When I first got an iPhone, I immediately downloaded several free-to-play games to check them out. It didn’t take me long to realize that for a number of these games, leveling up too fast is an insidious trap. Leveling up only gives you a token number of points to improve your avatar, but the bulk of your avatar’s strength actually hinges on getting other players to ally with you and equipping each of them with certain items that you acquire in the game. These items usually come in the form of weapons or armor, although in some games, they appear as superpowers of some sort or creatures that can fight under your allies’ command. The net effect of having these allies and items is to raise your avatar’s attack and defense stats. There are other items that can be purchased that provide income for your avatar over a period of time. You’ll need this income to purchase better but more expensive items. It takes a long time to generate enough in-game money to acquire the best items that can be purchased at any given level, so leveling up too fast will pit you against players who’ve taken the time to make themselves powerful.
The reality behind many free-to-play games is that they are actually pay-to-win. Most items can be purchased using in-game money, but there are also premium items that can only be acquired by spending a second type of currency that is bought with real money. Players who spend lots of real money on premium items are more likely to trounce players who don’t. This is why games that feature these types of microtransactions are called pay-to-win games.
I find the idea of bringing in real money to acquire significant advantages over other players both disturbing and fascinating. Games are supposed to be tests of skill, so it seems patently unfair to allow players to buy their way to victory. One might argue that professional athletes make use of expensive gear and training to give them an edge in their sport, but the fact remains that no matter how much money they spend, it is still their skill that wins them the day. With pay-to-win games, on the other hand, enough real-life mullah can easily substitute for whatever skill their simple game mechanics involve.
Nevertheless, the pay-to-win business model actually works. I assume that most players don’t spend real money on these games, but the ones who do spend enough to keep the developers afloat. While developers of paid games lose some potential income to piracy, developers of pay-to-win games don’t have to worry about piracy at all. This puts pressure on some developers to abandon their traditional business models in favor of pay-to-win models.
Pay-to-win isn’t a fad. Like it or not, it’s here to stay. From a developer’s standpoint, the question is how to design pay-to-win games that are commercially successful. In my next blog post, I will expose a few tricks that I’ve observed.