Nearly Every MMORPG Is Pay-To-Win, And Here’s Why

Make a list of what you think are the free-to-play games with the best cash shops. Which games feel the most “free” to you and allow you to enjoy them without feeling the constant need to pony up cash? On the flip side, which F2P games feel the worst to you? The most pay-to-win?

Got your list(s)? Good. Now, what do those games have in common? For my lists, I’d say that most of the “good” F2P games have strong PvP elements, while most of the “bad” F2P games are primarily focused on PvE. True, there are exceptions, like Path of Exile (PvE and good), and World of Tanks when it had gold rounds for sale, but at least in my experience, it’s always been easier for a developer to make a fair cash shop — or at least one perceived as fair – in a PvP game, like a shooter or MOBA, than in a PvE one, like an MMORPG.

I’ve often considered the reasons for that. One thought I had was that because PvP games tend to be limited and repetitive – i.e., playing similar matches over and over – there are fewer things to mess with and potentially sell in the cash shop. On the other hand, PvE-focused games, mostly MMORPGs, offer a wide range of different experiences, and the developers have to figure out ways to partition each of those off so as to turn a profit. It’s a trickier enterprise, and one that’s more likely to upset players with its implementation. That’s part of the equation, but not all of it.

Then I thought about a pair of articles I wrote some time back: one that asked why players were so upset with the plethora of cosmetic items offered for sale in Guild Wars 2 — versus relatively few offered as in-game rewards — and another about the definition of pay-to-win, and how that’s different for every player. Merging the two lines of thought brought me to this conclusion:

Whether or not something is “pay-to-win” hinges on the definition of “win.” And that can be very different depending on the game.