Free to Play, Pay to Win, and the Challenges of Collectible Games

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In recent years, the landscape of the gaming marketplace has undergone a dramatic shift. Whereas once upon a time the only way to play any game was to purchase it – or perhaps to pirate it – nowadays a huge number of games are built upon a free-to-play model to entice users to try out the game without the barrier of an initial purchase. Free-to-play games almost invariably then offer ways to users to spend money within the game, whether to unlock new content, new options, or to accelerate their progress. The perceived advantages paying players often have in these games over those who choose not to spend money has led to a new term that gets thrown around a lot these days – “Pay to Win.”

Do I win yet?

Do I win yet?

While the phrase has generally only come into common usage recently with the surging popularity of free-to-play games with micropayments – or “Freemium” games as they’re often known – the concept is certainly not a new one. In Magic the Gathering’s early days, the moniker “Mr Suitcase” was used derisively to refer to players with large collections by players without as many cards, ostensibly to suggest that the only reason they could win was because they spent more money. Indeed, when I tell people that I made a living as a professional Magic player, one of the most common responses I get is “Isn’t that game just about who spends more money on cards?” (Also up there is “Oh, I used to play Magic! What color do you play? I had an awesome red deck!”)

And yet in Magic’s long history as a competitive endeavor, the players who consistently do well in tournaments are not simply those who spend the most money, but rather those who are the best at the game. Yes, some of the decks the top players use to win tournaments may cost several hundred dollars to build if you purchase the cards individually on the secondary market. But many other players who also own those cards do not perform nearly as well on a regular basis, so the advantage the top players have is clearly not simply due to the monetary resources they have invested.

That said, it is unusual to see players perform well at the highest levels of competition with decks featuring all common cards, so there is clearly a monetary element that contributes to the ability to compete. But rather than being an ever-increasing advantage based on expenditure, it is a matter of investing in the equipment necessary to compete at the appropriate level.

Let’s take a step back for a second and look at other types of competitions, like Starcraft or golf. Would anyone describe these games as “Pay-to-Win?” Probably not. And yet could you imagine a professional Starcraft player trying to win an open qualifier using a computer that barely meets the minimum system requirements for the game? What about a golfer playing in a major with second-hand clubs purchased from a thrift shop?

Nerf 9 Irons Plz

Nerf 9 Irons Plz

Can incremental increases in equipment expenditure offer advantages in Starcraft or golf? Certainly, at least to a point, since it’s obvious that there are gaps in quality and performance between different computers or sets of golf clubs. Does that make them “Pay-to-Win?” Certainly not – it just means that they are competitions that require a certain threshold of equipment in order to be competitive. Tiger Woods didn’t win so often for so many years because he had the best clubs and balls, nor has Bomber won so many Starcraft tournaments because he has the best mouse and keyboard – even if their sponsors would dearly love for you to believe that was the case.

Some games certainly¬†*are* “Pay-to-Win”, strictly speaking, in which the more money a player spends, the more powerful they become and the more likely to succeed against players who have spent less. Most of them tend to be social or mobile games in which players can spend money to dramatically advance their progress, or acquire items or power-ups that significantly increase their ability to defeat other players. Many of them have little or no real strategy to speak of, but rather simply feed off of their users desire to get ahead of their friends or hold the top spots on leaderboards.

“Pay-to-Win” is a term that is thrown around very loosely toward any game on which players can spend varying amounts of money. It is clearly a term of derision that seeks to devalue the skills and accomplishments of those who succeed in the games labeled as such. But while there is clearly an element of monetary investment in collectible games like Magic, Hearthstone, or SolForge, money spent is not the factor that correlates most strongly to success, at least beyond a certain baseline level.

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