The Psychology of Pay to Win

Free-to-Play = Pay-to-Win

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means

Let’s get this out of the way right now. Not all free-to-play games are pay-to-win. Not even all games that offer in-game benefits (stats / faster progression / etc.) for cash are pay-to-win. Now that, that’s out of the way let’s get started.

Recently games are being increasingly developed in the vein of Free-to-Play. This is largely due to the barrier of entry created by the subscription based or AAA one time payment model. With both of those models, a player is stuck with a sunk cost prior to even playing the game and because of this is more likely to look into the Free-to-Play genre where they can get an idea of the games content first hand before deciding whether or not to invest. And with F2P comes two concurrent models for monetization.

1. Non-impactful micro-transactions (cosmetic items with no additional benefits other than looking cool are the most popular for this category) – A wonderful example of this would be Path of Exile, developed by Grinding Gear Games. The closest that they get to a transaction that affects gameplay is more stash space.

2. Micro-transactions that provide an advantage to the paying player over non-paying players (can be as large or as small as the developer desires). This can come in the form of cash only items, restricted content (DLC being a prime example of this even in AAA titles that the player has already purchased), or just expediting one or more processes in players’ progression.

Regardless of which specific iteration the latter option takes, it is what many generally describe as pay-to-win, where a player who makes a financial contribution is able to elevate himself above other players or progress more quickly through a game’s content. But is this actually a bad model? And if so, who for? Many western players think so, while most eastern gamers have less of a problem with it. I’ll get back to this specific distinction in a minute. So if this is the case, why do so many still play games that follow this model and choose to purchase in game items there? Why would you not simply stick with games that follow the Free-to-Play model that only allows you to purchase cosmetics but the rest you have to grind for?

To better understand this we must first evaluate what it is that drives us to play MMO’s and particularly those that are Free-to-Play. The reasons for this are vast and everyone’s own reason is unique but some of the largest factors are community and competition. Developers like competition because it keeps us in game longer. With every passing minute that we spend in game, the likelihood of our spending money there is increased. Along with that is the increased likelihood that others will spend money to keep up due to the social/competitive nature of MMO’s. Which further increases the likelihood of our spending money, and so on.

Governor Ratcliffe - Go insane, go insane, throw some glitter make it rain

Most popular Free-to-Play games are centered around compelling the player to remain in game for as long as possible. So what exactly keeps us in game? There are a number of ways this can done, but the most effective is having timed events. These can be in the form of a farm that you have to tend (with seeds in different increments of time where the most frequent gets a greater amount of rewards from planting it regularly but someone who cannot plant as often can still get rewarded) or raids scheduled on the half hour or hour mark with important rewards that are restricted to that event, ensuring the player tries to remain online for them. If these raids are then also made competitive, the benefit is two fold, as it also serves as a way to generate money for the developer since players are more likely to spend to keep up if raid rewards are critical to progression and cannot be obtained through other means.

But what if you aren’t able to remain online as much as another player? By selling gear that contributes to a player’s strength it allows those who don’t have the time but have the money to remain competitive. The key component to this though is giving the player who is able to remain online the ability to still obtain that gear. This keeps both parties happy and actually encourages the non-casher to invest some since it would push them over the top. The interesting thing though is that those who spend money normally also play the most. This could be due to wanting to get the most out of the gear that they purchased and/or if they simply purchased items to support a game developer’s content that they enjoy. Due to this, the free player becomes increasingly disadvantaged and jaded. But is this wrong? They aren’t actually contributing anything to the developer (not revenue surely) or are they?

Our initial response would tend to lean towards a response condemning the game companies that employ this model. We like things to be “fair”. But would this response be the case if it was you or I sitting atop the leaderboard? I find it unlikely. This is where the difference between eastern and western gamers is most pronounced. Eastern culture tends to dictate that “fair” is modeled after how life operates. Those with more money can excel at games and there is no social stigma. This differs from western game culture where the belief remains that player to player interaction should be entirely equal where the only separation in ability is determined by the amount one plays. This is why there is always so much discussion on balancing issues. We expect that every class should match up evenly to all others or at least look like a more complex game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock.

Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock

But why do we feel that way? The result in the end is really the same. Someone will likely always have more time/money than you. The only difference is whether or not that person works for a living or sits all day in their parents basement.

Why is the latter so much more appealing? The reason behind this is that we inherently feel that time is more easily obtainable than money. We do not necessarily value it any less, but we feel that it is a much easier challenge to obtain an extra couple of hours a week to play our favorite game than to obtain an extra couple hundred dollars to pay for in game gear. If we think about the time value of money though, the answer really is the same. The difference is how the problem is presented. It also seems that the difference in player ability is traditionally larger in what we consider to be “pay-to-win” games. The reason for this is that most of these games remove the price ceiling. There is no limit to the amount of benefit that you can get by spending. This boosts revenue overall but leaves non-paying players at an even larger disadvantage where they feel that no amount of time invested will allow them to catch up. The problem is that they focus on the top of the leaderboard as their goal. This is an unrealistic expectation on the part of the player though for any MMORPG, free-to-play or otherwise.

So while the Free-to-Play model, with the inclusion of micro-transactions to benefit character progression rather than merely appearance, is fair with comparison to how we operate IRL, is it ethical? Are free-to-play games specifically targeting children? How about players who already struggle with other addictions? There’s lots more to talk about. If you want to learn more here are some excellent resources to check out.

GDC Vault – $100,000 Whales – An Introduction to Chinese Browser Game Design : Jared Psigoda

GDC Vault – Where the Whales Live: The Pyramid of F2P Game Design : Nicholas Lovell

Gamasutra: Daniel Shumway’s Blog – Pay-to-Win is Not the Problem


 Free-to-Play is not always Pay-to-Win and Pay-to-Win is not always bad. If everyone is a freeloader, no one gets to play. If you want to play for free forever there are two options.

1. No price ceiling and the distance between free players and cashers will continue to grow. 

2. Only cashers get to play the full game (see Runescape).


Did we get it right or did we leave you feeling like this?

Is it the player’s responsibility to only choose games that fit their budget or is it the responsibility of the developer to make games that can be enjoyed by everyone? Have another topic that you want us to address? Let us know in the comments section below.

About Matt Merlenbach

Matt Merlenbach is the founder of MetaGamr. He loves RPG's and fears no gazebo. Connect with him at the links below:

One Response to The Psychology of Pay to Win

  1. Marita says:

    I can’t believe the amount of professionals and SEO professionals who spread misinformation
    Bookmarked your site, lets hope you keep up with your posts

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