. Plenty of discussion has transpired on which is best, with fair reasons on both sides. Genre fans have debated each model’s merits ad nauseam. What hasn’t been discussed is which revenue model fits which social theory best.
Until now. I’ll be arguing why free to play mirrors individualism and pay to play mirrors collectivism.
What a crazy topic you’re thinking. Social theory on my MMO Bro? This isn’t some Nick Yee gaming science website. Nope, but it’s fun to contemplate motivations and personalities on a deeper level than the game mechanics themselves. So let’s break down each argument separately.
F2P is Individualism
F2P players are more focused on themselves. They want the most optimal deal on the market. Good free to play MMO games offer fun growth opportunities for completely free players, small spenders, and whales without diminishing the fun of the other groups. However, their low barrier to entry invites very transitory individuals. Without a financial investment, friends will drop as frequently as a theme park roller coaster. Every social list is doomed to an inevitable field of grayed out, offline users. This is because once a free MMO loses it’s appeal to an individual, another substitute awaits.
Pay to win also appeals to the individual. A select few may extend beyond that but only just so. An example here would be ArcheAge, where it’s hard even with a deep wallet to drive the narrative by yourself. These create oligarchic scenarios with a few people at the top running the show. Whether paying to win creates a dictatorship or oligarchy of winning, the focus is still on the few. Luckily video games like these aren’t the real world (at least universally) so annoyed players are free to hop off the real world money death train and move on.
Whether it’s a fair free to play model or a pay to win model, the individualist social theory persists. F2P players find fun in games in and of themselves. This doesn’t mean they’re anti-social, hate cooperating, or won’t help others. This simply means the focus is first and foremost on themselves. They don’t derive as much satisfaction from accomplishing tasks as a group, but instead seek personal benefits for such activities. Further exemplifying this mindset is the heavier focusing on grinding in a free to play game. Grinding is a low level mental task based on repetition with a reward of powering up individuals.
F2P players are more focused on their own growth, choose themselves first over communities, and make independent decisions.
P2P is Collectivism
Ever heard of the sunk cost fallacy? The more you invest in something, the less likely you are to abandon it. Are you more likely to abandon a game you’ve spent $200 in game purchases and subscriptions fees or one you’ve invested no money? This forms a core foundation for pay to play MMOs as a collectivist draw.
Pay to play games want to reward players at the highest level for participating in group activities. Whether it’s raiding in World of Warcraft, conquering Nullsec in Eve Online, or performing trials in Elder Scrolls Online these require near equal participation from a dozen to several dozen individuals. The cooperation and skill requirements in these games exceed the mindless encounters of say, a world boss in Black Desert Online. This forces a reliance on other players to accomplish high end goals. Thus pride in one’s guild or corporation develops as a result of such accomplishments.
When someone ponies up for a monthly subscription, they’re typically eschewing other potential time competitors. This gives the community more chances to interact with one another, and thus enhance a game’s gravitational pull. The bonds and friendships that such games create can be difficult to break. Further, players aren’t looking to break these bonds. The friendships and communities that arise from P2P games are the point. MMORPGs aren’t known for award winning mechanics, but their ability to bind people together is unparalleled.
P2P players are more focused on community growth, choose community first over themselves, and make decisions with consideration of and from others.
Like every rule, exceptions exist. Guilds formed of F2P players jump from game to game like individuals, but their guild focus aligns closely with collectivism. Many individual players get into a game like World of Warcraft for the story, the exploration, or the single player questing. They don’t care one lick about group progression and will pick up group if and only if it’s needed to advance. Life is rarely so simple to completely equate one thing with another. That said, the link looks pretty strong here.
Where do you fall on the free to play vs. pay to play preference? Do you see yourself more as individualist or a collectivist?
I’m thankful for Black Desert Online’s cash shop for one reason – it exemplifies the notion that paying to win cannot be analyzed in a vacuum. This is a game where if the cash shop was transferred to another popular MMORPG or if a different core system replaced BDO, I’d change my opinion. As is, Black Desert Online definitely falls into the pay to win camp. Their monetization model is particularly frustrating given the existence of several free MMOs that aren’t pay to win.
BDO cash shop – spend time here or “lose”
The cash shop in Black Desert ostensibly sells convenience. There are very few “max power” enhancements, mostly limited to the ghillie suit that hides player name in PvP. Compared to something like ArcheAge where every dollar spent is an immediate power upgrade, BDO may not seem so bad. While the system certainly isn’t as egregious as ArcheAge, paying for convenience is a big deal when grinding is all that matters. And grinding is all that matters in Black Desert Online.
Power in BDO is and always will be commensurate with time spent playing the game. Two equal level players with as little of a difference as 20% in total AP/DP from items will result in a decidedly lopsided contest. And it’s not like items with higher AP/DP even come from completing challenging raids or winning equal PvP contests. They result from mindlessly grinding enemies for hours on end.
This is where pay for convenience turns into pay to win. Items in BDO’s cash shops grant EXP bonuses with costumes and looting speed plus miscellaneous stat bonuses via pets. The EXP bonus is a problem because levels in BDO are essentially infinite but increasingly slow to come by after level 50. The pets are where the real bonuses lie though. Monsters die by the dozens in Black Desert Online and all of them drop loot. Players must farm these either for rare drops or to gather silver from vendor trash to pay for existing equipment improvements. Pets pick up loot for the player and better pets (they can be upgraded) pick up loot faster. Manually picking up loot in BDO is a huge time waster so proper pet usage can increase grinding efficiency by approximately two to five-fold. And the only way to reliably acquire “pet power” is via the cash shop.
Pets – the most important investment in BDO
There’s no denying that buying these items in the cash shop help players progress significantly faster. That’s one problem. The other problem is that open PvP enters the picture once you hit level 50. Mindless killing isn’t really worthwhile in BDO but killing to claim grinding areas is certainly is. And guess who is going to win those battles? The guys and gals that have been grinding the longest with the most cash shop gear. Remember, power in BDO is commensurate with time spent playing the game, amplified by the cash shop. So now the weaker players not only aren’t leveling as fast because they lack these “convenience” items, but they’re leveling even slower because stronger players push them to sub-optimal grinding spots. In BDO, the rich get richer.
The cost for optimal gear and the maximum number of the highest level pets runs about $400 – $500. This figure only rises as additional costs are incurred to further maximize efficiency such as weight and inventory upgrades. At least those are fixed costs. Assuming you don’t feel like $500 for peak efficiency bonuses on a time intensive grinding MMO is that bad, there are still items like Artisan Memories. These are used to recover durability on items that slowly degrade as upgrades inevitably fail in the RNG equipment upgrade minigame. Durability recovery via real money means less in-game money spent means more money for other things.
Read the following list carefully. What catches your eye?
Selection of popular MMOs featuring an event around Christmas
Winter Maiden Festival
EverQuest (EQ) & EverQuest 2 (EQ2)
The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO)
Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV)
Guild Wars 2 (GW2)
Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO)
Winter Festival of Simril
Star Trek Online (STO)
Q’s Winter Wonderland
Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)
Life Day event
Protostar Gala Winterfest Extravaganza
World of Warcraft (WoW)
Feast of Winter Veil
Did you notice something odd? Well, I did.
The amount of times the word “Christmas” is used is a whopping 0.
Granted, this is an incomplete overview of MMOs. But even when you dig through Massively OP’s extensive guide of last year, “Christmas” does not seem to be a popular choice of words. Out of a grand total of 51 MMOs (the definition is stretched a bit by including MOBA’s and mobile games), only APB Reloaded and Echo of Soul speak of a “Christmas event” – the first is a Grand Theft Auto-style shooter game and the second I frankly had never heard of before.
Apparently, there’s a huge demand for Christmas events – every big title has one, after all – but MMOs avoid the word “Christmas” like the plague. We’ve arrived at the main scope of this article:
How do game developers implement Christmas in MMOs? Why are Christmas inspired in-game events never referred to as “Christmas”? Which traditional elements are incorporated and which are left out?
Christmas elements in MMOs
The obvious element missing from in-game events is “Christ”. Indeed, when you look at the content of MMO “Christmas” events, all elements of Christianity have been removed. There are no angels, no Christmas carols, no stars, no crosses, no nativity scenes. While you might regularly encounter these symbols in the real, offline world (even if you are not religious yourself), the online game world is completely devoid of them.
My guess is that not using any religious elements is a conscious decision to keep events inclusive for everyone. Nobody wants to take the risk of upsetting someone by adding controversial elements.
Elk mount in the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) (Source: ESO promotional image)
But how do we then set the holiday spirit in MMOs?
A quick look through the MMO scape provides the answer: by implementing a selection of non-religious Christmas elements into the game.
Top 5 Christmas elements in MMOs
1. Throwing snowballs
2. Festive warm winter clothing
3. Presents (sometimes combined with Santa like NPCs)
4. Candy canes, gingerbread and toys
5. Elk mounts
(Note that this top 5 is based on a broad guess after studying the use of Christmas in roughly ten MMOs. I did not track down all elements for all MMOs because that would be a huge undertaking. These elements, however, clearly occurred the most overall.)
The result is a unique blend of elements within each MMORPG. Which elements that are, depends a lot on the MMO’s setting and tone. You can make out three general categories.
1) Sci-fi MMOs
MMOs in a sci-fi setting have the hardest job translating Christmas to something that fits within their lore. Futuristic space simply doesn’t vibrate “homely” and “winter” without some help. Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR) celebrates Life Day, a wookiee event that was introduced to the fandom with the Star Wars Holiday Special. Revolving around family and the renewal of life, Life Day has a lot in common with Christmas. During the event, sparkling holotrees on the Fleet set the right mood. In a way, they represent a futuristic version of the wookiee Tree of Life.
Life Day decorations in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)
I chuckled when I found out Star Trek Online (STO)’s creative solution to the problem: Q’s Winter Wonderland. Q, the well known omnipotent and unpredictable character that first appeared in The Next Generation, is truly the only person that would get away with something so silly in the otherwise serious Star Trek lore.
2) Cartoony, light-hearted MMOs
Lighthearted MMOs that allow for more out of character content, tend to go all out with American Christmas related elements: Christmas trees, presents, Santa hats, reindeer antlers… even glowing noses that you can stuck on your character (EverQuest). Whether you love or hate it, these Christmas events often distinguish themselves by an abundance of pop culture references. World of Warcraft (WoW) players, for instance, can get a Red Rider Air Rifle: a variation of the famous gun featured in the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story. Pop culture references are typical of WoW, and their Christmas event is no exception.
These MMOs also often feature a Santa like figure with a twist. EverQuest 2’s Santa Glug (a goblin in a Santa outfit), EverQuest’s Santug Claugg (an ogre dressed in red) and SWTOR’s Master of ceremonies (a bearded old guy dressed in red) are examples of this. WoW players can get a “Santa’s Helper” miniature gnome.
More subtle are satirical views of the commercial side of Christmas, such as present in Wildstar in EverQuest 2. In the latter, a quest called Saving Frostfell invites you to save the spirit of holiday by destroying a factory. These meta references are, however, rare.
Winter Veil in World of Warcraft (Source: promotional material)
3) High Fantasy MMOs
Fantasy MMOs that heavily rely on realism and immersion generally avoid the more modern aspects of Christmas. An electrically lighted Santa flying through the air on his sleigh would be terribly out of place in, say, the Elder Scrolls Online (ESO), after all. More subtle references like cosmetic warm winter clothing and elk mounts prevail.
High Fantasy MMOs often try to give the event a pagan, pre-Christian touch. Many Christmas symbols, such as the Christmas tree, have their origin in pagan festivals that celebrate the renewal of life (Yule). This is apparent in the naming choice: Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) has a Yuletide Festival, Rift celebrates Fae Yule and ESO New Life.
Another tactic is the implementation of more intangible concepts such as the Christmas spirit. LOTRO has a Dickens inspired theme going on in its Winterhome town. Players are invited to side with either the poor or the mayor who exploits them. Siding with the mayor yields better rewards, but can you live with being ruthless? Helping the poor or assisting orphans are recurring motives in several MMOs.
Looking at all these Christmas inspired events, the shared characteristic is that they try to invoke a nostalgic or cheerful atmosphere that provides a break from normal in-game activities. Game developers carefully select elements that fit within the in-game world lore-wise. Without exception, they play it safe: no references to religion are made, apart from pagan name elements that are used to give a exotic favour. Since many Western MMOs are being developed in the US, inspiration is mostly drawn from the American Christmas tradition (incidentally, as someone living in the Netherlands, references are often lost to me). The overall intent is to make us enjoy and there’s no denying that that fits perfectly within the Christmas spirit.
This article was updated on December 8, 2017 primarily to reflect changes made to Rift that have impacted my analysis on Trion Worlds as a whole.
Trion Worlds has acquired a bit of a reputation as a pay to win company. For every game they launch, I see questions on forums and social media asking if the game is pay to win. Some don’t even get that far. Angry gamers scream, “it’s Trion, not gonna play that p2w trash!” Are these feelings justified? Surely some of it must be. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, after all. But are people just falling in line with the hive mind? Could anonymous gamers, known primarily for their thoughtful and rational analysis, be overreacting?
Welcome to the internet, where anything is possible.
I’m going to break down the most commonly faulted cash shopss in each of Trion Worlds free to play games. I’ll judge just how pay to win it makes each of these MMOs based on the criteria at the bottom of this article. The answer may surprise you (though perhaps not in the way you think).
This is where the biggest pay to win talk stems from for Trion. People are filled with such hatred for how ArcheAge has been handled, they’ll twist words to infer Trion even admits running a p2w game. If you follow that link, read some comments too. People hate Trion Worlds. For all of the talk about how pay to win Archeage is though, people rarely cite any specific examples. As any good bro would do, I’ll set you down with the cold, hard truth.
The cash shop doesn’t sell a magic “win” button. There’s no one item that will super power your character, but there are items that are absolutely necessary to progress in the endgame. One of the best real money purchases are high quality upgrades. These items can in turn be sold on the general auction house for large sums of gold. In ArcheAge, gold can be used to obtain pretty much all of the best gear, vehicles, housing, etc. The endgame is fairly time insensitive (nice speak for grindy) so paying real money and converting to gold through the public market is not an insignificant boost. Additionally, crafting is pretty much a disaster without paying for a subscription. Players are restricted by labor points for crafting type activities, which not only generate twice as fast for subscribers but also generate while offline.
Yes – it’s an advantage for a subscription. I’m not going to call that pay to win though, especially because it can be purchased with in game gold. Subscriptions are limiting and not as open for abuse. The problem lies in the relationship between ArcheAge’s cash shop and it’s auction house. Players can literally become as powerful as the cash they spend. $1,000 is way more valuable than a year of average play time. It’s simply unrealistic to survive a grind to the top without real money help. The combination of selling both cash shop items for gold and endgame gear for gold is another serious concern. ArcheAge has a lot of cool things going for it, but if you expect to seriously compete in PvP, don’t expect to do it for free.
This is the game Trion haters don’t want you to know about. The publisher took a while deciding how to monetize their best in house product since Rift. Fortunately, the solution they chose was the right one.
Atlas Reactor is free simultaneous turn based game with a weekly rotation of free characters. The freelancers (characters) are like League of Legends champions in terms of unique abilities. Instead of a 30 minute real time MOBA, Atlas Reactor is a 10 minute turn based tactical team death match. The weekly rotation can include any freelancer, and they’re fairly well balanced. Free players can also acquire cosmetic rewards by playing. Purchasing the game gets you every character, faster cosmetic rewards, and ranked play. At $30, it’s also a lot cheaper than buying the full roster for League of Legends or Heroes of the Storm. However, there is no way for free players to acquire new freelancers without paying that one time fee. Still, it’d be nuts to call Atlas Reactor pay to win. There’s absolutely zero vertical scaling of power to buy.
Trion Worlds really wanted Defiance to succeed as a pure subscription game, possibly to get away from the pay to win moniker. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. For a time, everything was going well. Then it seemed like Trion wanted to milk Defiance for everything they could.
Defiance’s pay to win structure doesn’t jump out at you initially. The game is fun at first, with a good deal of steady progression. Eventually the grind will set in, and you’ll look for how to speed up progression outside of events. The fastest and easiest way is turning to the cash shop …maybe. You see, the cash shop in Defiance includes the chance to acquire legendary guns on par with top tier free items. Buying the best gear in the game is pretty crappy, but gambling for it is even worse. At least there isn’t a ton more than that in the pay to win department.
Trion’s free Diablo clone felt like a winner when I first played it. The intro mission starts off with a bang, and there’s a nice slew of quests to run through. Combat isn’t special but felt solid for a hack and slash. Then the high level grind reared it’s ugly head with only one legitimate means to combat it: spending money. It’s technically possible to get everything in the game for free and catch up to older/paid players. It’s just that in practice it’s absurd to dedicate your entire life to it. And that’s exactly what it would take.
The marketing speak says paying for gem refinements to advance gear is paying for convenience. It’s not. It’s paying to stand a chance and play with the big boys. Devilian is one of those games that gets you hooked on a fun 10-20 hours and slowly tests your resolve to continue progressing without spending money on cash shop advances. Do you throw away a character you spent hours on without seeing the endgame? Or do you pay some money to make a boring grindfest somewhat more palatable? Devilian does everything they can to steer you to the latter.
This is the MMORPG that started it all. Rift was one of those heralded “WoW Killers” back in the day. It turned out to be more of a “WoW deviation”, copying a lot of WoW’s gameplay with it’s own twists. It played uniquely enough with its multiclass soul system to be worthwhile on that alone. For a long time after it went free to play, many viewed it as the MMO doing it right. Then ArcheAge came along and people were clamoring for heads to roll. Did Rift actually get worse or was this simply ArcheAge hate spilling over?
There was a time not so long ago when only paid players could use earring. Yep – an entire equipment slot blocked off from use without paying money. That’s pretty inexcusable and reeks of greed. That’s been fixed, and Trion Worlds has reverted to the same system as always – charging for content. The three things paid players will want are a subscription (increases money gains), expansions (needed to level up past a certain point), and souls/callings (classes). None of these grant instant, unearned power and most importantly, none of it is scalable. Players can’t skip to godly levels of strength without putting in the time. To me, that’s the most important qualification to avoid pay to win.
Now, I wouldn’t necessarily say Rift is truly free to play. To hit max level, players will eventually need need to spend money for high level content. It might make Rift’s free mode more of a demo, but it doesn’t make it pay to win. However, over the past year Trion has been adding more and more content that lets paying players surpass what free players can reasonably accomplish. As such, I’ve bumped Rift from its initial scoring of “Kinda Not Pay to Win” to “Kinda Pay to Win”.
Trove is sort of Minecraft meets standard MMORPG. Not being a big fan of builders, I’ve only played for a bit. Rest assured that during my short span there was plenty of pay to win discussion. Those clamoring to proclaim “pay to win” seemed to be resting on the laurels that everything should be free. The way Trove makes money isn’t perfect, but is it pay to win?
Players can purchase classes, cosmetics, and faster progression. No class is inherently better so that’s no big deal. Cosmetics are always fine for free to play monetization. Faster progression is the concern, and it is noticeable. However, it’s a subscription fee and thus isn’t scalable. Free players won’t ever hit a paywall in Trove, but paid players get to bypass the mindless high level grinding. No matter what though, players at the top have to work to get there. The best items in the game aren’t purchasable like in ArcheAge so even if somebody had some monetary assistance, at least you know they earned it.
Verdict: Kinda Not Pay to Win
All in all, Trion Worlds trends towards pay to win. Let’s take a step back and look at the developers of the game, rather than the publisher.
Kinda Pay to Win or Worse:
AcheAge – developed by XL Games
Devilian – developed by Bluehole Ginno Games
Defiance – developed by Trion Worlds and Human Head
Rift – developed by Trion Worlds
Kinda Not Pay to Win or Better
Trove – developed by Trion Worlds
Atlas Reactor – developed by Trion Worlds
Notice a pattern? If not, I’ll spell it out. The games where Trion Worlds is fully in control are the games that lean towards a fairer system. Trion certainly isn’t perfect with their own IPs (Rift’s earrings), but they certainly respond better. Why is this? Maybe Trion Worlds takes on deals other publishers don’t want and so are beholden to third party developers’ greedy demands. Maybe they are at bad at negotiating with developers when adding cash shop items. Maybe they simply don’t care and get greedy with their third party games games. All I know is that I’m going to feel a lot better about diving into Trion Worlds games made solely by Trion themselves.
Unfortunately, since initially writing this article it seems that Rift has started diving into more and more p2w indulgences. The above paragraph still has some merit. Rift went a long time without succumbing to pay for gear indulgences, so I wouldn’t rule out playing a future Trion MMORPG. I’d just keep a stringent eye on developer practices to keep them honest.
This article was originally posted March 19, 2016. It has been recently updated.
Like a lot of MMO players, I’ve been sinking a lot of my free time into Black Desert Online. I’ve been sinking in my not-so-free time too, but I suppose that’s the curse of a good game. One of my two biggest concerns with Black Desert was the possibility of a pay to win cash shop. Korean MMORPGs are especially known for cash shops where paying real money is the only path to the top. In a lot of these MMORPGs, money advantages provide a completely insurmountable level of power.
Black Desert has launched with what most do not consider a pay to win model. However, one item in particular has raised some serious concerns. The Treant Camouflage Set, more commonly referred to as the ‘ghillie suit’. Essentially it provides camouflage, enough so that colorblind folk are unable to even discern threats from within forest environment. The suit will additionally hide all identifying information about it’s wearer (name, guild, health) until its wearer attacks. After engaging in combat, only the wearer’s health becomes visible.
Thus, the advantages of the suit are that it allows gankers first strike against unwitting players and that no name in combat prevents teammates from calling out targets. And it’s only available by paying almost $30 USD in the cash shop. It’s enough of a hot button topic that over 1,500 players have voted in the official forums to the tune of 73% supporting a rework or nerf.
The reason I’m calling attention to this specifically is not because I’m addicted to Black Desert Online and can’t stop thinking about it. The reason is because I feel it’s a perfect spring board for asking what is ‘pay to win’. Allowing players access to top tier gear with only real money is clearly pay to win. Offering costume dyes with no stat benefits is clearly not pay to win. But the ghillie suit poses an interesting dividing line.
In other versions of the game in the world, flares are used to negate the suit’s benefit. In the US/EU version, these flares are severely limited since they cannot be crafted. But does using a flare when grinding by oneself not seem tedious? To that I would say that in non-forest areas, especially and with a small group or 1v1 combat, the suit doesn’t do much and limits the necessity of flares. Also on the side of a ‘balanced cash shop’, wearing it provides no statistical combat advantages. However, it clearly does have situational advantages that currently cannot be countered without significantly extra effort. The biggest boon to wearing the suit is to hide one’s name in large battles. Calling targets gets to be impractical with all the chaos. But using a flare in this case makes perfect sense as it’s a low cost for a large, area impact. And guilds will need to spend resources in war in more ways than just this.
The ghillie suit is certainly advantageous to own, but so are other items in Black Desert’s cash shop. For instance, paid costumes provide a +10% EXP boost when wearing a full set. It doesn’t affect max power and so doesn’t get called out as much. But it’s still a minor boost players can buy. So I think the stage is set for Black Desert to allow players to buy these small advantages. I would not classify the small advantages as pay to win. But when something like the ghillie suit doesn’t offer any balanced counterplay, there is an issue. Simply adding easy access to flares or showing the name while in combat will bring it back below the ‘pay to win’ line. And a fine line it is. Good cash shops items must offer non paying players the ability to counter paid items in a reasonable manner.
When you have egregious offenders of cash shop usage such as ArcheAge and saints of fairness such as Guild Wars 2, it is exciting as a blogger to see something like Black Desert Online simply do things differently. For those unaware, ArcheAge essentially allows players to increase their power relative to real money purchases, with no cap. In effect, real money is all that becomes relevant. It’s a very poor system due to the non-limiting factor. Therefore, cash shop items must have a cap on their power to provide a fair experience.
Selling convenience has also become a staple of MMORPG cash shops. And convenience is great to sell – as long as it doesn’t feel like a feature was removed and put behind a paywall. If a game like Black Desert, where there is no fast travel, put autorun behind a paywall, that would be disastrous. If a game like Guild Wars 2 allowed paid players to access the auction house remotely instead of at physical locations, not many would balk. Convenience in MMOs should be sold as additions to a base, working system that provides a quality experience regardless of money spent.
Superman illustrates what happens when cash shops go pay to win
This leaves me with three qualifications MMORPGs providing a balanced, non-pay-to-win cash shop:
Players must have a viable, free alternative to any cash shop item, which does not place an unreasonable or impossible burden on said free player, in order to compete with the cash shop player.
Cash shop items cannot be excessively or infinitely scalable in usage.
Convenience items must only allow players a ‘luxurious level’ of convenience and not a ‘fair standard of living’ convenience. Quite simply, a player should not have to pay real money for a feature that they should reasonably expect to find in a given game.
Pay to win is hard to define, and we’re going to see more and more MMOs and MMORPGs testing players’ limits. There’s a fine balance to be had between keeping free players happy and finding paid players something they’ll want to buy. Many of us have different ideas on this topic, but for me any game that can meet those three points above is a game I’m happy to consider.
American and Korean made MMORPGs dominate the market, as demonstrated by an earlier infographic on Which Country Makes the Best MMOs. Yet their paths to prominence have led to unique deviations. It’s easy for nationalists to say one is better than the other, but that’s largely subjective. It’s clear though that developers from these countries exhibit very different design decisions.
What appeals to one audience may not appeal to another. In the context of two countries on opposite sides of the world, most of that appeal has to do with the culture itself. This Google translated page of top Korean MMOs tells a different story than does our list of top MMOs or MMORPG.com‘s ratings. Americans and Europeans seem to share similar opinions so I’ll be lumping the transatlantic partners into one “Western” group. The differences between Westerners and Koreans create talking points that can lead to some interesting conclusions.
The five Korean MMOs where we see the largest disparity are Lineage, Lineage II, Dungeon Fighter Online, Mabinogi, and Hero Online. Some of these aren’t even available in the West. It’s not that publishers haven’t tried porting them. They just haven’t succeeded. So what do these titles share in common? Not a lot, at least first glance. Lineage is a war-centric PvP MMO. Mabinogi is a free form, cooperative, life skills heavy MMORPG. Dungeon Fighter Online is a side scroller and Hero Online a fairly generic post World of Warcraft MMORPG. That’s not to say there aren’t commonalities though.
The easiest similarity to point out is that all of these Korean MMOs involve significant amounts of grinding. In the West, we typically think of grinding as killing creatures over and over to level up. While that’s one type of grinding, it’s not the only kind. Lineage is heavy with the creature grinding, but for Dungeon Fighter it’s running the same missions. Characters advance in Hero Online via kill quests and Mabinogi via using skills. Maxing out characters in all of these titles takes a long time (especially when counting rebirths). For Koreans that’s more gameplay. For Americans and Europeans, that’s more bland repetition. There’s more to these games than just advancement though.
Pets are everywhere in Korea’s top MMOs. This has made it’s way over to the West but largely as more of a cosmetic addition. In Korea, pets are heavily integrated into the gameplay itself. Hell, in Lineage II you can ride a freaking wyvern into battle! Graphics obviously aren’t a big deal either. Most of these Korean MMORPGs didn’t look advanced on release so by today’s standards, ugly may be too generous. Mabinogi is the only visually impressive title with its artistic cel-shading. Conversely, Western audiences show difficulty not praising (or criticizing) a game’s appearance.
Where we see the most prominent differences between the two audiences though is in monetization. Mainly, Koreans seem unfazed by pay to win cash shops. Westerns froth at the mouth at the very mention. I would guess this stems from most of Korean gaming occurring in gaming cafes with an hourly rate. From that perspective, it makes a lot of sense. If every hour costs money, why not spend some extra cash to speed up advancement? It’s probably more cost efficient to pay the publisher than pay the gaming center. By contrast, Western play time is typically free so non p2w MMOs find more mainstream success.
Perhaps though, what is missing from this list of Korean MMOs is more telling than what can be found. Inspired questing is a huge component of successful MMORPGs in the West. World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Elder Scrolls Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Rift, and Final Fantasy XIV are all successful MMORPGs. They’re also quest heavy games, but other titles have gained support with a sandbox approach. Eve Online, RuneScape, and ArcheAge are successful sandbox MMORPGs without a huge quest emphasis, so it’s not a prerequisite for success in the US. Interestingly, almost all of the best quest-driven MMORPGs come from well recognized IPs in the West. That leads me to two takeaways. One, themepark MMORPGs are better served by an existing IP. Two, sandbox MMORPGs might be the path to success for Korean MMOs.
That’s a number of differences between MMOs popular in the West vs. Korea. But what does it mean?
it means that us Westerns dislike grinding, or at least need to have it obfuscated. We’re more interested in the destination vs. the journey. Lengthy leveling hasn’t been in vogue here for over a decade. Reaching endgame seems to be all that anyone talks about. Meanwhile, lengthy leveling is still going strong in Korea. An affinity for pets in Korean MMOs speaks of a greater attachment to their avatars. A willingness to spend money to “win” or advance that avatar reinforces the idea.
Westerners also appear to be more brand loyal. The most well known MMORPGs here almost all result from some popular, preexisting IP. Branding plays its part in Korea too but is in a completely different league. It’s unclear whether Americans and Europeans love questing or if questing centric gameplay is the easiest path to delivering existing IPs to customers. My guess is that it’s a little bit of both.
It’s fun to see how different cultures view their virtual worlds when their physical worlds are separated by more than just miles.