The Complex Moralities Of Pay-To-Win Games


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Venture onto any online gaming discussion and it doesn’t take long for talk of “pay-to-win” games to rise. It’s a complex subject that tends to bring about a wide variety of opinions, be they positive, negative, or something in between. Given the prevalence of pay-to-win games throughout all spheres of gaming, it’s well worth spending a little time thinking more about what it means for today’s gamers.

First, it’s probably going to be useful to define exactly what we mean with the term “pay-to-win”. Though the term seems to be fairly self-explanatory, but there are actually a few different subsets that it covers. As we’ll be using the term interchangeably to cover several different occurrences, it makes sense to outlay what these are.

Defining Pay-To-Win

  • Games where it is is impossible – or at least realistically impossible, – to complete the game without a financial investment.
  • While it may be conceivable that you could finish the game without paying, it would require hundreds of hours spent plugging away – time that few gamers have the inclination or patience to spend doing. For example, Dragon Keeper caused a stir when it was released. While technically a free game, it was nevertheless absolutely time consuming having to wait for imps to mine a block. Very few users have the inclination to use something just for a few minutes a day, then have to go back to waiting. So while it may have been “free”, to play Dragon Keeper to the point of any enjoyment whatsoever, you needed to pay.
  • It’s worth noting that the payment is not a direct and explicit aspect of the game. It’s not a case of “click/tap here and you’re done” – it’s more the need to buy extra time/skills/cards/whatever to be able to achieve the game’s end or continue to engage with it in a meaningful way.
  • While a game might be free to play, if you choose not to spend money, it places you are a severe disadvantage. Users have been scathing about how much time it takes to play without spending money for upgrades; criticisms that apply to a wide variety of games.
  • Pay-to-win is found most often in games that are free – i.e. those that don’t have a purchase price – but it is also found in paid games.
  • Pay-to-win can also be used to define games where you have to pay for extra functionality or features, despite having already paid for the game itself. For example, Forza 5 has to be purchased to begin with. Once inside the game, you will discover a number of cars are not available to you – despite the fact you’ve already paid the purchase price.


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So how do gamers tend to feel about it?

People who feel negatively about pay-to-win tend to list the following as their reasons:

  • Pay-to-win feels like a needless money grab, especially when found in games that are already expensive.
  • It can be disheartening to head to your choice of online platform or console, find a game you love, play it for awhile, and then realize it’s going to cost you money you hadn’t anticipated paying. This can create a feeling of having been duped, looped into a game that then tries to use your enjoyment for financial purposes.
  • Less affluent gamers might be able to afford a purchase price in store or online for a game, but can’t afford to invest anything more beyond that. The pay-to-win aspect of certain games then locks them out of their initial spend, when they should have access to full functionality within a reasonable timeframe/effort.
  • Asking people to pay complete or further a game risks exploiting gaming addiction.

On the flip side, those who feel positively tend to emphasize that pay-to-win has the following benefits:

  • In the vast majority of pay-to-win games, it is feasibly possible that you can complete the game without spending extra money. So long as this mechanism exists – even if it would take an unrealistic time to achieve – then it’s fine for pay-to-win to exist as an alternative.
  • Gaming is a hobby. Hobbies, by and large, tend to cost money. If you’re enjoying a game to the point you want to invest the time to complete or further your status within the game, then the developers have done a good job. Like any hobby, you should expect there to be some financial recompense to the people who have provided you with the enjoyment.
  • Gaming is an industry that needs to make money. If games aren’t making money, then there won’t be any more games. This makes pay-to-win a necessary evil.
  • The users that are willing to spend extra money on a game are helping to finance the non-paying options that less affluent gamers can enjoy, so the system helps everyone in some way.

Finally, some people approach the matter with nonchalance with the following reason:

  • Pay-to-win exists, but there are plenty of games that don’t follow that pattern – so why not just play those instead?
  • Pay-to-win is useful for people who see gaming as a fervent hobby, while not affecting those who only play on a casual basis, so it’s harmless.

So Who’s Right?

No one.

This is a matter of opinion, but it’s also a matter of option. If you don’t have an issue with pay-to-win, then you can go ahead and enjoy games and you see fit. If it is a problem, then try and research a game before purchase to see if it’s going to have the issues you abhor.

Of course, there is one reality that both sides of the argument are agreed on…

Pay To Win Isn’t Going Anywhere



This is, of course, the crux of the argument. As much as pay-to-win might be hated, there’s no realistic chance of it ever becoming a thing of the past. There’s just too many people who are more than happy to pay to complete or ease their gameplay experience. While those people who are willing to pay exist, then it would almost be foolish of gaming companies to stop utilizing the method on occasion.


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