Pay to enjoy

January 31st, 2019

I’ve been playing a couple of games from the same developer, and along the way talking to my not-quite-yet teenage son about paying money for games.

The thing that I tell him about in-app purchases, as well as paying money for stuff in general is to think about what you’re getting out of it. Let’s forget for a second that behind every decent game there’s a whole bunch of people – designers, testers, programmers, managers – without whom this piece of entertainment that keeps you occupied wouldn’t exist. Let’s forget for a second that not only those people expect to be paid for their effort, but the nature of capitalism dictates that a profit is expected to be made on top of that as well. So let’s put that aside.

The concept of pay-to-win (or p2w) is that you pay to get things that make you more powerful. You get to beat the game quicker or more easily. You get an advantage on non-paying players (more on that in a moment). And, at least for me, you get to enjoy more of the game sooner.

When I talk with my son about in-app purchases, I talk about what he expects to get out of it. Is it a one-time purchase for something that is gone, so to speak, after you use it? Is it a one-time purchase for something that you can use for as long as you want until you get something better. Or is it, perhaps, something that gives you ongoing benefits for a fixed amount of time – like in these two games where you pay $2.99 and have certain daily benefits for 30 days.

And I always tell him that entertainment is in the vast majority of cases not free. I tell him that when we go to a movie theater, we pay $8-12 for a ticket for something that lasts about a couple of hours and might not even be that good by the end of it. I tell him that watching his favorite soccer team or the last episode of Spongebob comes with a three-digit monthly bill from Comcast. I tell him that if I want to enjoy the latest book in “The Expanse” novel series, I need to pay.

And I also tell him that some of that entertainment can be enjoyed if you’re willing to wait longer. That movie will eventually find its way to basic cable, heavily peppered with ad breaks. That book will eventually find its way to the nearest library, with an additional healthy wait if it gets too popular with other readers. But that some entertainment might never be free, such as top-level sports competition or anything Disney.

Instead, I say that it is the “pay to enjoy” model. I pay to enjoy movies on the big screen instead of waiting a few months until they’re available in digital formats to be watched at home. I pay to enjoy reading books from my favorite authors as they are released instead of waiting until they get to the library. I pay to enjoy albums from my favorite performers instead of trying to catch a song or two on free streaming networks peppered with, you guessed what, ads.

And here’s the argument that I’ve been toying with in the last few days.

Specifically in the realm of games, and especially mobile games – how much difference is there between advancing in the game by paying with money and paying with time?

Most people advance by putting a lot of time, grinding through the “obstacles” carefully placed by the game designers. People in this group have what I consider to be disposable time. For this group, putting in 12-16 hours a day to hone a perfect execution without using any extra resources is a cause for celebration in forums.

And some people advance by putting some (dolphins) or a lot of (whales) money into it, triggered by the “opportunities” carefully placed by the game designers. People in this group have what I consider to be disposable money.

So far I have failed to find an argument that people in the first group use to look down, or even rage, at the second group – that can’t be turned on its head and used in the exact opposite way.

If you say that people who put a lot of money into your favorite game have an unfair advantage over free-to-play participants, the same argument goes for people who put a lot of time to grind through it. If somebody is willing to put 10-12 hours every day, would you consider that to be an unfair advantage over somebody who “only” plays for an hour or two? If that is not unfair, how different is paying a couple of bucks to get the same advantage?

If you say that people who are new to the game should “pay their dues” before they get to the same level of achievement as those who have been at it for a while, let me introduce you to the history of guilds and unions. Let me also point at how “well” Europe (on average) is doing in these unprecedented times of technological innovation. But that’s a side note.

You might say that people who “rush” though the game by paying for everything and skipping the important basics end up being pretty terrible at playing it. That you need to grind the basics to “properly” enjoy the more advanced things. Let me tell that there are some pretty terrible players out there in every game, no matter if they paid anything or not.

And the most ridiculous argument that I read just the other day was that the money the whales spend on games should instead by donated to charities, or at least done as 1-to-1 match. Makes me wonder if the person who wrote that comment spends one hour of community work for every hour they spend on playing games. If so, kudos.

I wonder if there’s an argument to be made against pay-to-win players that can’t be turned on its head. Note that I say players and not game developers. I am not asking you to rage against studios that focus on subscriptions, loot boxes, add-ons etc aka the greedy bunch. Focus only on people who are willing to pay to enjoy their games as they see fit. Convince me that I’m wrong.