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We need to define two terms before we can make a decision on pay to win mechanics in games. Firstly, what is ‘pay to win’?

Pay to win is at its simplest a player paying money to gain some form of advantage. This can range from extra moves in Candy Crush (King) to advanced weapons and skills in games such as Star Wars the Old Republic (EA) or Diablo Immortal (Blizzard).

We also need to look at what game balance is? Game Balance at its simplest is how difficult it is for a player to achieve their goal. For example, if a player is constantly failing a boss fight by a major amount this may mean there is a balancing issue. Behind the scenes there is a lot of mathematics and numbers contributing to this but that’s a blog for another day!

Finally, we need to ask why do we want a balanced game?
A well-balanced game will encourage a flow state within the player. While the player is in a flow state the game itself is the main focus and the resulting achievements and defeats feel that much more profound. This is where the crux of the issue is…Can a player really achieve this feeling of achievement if they didn’t earn it?

Often designers will trick the player into thinking a battle was more difficult or give little boosts to players who are doing poorly without telling them. One example of this is in Assassins Creed (Ubisoft) there is often way more health left when you start to desync than you think. This encourages players to become more focused as they feel they are about to lose.

Then Balance and Pay to Win can’t co-exist in a game?
Well, that’s where it gets tricky! If a game is single player, the player can play it how ever they desire. However pay to win does become an issue when the game is multiplayer / competitive. Star Wars the Old Republic (EA) gets around this issue by making the pay to win options a time saver. But does this really fix anything?

This issue was highlighted in the loot boxes that originally appeared in Star Wars Battlefront 2 (DICE). They allowed players who paid real world money to improve their characters skills without playing the game.

So, let’s go with a Day 1 scenario: the people buy the game, all players turn on the game at the same time (midnight launch). A few people spend money on 100 loot boxes, instantly they are ahead of the curve and the game is only out an hour. This is definitely a balancing issue. That extra 40% against other players is simply not viable. As a result of controversy over the loot boxes they were changed to an earned resource in the game, giving all players the same starting point and the same opportunity.

Looking at games being released now such as Diablo immortal (Blizzard) do we think that this method of pay to win is sustainable? Should designers now plan for two types of players free to play and pay to win? To learn more about Pay to Win, sign up for our Game Design course starting this September

Michael Carstairs

Game Designer & Lecturer at City Colleges