Digital Extremes’ brilliant title, Warframe, has often been accused of being Pay-to-Win. I have come to the odd conclusion that such accusations are true but don’t diminish whatsoever the game’s value and integrity. But what is Pay-to-Win and what makes it so bad?
What is Pay-to-Win?
A literal definition would be the possibility to pay money in order to win a game. So, in a P2W game of Chess, a player who pays wins, regardless of the position of the pieces on the board.
Such a definition is useless for gamers since video games have more complex winning conditions. In fact, the verb “to win” is often completely obsolete. How do you “win” in Warframe? How do you “win” in Minecraft. Furthermore, games with clearly stated win conditions, such as MOBAs, can clearly be Pay-to-Win even if paying doesn’t result in the immediate destruction of the opponents’ base. We can all agree that, if one could purchase a 20% DPS boost in League of Legends, that would be hands down Pay-to-Win, regardless if you actually win the match or not.
Another, more sophisticated, definition often pops up: the ability to acquire an advantage over other players by paying.
This definition assumes that only competitive multiplayer games can be Pay-to-Win. However, this is not the case. A singleplayer game, let’s say Super Mario or Pokémon, offering the possibility of purchasing the most powerful Pokémon or allowing you to teleport to the end of the level in exchange for real-life money would obviously be Pay-to-Win, albeit a nonsensical choice for most players since it would completely defeat the purpose of playing the game.
In a similar fashion, even noncompetitive online games, such as PvE focused MMOs, would be Pay-to-Win if you could acquire the rarest goods through real-life money.
Furthermore, the word “advantages” is too generic. If I want my character to be the most attractive, acquiring aesthetic items could be seen as an advantage but hardly as Pay-to-Win.
A good definition would be: the possibility of purchasing power and/or progression. The concept of power inherently entails an advantage, while the verb “to purchase” is to be understood as “buying with currency external to the game world”. This definition has the advantage of encompassing all game types and genres.
Why is Pay-to-Win a bad thing?
As stated before, the accusation of Pay-to-Win seems to trigger an emotional response in players. Those who dislike a game will use the term to denigrate it, while the fanbase of a certain title will vigorously attempt to fend off such an accusation.
There are a couple of reasons why such a monetization model is seen as bad:
- Ruins competition: much like in other games, such as board games or sports, Pay-to-Win gives an advantage to the paying party which ruins the competitive aspect of a game, thus damaging the opposing party. If a basketball team was to start with a point advantage over its competitors, the game would be spoiled for both the players and the audience.
- Misses the point of playing the game: P2W is often a way of skipping gameplay, where experiencing gameplay is mostly the point of playing a game, its intrinsic value.
- Tips the balance of power: somewhat linked to the first reason but elevated on a macro level, within the context of persistent worlds, such as MMOs, characterized by a struggle for power, resources, and control, individuals or groups can gain such advantage as to defeat the purpose of the game and ruin the experience for the player base. If Ultima online featured Pay-to-Win elements, the paying party would be able to dominate the lands to the point of precluding the access to certain gameplay elements, such as housing, gathering, adventuring, etc. to all other players.
- The design revolves around it: the gameplay of Pay-to-Win games is often fashioned with the intent to incline the player towards actually buying in-game goods. This is most evident in Korean MMOs, in which not spending money for powerful goods means not being competitive at all in both PvP and PvE. When Archeage launched in the west, for instance, it featured an elixir that boosted the player’s daily Labor Points, giving them an advantage in almost every aspect of the game. A suspicious mind might think that the Labor Points system itself was designed with this elixir in mind. Another trick designers often use is to make the grinding portion of the game so extensive, and the purchasable alternative so cheap, as to strongly compel the player to buy in order to advance and acquire power. The latter technique can be seen in Assassin’s Creed Origins.
- Changes the industry and gaming norms: Pay-to-Win often targets the most gullible and susceptible to manipulation, like children or immature gamers. The success of such a model determines a shift in the mentality of investors and gaming companies who view P2W as the most secure and profitable monetization model, thus producing low-quality games targeting the lowest common denominator while suffocating innovation and originality.
This said, however, while all games featuring the possibility of purchasing power and/or progression are undoubtedly Pay-to-Win, not all Pay-to-Win games are equally bad, since the negatives that the Pay-to-Win mechanics carry can be softened or avoided entirely. It largely depends on the game design. Some of this technique are:
- Emphasis on skill over stats: in League of Legends you can buy all the champions and all the skins, but you’ll still be Bronze V if you’re not good enough because such acquisitions don’t lead to any passive advantages.
- Diversity over a hierarchy of power: purchasable elements (characters, weapons, armor, etc.) are not put into a hierarchical order in relation to each other, but are rather designed to be different in playstyle, and purpose. Thus a purchase cannot lead to an objective increase in power.
- The cash shop currency or items are obtainable through other means: the currency or items you acquire through money can be obtained, in reasonable ways, by playing the game.
- Competitive gaming is organized in tiers: powerful players compete against other powerful players, which means that purchasing power would put you against other people who have bought or acquired power.
- Competitive power is leveled: often employed in MMOs, this technique entails that, when engaging in PvP, the stats of all characters are standardized, thus eliminating any passive advantages.
- The game is not competitive: purchasing power and/or progression in singleplayer games or noncompetitive multiplayer games might hurt the buyer’s experience with the game, but it doesn’t affect the player base.
- Layered content: different tiers of content require different power levels, which entails that those playing within the tiers (e.g. endgame in MMOs) are roughly at the same power level, whether through gameplay or through purchase.
- Inconvenient prising: banal but true, if the sold goods are too costly or easily obtained in-game, they will not tempt too many players. Most Warframe Market resources, for instance, are terribly inconvenient.
- Access to the game and/or patches and expansions is free: spending a few coins on a game is easier when you haven’t paid for access or DLC.
- Non-P2W items are more appealing than P2W ones: it’s hard to spend money on things you’ll get anyways when you can purchase a great looking mount or a few aesthetic improvements.
There might be more of these softening elements, but I think these are the most prominent ones.
So, is Warframe Pay to Win?
Progression in Warframe is hindered by a series of in-game mechanics: slots for warframes, weapons, and pets, Mastery Ranks, the Star Chart, credits, rare and common resources, and more. Furthermore, while acquiring new items and warframes doesn’t necessarily give a player more power, acquiring new mods and other goods, some of which very rare or even unavailable in a given time period, leads to quite the power boost.
Platinum is a currency one can buy from Digital Extremes, through a real-life money purchase, and use in-game to acquire anything, whether via the in-game Platinum market or by trading with other players. Potential purchases include resource and experience boosters, rare pets, all the warframe, weapons, and mods, including those currently unavailable in the game, and much more. One always has the possibility of purchasing power and/or progression.
Warframe is Pay to Win. Duh… But is it a bad game because of it?
Warframe is not a competitive game. The only form of PvP, The Conclave, is in fact largely neglected, both by the players and by the devs. Even if PvP was to gain prominence in the future, it would be highly skill-based, rather than stat based, and the winning condition would largely depend on builds and playstyle. In fact, although multiplayer interaction is constant, in term of progression and power creep, it behaves more like a singleplayer game. Territorial control, politics, economics, and player warfare do not exist as in-game elements.
Warframe’s design doesn’t revolve around Pay-to-Win elements. The grind is exciting and fair, especially when compared with MMOs. If anything, purchasing anything with Platinum noticeably diminishes the gaming experiences because the latter revolves around progression, farm, and power creep, aimed at experimentation and innovation.
In addition, one can say that in-game goods and power are actually secondary to the enormous learning curve that a new player must face. Furthermore, Warframe’s skill cap is not as high as the one of a MOBA, but becoming good enough to face high-level content is more than most players can hope to achieve. This natural difficulty curve creates a sort of layered content that cannot be broken by a cash-shop purchase.
Platinum can be acquired via trading with other players. This means that acquiring everything in the game, including almost all cosmetic items, can be achieved without spending money. The player market, in fact, isn’t only active but is more alive than those of most MMORPGs. Purchasing Platinum is the only way to insert it into the economy of the game, because of which a Supply and Demand mechanism invisibly regulates the prices of trade goods, stabilizing the market.
While acquiring power and progression through P2W is costly, purchasing cosmetic goods is convenient. Fashionframe is endgame!
While spending something on initial warframe and weapon slots might be a good idea, and almost everyone will be tempted by the gorgeous cosmetics, it’s a sacrifice rather easily made since the game, and all of its future content patches are completely Free-to-Play, putting to shame AAA companies with the level of polish, beauty, and absurd amounts of content that Digital Extremes has been able to deliver.
In conclusion, avoiding all the negative traits of P2W while still featuring most of the softening design elements, Warframe has found a way of implementing a such a system without compromising the integrity of its gameplay. Not only does it not set back video game culture and its industry, but it stands high as a bright example and hopefully a prediction for the future of gaming.