I play a lot of games (who doesn’t these days) and I’ve grown from my Nintendo 64, where I considered myself a pro at Mario Kart, through to the PS4, but my pride and joy is my PC. Lovingly upgraded through the years, my Steam library getting steadily bigger (thanks to Gabe) through the endless sales. Yet, increasingly, I’ve found myself wanting to be transported back to the days of the Nintendo 64. The reason for this? Micro transactions in games.
Now, as we get into the grittiness of this blog, a few confessions and a definition of what micro transactions are. Micro transactions are small sums of money and usually take place online and in-game. It involves the purchase of virtual goods. Now on to the confession part. I’ve partaken in micro transactions in the past. Back during university when my gaming addiction was all about World of Tanks, gold ammo was all the rage. So I calmly handed over my hard earned student loan money and paid for ammo, without really thinking what I was doing. More recently, with the release of Hearthstone, I was intrigued by the legendary cards and how to build decks and generally just wanted to bypass the whole process of slowly working your way to awesome decks. So I purchased a few decks and boosted some of these decks. Do I consider these pay to win elements?
With World of Tanks, I sympathised more with those that accused others of paying to win by using premium ammo. However, when you arrived at the higher levels, gold ammo became not only valuable, but necessary. Everyone at this stage is using gold ammo, so ultimately you are doing yourself a disservice by not buying gold ammo. However this is isn’t really a good argument, as people shouldn’t feel it’s necessary to buy gold ammo, but are forced to due to others doing it.
With Hearthstone, the assumption that it is pay to win is, in my view, wrong. You can easily obtain these cards freely from leveling up and winning packs through the game mode Arena. While you can “speed” up how many decks you can construct and how quickly you can get up the levels in ranked modes, eventually, others can obtain the cards freely. So there’s not really an element of pay to win in my view. Coupled with the fact you get quests every day (win five games with Mage, and so on) it’s quite feasible to obtain enough gold a month to obtain four and a half packs a week, which translates to 18 packs a month, 216 packs a year, which will give the gamer a huge amount of cards from which to create their deck. Another benefit of this system is the ability to disenchant cards and create more cards to add to decks. Hearthstone can be considered pay to win as there is the mechanism there to pay for more cards, but it is not the only way to win; there are basic cards that can take out the more difficult cards, so it’s a great balance in my view. While the person that paid for all the extra cards will have an initial advantage, the person that went through the daily quests and leveled up will eventually catch up, pay to win is not a permanent thing. And nor should it be. Pay to win, while being be a cash cow for most game companies, does nothing but add negative feedback to games. If it was to be a permanent thing, the benefits of playing the game would be greatly diminished.
One of the great pay to win protests I was involved with was in Eve Online during the monoclegate scandal of 2011. This opened my eyes to the number of companies that adopt micro transactions and an element of pay to win into their games. Don’t get me wrong. If you want to fork out money to make a character look aesthetically pleasing, that’s fine, it’s your money. If you want to put in a game damage increasing ammo if you pay $50, then that’s a whole different kettle of fish. Both the enjoyment of the game is decreased as well as strategies employed and effort. What made the 2011 revolt so great is that the entire universe of Eve became united against pay to win and changed the direction of the gaming company, CCP. For me, more players from across the gaming world need to do this as ultimately it’s the gamers that they should be focussed on, not the cash cow that micro transactions offer.
The increasing of micro transactions in games also, in my opinion, has come about with the increasing of RMTing or RWting (Real Money Trading or Real World Trading). This involves a website offering credits for the various games (for example, in Eve it is ISK), for a set price, which goes against the EULA of the game. To combat this, CCP introduced PLEX, Pilot’s License Extension, an in-game item that you can both purchase on partner websites and trade for ISK. Runescape too did a form of this and the amount of RWTing decreased. So there is a way of using micro transactions sensibly that has a benefit to everyone and goes some way to solving the issue of trying to bend the system illegally.
Ultimately there are ways of having micro transactions in games and not making the game slanted towards pay to win. For me, I think Hearthstone has the balance just right. Sure the initial boost to the purchase of decks will be slanted, but there are opportunities to catch up to this boost. With no card being really OP (overpowered), as in there are always ways to counter the cards placed down, the pay to win element is greatly diminished, though not removed. With protests like the summer of 2011 in Eve, micro transactions will continue to be an issue and it’s really an area in which gaming companies need to tread carefully. While I appreciate that companies need to make money, they need to be aware that pay to win is not the way forward and there needs to be a balance to it and careful consideration of the consequences.
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