Pay-to-win, abbreviated as P2W, describes an aspect of a game where players can get an advantage with real-world currency to purchase in-game items. The pay-to-win structure is prevalent in multiplayer online and mobile games through in-app purchases.
Pay-to-win games usually offer players better weapons, armor, character abilities, or in-game currency as microtransactions. The pay-to-win advantages make it harder for other players to compete if they cannot afford or do not want to purchase the same items. As the definition would imply, players essentially pay-to-win (or be better) at a game.
Games that allow players to download the software for free (freemium) are the most common type to be considered as pay-to-win. Many F2P (free-to-play) games offer microtransactions to generate revenue for the developers but can fall into the trap of being pay-to-win, angering existing and potential players. To combat the pay-to-win model and negative viewpoint from players, some game developers only offer cosmetic items for purchase or other items that don't provide any gameplay advantages.
Are all F2P (free-to-play) games P2W?
There are plenty of free games available to play that are not P2W. However, most larger games that continue to be developed require servers and support staff and need some source of funding, which is usually from the P2W model.
Is pay for convenience P2W?
Yes, paying for any convenience makes that game pay-to-win. Any game that gives the player a better experience (even if random) over someone else who's not paying is considered by most to be P2W. Not only do these conveniences make the game P2W, but they also make the game worse because the developer wants to design inconveniences that entice people to spend money.
Examples of pay for conveniences
Below are examples of "conveniences" purchasable in P2W games.
Some games may have a voluntary monthly paid tier or season pass that includes one or more of the following conveniences. Because these conveniences are only offered to those who spend money, they are considered P2W.
- Purchasable gold or other in-game currency.
- Permanent or timed XP (experience) or other stat boost.
- Any speed boost that makes tasks faster or easier to complete.
- Increased bag/storage (inventory) or number of items that can be carried.
- Any item purchasable with real currency (even crafting materials).
- Travel conveniences (e.g., faster mounts, waypoints, etc.)
- Any level or other experience skips or increases.
- Map highlights, tips, or other information not available to others.
- Any purchasable loot box with a chance at giving any of the above bonuses or perks.
If I'm only paying for convenience, isn't it only P2C (pay for convenience) and not P2W? Your "convenience" gives you an unfair advantage over someone not paying, so it's P2W.
Everything bought with real money can be bought with in-game currency
Some argue there's nothing wrong with buying in-game currency with real money if all players can earn that same currency. Unfortunately, most don't realize that in-game currency and the stores use common dark pattern tactics to confuse and deceive players.
Impossible to know an in-game currency's real-life value
In-game currencies are designed to make it difficult to understand how much real money you're spending and trick you in other ways. For example, when purchasing a currency in most stores, you're given multiple options, as shown below in the Diablo 4 shop.
Giving multiple purchasing options makes it difficult to know the actual value of each coin. For example, the picture shows the lowest option of 200 platinum for $1.99 (≈0.009 per coin) and the highest option of 11,500 platinum for $99.99 (≈0.008 per coin). The estimated value per coin we listed in parentheses was found using a calculator. Almost all stores are designed to never show you the value per coin.
If something in the store costs 2,000 platinum, you need a calculator again to determine its real-life cost of $17.38 if you only purchased the $99.99 option. However, if you made multiple purchases at different values and earned the same currency while playing the game, it becomes impossible to know the actual cost. Some P2W games may complicate things even further by having multiple currencies, each with different real-life values.
Hard to identify price changes
When you have difficulty identifying an in-game currency value, it also becomes harder to understand price changes. For example, if the 2,000 platinum store item we mentioned earlier increased to 2,500, what is the real-life value of the 500 platinum increase? The company may say it's only a $4.34 increase; however, that is only if you're using the value of platinum purchases for $99.99. If you purchased 500 from the store, it would be $4.99.
Easy to overestimate the value
By not having a set price on the value of the in-game currency, developers can overestimate the value of a sale. For example, a company may bundle several skins and other items into a sale and list each item at its highest possible value to make it appear like an amazing deal.
Why do prices end in .99?
Ending a price in .99 cents has been used in retail for years. Because English speakers read left-to-right, $99.99 seems cheaper than $100.00 because most people read $99.99 as $99, not $100. So, some people might think, "Well, at least I'm not paying $100," when it's only a .01 difference.
With an in-game currency, you often are left with a remainder after a purchase. Again, this feature is designed to get you to spend more money. For example, if you want to buy a 2,000 platinum item, the closest you can buy from the Diablo 4 store we showed earlier is 2,800 platinum for $24.99. However, after purchasing the 2,000 platinum item, you still have 800 platinum remaining that cannot be refunded. With this remaining amount, you may find something for only 800, but more than likely, there are more options for 1,000, which would make you spend more money.
By playing P2W games, you're bankrolling someone who develops the techniques and algorithms mentioned above to extract as much real-life money as possible.
Are cosmetics P2W?
No. Cosmetics that only change the appearance of an item or character are not considered pay-to-win. For example, if a game offered a $1.00 dye to change a bag's color, it's not considered pay-to-win because it gives the player no additional utility or advantage. However, if the store offered a $5.00 bag that holds twice as much, it's an advantage because your character can always carry more.
If I'm not winning, is it P2W?
A player who pays real money for a game is not guaranteed to "win" but gives them an unfair advantage. For example, a player who pays $1.00 for 1,000 gold has an advantage over someone who spent one hour grinding for 1,000 gold. In this example, the player who paid real money can immediately buy better gear and items, making their character more powerful than the person not spending real money.
Many F2P games are free because they're behind a grindwall. You may not be paying real-life money, but you're paying with your time. Items costing only $1.00 could cost you dozens or even hundreds of hours to acquire.
Examples of pay-to-win games
Popular games with some pay-to-win options include the following.
- Albion Online
- APB Reloaded
- Candy Crush Saga
- Clash of Clans
- Diablo Immortal
- Diablo 4
- Dungeon Keeper
- Grand Theft Auto Online
- Guild Wars 2
- Genshin Impact
- League of Legend
- Lost Ark
- New World
- Overwatch 2
- World of Warcraft
I'm not supporting P2W games if I don't buy anything
By playing any P2W game, you're letting the industry know you're okay with them, even if you spend no real-life money on the game. If you don't like P2W, the only way to make a statement is by boycotting those games. P2W games can't survive if they don't have players.
Why should I care?
So many people today willingly pay real money for in-game currency and conveniences; who cares if the game is P2W? If you enjoy playing games, there are the following reasons why you should care and why you should not participate in those using the P2W model.
- By supporting P2W games with your wallet, you're telling other developers it's the type of game you enjoy.
- P2W ruins competitive gameplay since it becomes more about who is willing to pay the most real money, not who has the most skill or time.
- More development time will be spent on developing a store and other methods of monetizing that take away from improving the game itself.
- All forms of achievement are lost when you don't know if another player earned something through work or by paying real money.
- P2W games will trick and confuse you into giving them as much of your money as possible.
- Companies are more likely to only listen to people spending real-life money in a game than those not spending anything. Thus, the overall experience is biased toward those individuals.
- Nothing lasts forever; the game with everything you purchased eventually dies and ends. Are you going to care that you had a cool gun skin that cost $20 for a game that no longer exists?
In conclusion, why play any game that isn't fun unless you're constantly paying real money?