Upcoming Events! Community Event Calendar

Is Star Citizen ‘Pay2Win’? Written Wednesday 16th of May 2018 at 07:29pm by CommanderLlama

Inequality in, around, and beyond the ‘Verse.  CommanderLlama's second article with Relay!

Down the rabbit hole I go...

Well, what does ‘Pay2Win’ mean?

Because if we know the answer to that question, then we can probably determine the status of Star Citizen, or any other video game much more definitively. The semantics are very important here, and it’s going to take some digging. Gamers, as a subset of ordinary people, like to just throw terms around in conversation. It’s very unlikely they agreed on a definition beforehand, and so they probably have their own personal definition of something like ‘Pay2Win.’

There is, as far as I know and at the time of writing, no formal definition of ‘Pay2Win.’ It is gamer slang, and thus, what I mentioned above becomes even worse. There’s no dictionary any of us can point to and exclaim ‘A-ha, fits that definition perfectly!’ We gamers are organically forging its definition, one shitty-ass Pay2Win game at a time.

The Literal: You PAY to WIN the game

There is, of course, the absolute literal interpretation of the term. You’re playing a game where there’s a clear win condition, let’s say a 1v1 match of StarCraft III, but there’s also a nice big shining icon on the UI labelled ‘Shop.’ Your Zerg rush promptly fails because you forgot to 5pool, and now this Protoss you’re up against is about to serve you some pain. With a shrug, you click on the Shop icon and a dizzying array of items are for sale. You pick the one you want, labelled ‘Win Match.’ There’s a brief pause as the transaction processing goes through, but then you’re greeted with a ‘Victory!’ message. Every Protoss unit and structure just exploded, and your opponent is screeching at you in chat. What a time to be alive.

Based on the above story, I am quite certain no one means the literal interpretation when ‘Pay2Win!’ is decried at this game or that. But if you’re that special exception, hey, keep fighting that good fight. StarCraft III seems like it sucks. If you’re poor. I happen to be gainfully employed and I love it!

The Figurative: ‘Pay2Win’ == ‘Pay4Advantage’?

It’s just easier to type and tweet the former and, ugh, advantage is such a long word. I’ve already had to write it a few times and I’m ready to throw in the towel on this whole article. ‘Pay2Win’ also wins out as slang, because it’s hyperbolic. Gamers love to be hyperbolic! What else could we be when arguing about optional, luxury entertainment items?

A quick Google reveals some consensus on something like the above equality. The highly academic Urban Dictionary sports quite a few definitions of ‘Pay2Win’. Here’s the top one:

p1IEpB0Fb1m86x2KIPA9o2jxpYYnnsBp9oq1AWBR-zfkuhkU8n6WcH3IFwX6eYzZFuDFLOXf2JgvPDLbGHfOiH349fgE4moWjOr_IkWDXGL2aqGiYPcQaJbXBuEB2mEM37CDi73p

The other definitions don’t all line up exactly, but there are multiple recurring themes. I will synthesize my own definition based on these and others as inspiration:

Pay-To-Win, Pay2Win, P2W:

A game that allows the use of real money in exchange for in-game benefits, typically in a competitive multiplayer context, and not including access to the game’s content itself. The magnitude of these benefits lie on some sort of spectrum, but in the common interpretation they are non-trivial. In the multiplayer context, these benefits grant an advantage to paying players.

Pay up, and these benefits can’t guarantee you will win the most or level up the fastest, but they will guarantee you will win more or level up faster than if you didn’t and by some noticeable margin. ‘Pay2Win’ seems to be a common trait of ‘Free-to-Play’ (F2P) games. At worst, it shakes up the entire competitive element of a game, upgrading the experience for paying players and degrading the experience for non-paying players. To some the very design of the game has been corrupted, altered to exploit human psychology and profit off so-called Whales, people with a willingness to pour money into a game and a (possibly relative’s) bank account to match. At the very least, these P2W schemes can also accompany a substantial grind, lacking respect for the player’s time. Boring grinds, of course, greatly pre-date these concepts.

These schemes form a novel revenue stream for the game development team, but they also directly allow the inequalities of the real world economy to leak into the game. There seems to be a certain cultural line of thought that games must be places of virtual equality of opportunity, perhaps harking back even further to the nature of physical sports. There is an expectation that games be fair. There must be some truth to this. I like to play soccer (called football mostly everywhere else, but it’s… the one where folks kick the ball around and the pros like to pretend to be feeble weaklings so their opponents get carded out of the game). There are, of course, divisions in soccer. It wouldn’t be fair to match a local league team I’m in against World Cup contenders. Behold, the bedrock and inspiration of matchmaking and ranking systems!

We do not consider the soccer example Pay2Win… Yet. Suppose I do acquiesce to the suicide match, and upon arriving to the field all of the professional players are more frightening than I ever imagined. Not only are they naturally more gifted and years ahead of me in training, they are all wearing the latest full-body powered exoskeletons. They can run at eighty kilometers an hour without breaking a sweat, jump half the field, and kick the ball hard enough to slay mere mortals. I could, of course, buy one of these myself but they happen to cost half a million dollars or some such. Not only are the World Cup contenders better than me from the get go, they’re also on average a good deal wealthier. I sort of don’t want to play soccer anymore, at least not this particular soccer.

I do want to watch this particular soccer, though.

As a more grounded example, we abhor doping in competitive sports. If a UFC fighter somehow duped their weight to end up in a lower weight class, it would be regarded as unfair. These are two more real world examples of the same underlying conceptual framework. We expect competition to be as fair as possible. We want sport to come down to the skill dimension as much as is reasonably possible. We want to glorify the human achievements in real blood, sweat, and tears. Purchased accomplishment is a sham in this arena. Wealth and status are glorified just about everywhere else in life, so let fair sport be something else.

The Sliding Scale: What is the bare minimum ‘Pay2Win’?

At some point, we will have to draw a line. I’ll draw mine for this article, and going forward I will use my above definition. I hope I don’t have to change it, but these concepts be mighty fluid. The first thing to do after writing out a somewhat reasonable definition of Pay2Win is to realize how complicated the whole landscape really is, and how easy it is to poke holes in my definition.

What about pre-order or “deluxe edition” bonuses? What about major expansion packs, smaller mission packs, or even a single bonus mission? Is the World of Warcraft character, levelled via its many expansion packs, now in an advantaged position compared to the “vanilla” character who has but the base game? What if a game’s content itself is the thing bestowing an advantage? Are these kinds of things now Pay2Win or not? What if the benefits are only temporary, or the advantages are very small? What if the game is only partly competitive in nature? What if the game has no explicit win condition, and it is just a utopic sandbox where players are free to do whatever they like? What if nothing is no in-game achievement is blocked off for non-paying players, and it’s all earnable by playing conventionally?

It’s complicated enough that you just about need a magnifying glass and a case-by-case approach. It’s pretty much no help whatsoever that every single game is a unique beast of its own. Developers are free to form the bits and bytes into whatever they want. The bedrock I hope I am reaching for is definitely a spectrum, but: Just how much wealth inequality from the real world are the developers allowing to leak into the game world?

Since I’m quite a fan of throwing wrenches at myself, let’s also take note that wealth inequality already exists in our gaming hobby, particularly in PC gaming. There is already a boundary of wealth needed to even play the games you want, on the system you want. Wealthier people can buy the best equipment, the best game editions, the best Internet connection (although here, geography is a factor too), and the best of anything else they need. On performance alone, you can make out finer details with high resolutions, react a little faster with higher refresh rates, and get the latest network updates with great Internet. Are all applicable games, then, just a wee little bit Pay2Win right out of the gate? Without very careful design and competitive restrictions, yeah, I guess so!

In addition to my first bedrock thought, the other conclusion I come up with is: All other factors being equal, is the real money paying player in an advantaged position compared to the non-paying player?

This can alternatively be rearranged in a more sporty context: If we tear away all of the fluff (lore, narrative, genre) of a multiplayer game and consider the ecosystem of player interaction, how fair is the game when viewed against what we would consider ideal. Is it a good sport, or the rich person’s playground? I believe these questions are fairly good litmus tests for flagging a game as Pay2Win at a coarse grain resolution, but as mentioned earlier, a case-by-case analysis is pivotal because games can vary so widely in every which way.

We will need to keep these questions in the forefront of our minds as missiles lock-on to the target of this discussion: Star Citizen.

Free-to-Play, Pay2Progress, Lootboxes

Free-to-Play games that can live off microtransactions are a fairly new phenomenon which exploded in popularity due to gaming on smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. To my own chagrin, it is surprisingly difficult to open up the Android Play Store and find games that don’t have a wealth of in-app purchases. Simply put, this shit prints money, and shit that prints money will grow and evolve until limits are reached (economic, legal, doesn’t matter). But hey, I can try out all sorts of games and apps for free, at least with limited or stunted functionality! That’s a good thing, right?

Since it’s all just code, and since developers can go and staple that code onto a different beast, we’re all now witness to the changes in the pay schemes of the gaming industry. Just last year, Middle-earth: Shadow of War made a splash by including real money microtransactions of random generation lootboxes in their single player, conventionally priced game. Electronic Arts took a solid hit to their share price for including real money microtransactions for their lootbox mechanics in Star Wars: Battlefront II, a competitive multiplayer shooter. At the very least we can be sure these new forays aimed to spin profit can evoke serious emotion from gamers. Something, for enough people, is not quite right with much of this.

Back to wrench throwing, what about the exchange of real money for time saved? Are all headstarts, experience or progress boosts, challenge skips, and their ilk also Pay2Win? Or are they their own unique thing, Pay2Progress, Pay2BeLazy, Pay2Boost, Pay2Skip? As online games have grown in complexity, so has their time investment if you want to git gud. To achieve a high level of accomplishment - whatever variable definition that entails by game and by person - one must often dedicate substantial time to this game or that. As the gaming population ages, a big chunk of the demographic have become adults, usually with jobs, sometimes with kids, and almost always with more responsibilities than they had as sparkly-eyed homework-free teenagers.

The dishes can wait.

A lot of gamers have undergone a shift. Where once we were young and had precious little wealth, now we are older and generally command more wealth. We have less time, but more money. The traditional idea I’ve argued earlier is that we often expect games to be as fair as possible, like a sport. We don’t want real money and the wealth or status of the gamer to matter. If there has to be inequality in the game world, then let it be by and large derived from player skill. If this whole Pay2Win thing is about fairness, one does inevitably have to ask: Fair for whom? Suppose the game is not entirely competitive and not trying to emulate a sport. Suppose the game is positively vast and requires a large time investment. Are the busy, wealthier adults now the obligatory losers, since they are time-poor, but not money-poor? So what if there are systems in place to let time-poor players catch up somewhat and enjoy the virtual worlds ever-increasing in complexity and ever-demanding more time from us?

I’ve posed enough questions in a general context, so now I believe it’s time to stare down the gigantic elephant in the room. It’s a fairly old elephant. I’m late to the party. But the damn brute is still blocking the TV as far as I’m concerned, and I would like to watch the game!

Star Citizen: Well, is it [P2W]?!

Let’s dive in headlong, and then spend pages and pages beating around the bush after:

Star Citizen allows the use of real money in exchange for in-game benefits, typically in a competitive multiplayer context, and not including access to Star Citizen itself. The magnitude of these benefits lie on some sort of spectrum, but in the common interpretation they are non-trivial. In the multiplayer context, these benefits grant an advantage to paying players.

I’ve merely substituted “Star Citizen” into this article’s definition of Pay2Win. True or False?

While keeping in mind the Star Citizen Persistent Universe (what I always mean by “Star Citizen”) is incomplete and thus its launch balance is very not finished

Players (simultaneously Backers) can purchase a “Starter Package” that includes a basic spaceship and access to Star Citizen. There’s an ever-increasing variety of these that offer different starting ships. The ships vary somewhat in their role, but it’s rather clear they vary in quality too. Buying into Star Citizen goes far and away beyond just the starter packages. Just about every ship announced, from the single-seater fighters to capital ships and everything in between, has been at one point purchasable. To CIG’s credit, they do limit the amount of ships sold, perhaps in an early effort to limit the impact of player-owned Day-1 capital ships and so on.

On top of this, players can also purchase UEC, the ‘Verse’s in-game currency. There are, and presumably will continue to be, limitations on how much or how often UEC can be purchased with real money. If that FAQ is still up to date, you can only purchase 25,000 UEC a day, and only hold a maximum 150,000 UEC at the moment. Whether this maximum will remain in terms of real money purchases, we don’t know. Exactly how much in-game benefit can you get from 25,000 UEC a day? We also don’t know, but probably not nothing or it’s a big fuck you to the whales and a probable impact to their revenue stream.

Kind of hate to type it, but, Star Citizen is Pay2Win: True.

lsS7oWcbEW7FKFvzsX_B-nqDyBvm4Gp4w9zEtSfpKgVfVjWr9V59IEQhSVgfmaAS37vwJrjcW2NJeZZeKb3dmY4UCch5nj2vGqXAwtC-jxHhgGlTTTi7Hxjn9FdmW1b6L_UDfWpa

However, if we project more into the realm of plans, dreams, and desires, we come up with something more like Neither, or Not Sure Yet. What I am confident in stating, for now, is that the above is not False, and it doesn’t look like it will ever be False in the future.

Just how much wealth inequality from the real world are the developers allowing to leak into the game world of Star Citizen?

During the development phase? A lot.

At launch? Since the project is a moving entity through spacetime, it’s not entirely known what the launch situation will be. Will ships still be for sale? Will UEC still be for sale? The online portion of the game will need a revenue stream and it’s not currently planned to be subscription-based. There will just about have to be something for sale. Some wealth inequality.

All other factors being equal, is the real money paying player in an advantaged position compared to the non-paying player?

Yes, but the magnitude of the advantage is not known. That advantage is really the one qualitative variable we would want to know more about here. It is directly correlated to a game’s position on the Pay2Win spectrum. There seems to be a hard and a rock place, though. Are the real money options worthless? Out of Roberts’ own mouth it doesn’t sound like they are, so they have value. But they also don’t have much impact on player encounters because skill reigns? I sense a zone of mutual exclusivity.

But I do have to remark that this could still be a better alternative than a subscription-based game, which places the wealth inequality on the entire game. Can’t afford a monthly sub? Too bad for you. In the rough plan, once you have access to the game, you don’t need to pay for a subscription. You have access to the game, go have fun! It’s a big plus, as long as CIG can afford to keep the servers running long term.

One thing that I won’t spend much time on, but that’s worth mentioning: Third-party UEC sellers. Look, it’s basically a giant space sandbox MMO. If it’s even possible for players to trade UEC in-game, there will be UEC sellers. End of story, full stop. CIG might as well try to take a bite out of that, right? It’s the kind of thing that might lead to an arms race, but it’s worth noting that even if CIG didn’t sell UEC, there would still be a real money avenue into the ‘Verse. Maybe the impact of real money UEC selling would be diminished? Reduced to a black market of sorts? Perhaps you view official support and selling as unethical?

Of Wishes and Wrenches

So, now that I have everyone’s blood boiling, let’s add some nuance. I think all that can really be gleaned from the above section is that Star Citizen probably falls on the Spectrum (heheh) of Pay2Win, but it need not be completely compromised by that fact. It’s a brave new world of revenue streams and gamer demographics. We were always going to lose the anti-P2W purists, methinks, but is Star Citizen now ruined?

Nah, not yet. In fact, I can poke the above section full of holes, and plan to.

First, I’d like to talk a little bit about the dream, and especially about Chris Roberts. Look, the above section and its conclusions shouldn’t even come as a surprise to anyone. Chris Roberts himself hopes Star Citizen will use the kind of 21st century, mixed monetization model that includes spending real money for in-game benefits (probably, mainly UEC). In the above interview just over five years ago, he admitted to the reality of gamers as adults and being time-poor. He wants to reach as many gamers as possible, duh, and if only those with a massive time investment will be able to dig their heels into Star Citizen, then he’s alienating a big chunk of us hailing from the Wing Commander and Freelancer days. Hell, even the people who backed Star Citizen as teenagers will be different people by the time the game soft launches… Soon™.

In a probably famous forum post on the RSI forums (now Spectrum), Chris Roberts chimed in to allay fears of the Pay2Win status of Star Citizen. That mega thread is now over 488 fucking thread pages long, the fear is quite real. He laid out some central tenets in his thought process for Star Citizen, and even if at worst we take him as a charlatan, we can still dissect the words.

Tenet 1: NO grind.

The basic gameplay should be fun. The goal of just about every game designer, one hopes. I covered a lot of this in my previous article comparing Sea of Thieves with Star Citizen. Star Citizen is going to have quite a few game loops, some central, some extraneous. As for how intrinsically fun and non-grindy each game loop will be by launch, we don’t know. But with open development and an active community, there’s loads of time to course-correct any creeping grind.

I think this tenet stands well above all the rest. If the game is awesome in and of itself, and it’s Pay2Win status doesn’t destroy the game experience for a segment of the player population, Citizens will stay and new ones will come. Fickle as it reads, nearly all is forgiven in the face of genuine delight.

Tenet 2: NO subscription to play.

Roberts doesn’t want to use the subscription model, but the ‘Verse will not be free to host. Load-balancing, server-meshed cloud infrastructure for - I’m guessing - a few hundred thousand concurrent players will not be cheap. We don’t have a look at their books, but I don’t see how building Star Citizen for around 10 years with multiple international studios won’t burn up a big chunk of the funding. CIG needs a revenue stream to pay for server upkeep, and they need a revenue stream to keep paying a developer team for post-launch content and support.

A subscription-based model is one way to accomplish this, but it’s a fairly big ask. Not too many MMOs can pull it off. Even reasonably popular ones tend to switch to a Free-to-Play model with real money microtransactions. World of Warcraft is the 0.01%, and the two Final Fantasy Onlines pull it off, but most seek alternatives. What alternatives?

The game is still pay once to access, so ongoing sales contribute healthy revenue. If Tenet 1 is upheld and the game is very fun, this stream will flow strong. A healthy banwave of cheaters here and an alt account economy there will ensure some sales too. However, most of the time you’re down to pretty limited options:

Option A: Paid content/expansion packs. Heck, World of Warcraft does this and subscriptions. Usually, this splits the community, which can be viewed as a negative. The bigger the ‘Verse, the better.

Option B: Microtransactions of some kind. They can be cosmetic-only, which is most definitely not Pay2Win by my definition. Or they can fall somewhere on the Pay2Win spectrum, where they provide in-game benefits to paying players.

Option C: Premium membership. You don’t need the subscription to play, but you could always grab the monthly subscription for extra in-game perks. What perks? Again, depends. In most games, this falls onto the Pay2Win spectrum. You’re better off being premium than not, if you can afford it. I think it’s actually feasible for CIG to do this option. They already do community subscribers to support their transparent development coverage, so they’re one pivot away.

Option D: Similar to Option B, but lootboxes. SpaceCrates. BennyBoxes. Gods, strike me down if this is ever even uttered again after this sentence.

Option E: Make other games. Develop more games as a studio, sell them, and use the revenue and profit to fuel Star Citizen. CIG is actually attempting this, with Squadron 42. We’re still in the nascent phase where Squadron 42 hasn’t been released, but with great reception this option could provide all of the funding CIG needs.

Pick one, dabble in a couple, or hybridize into something novel. Only CIG knows their later term game plan, but even they’ll have to shift for the market. Right now, it looks like we’re sitting on Option B, perhaps mingled with Option A if you view buying ships as a roundabout way of buying content (although it doesn’t split the community). Hopefully, Squadron 42 will be a big hit for the general gaming community, opening up Option E and possibly washing away all funding concern. And they could always do a big expansion pack years in, or consider premium memberships.

Tenet 3: NO unfair advantage to people with either too much money or too much time.

Roberts weighs in on the money-rich and time-rich gamers head on. He wants a big ‘Verse, he wants different ways to enjoy the game, and he wants different gamer demographics to enjoy the game in their own way. These are all admirable things to want!

The point of tension here is what constitutes fairness. Roberts aims to strike a utilitarian balance. He wants to try to maximize potential fun for the most possible Citizens, a worthy goal. Of course, money, time, and skill are all their own dimensions. Roberts only addressed two extremes in his post.

What about the people with too much money and too much time? Are they now destined to be the de-facto rulers of the galaxy? What about the people with no money and no time? Sucks to be them? Can they also claim entitlements of fun in Roberts’ eyes? I’m not advocating rewards for not playing in my last point, by the way, but it might be viewed as an argument for certain game loops being a shorter time investment and thus available to the time-limited player.

I am purposely going to skip over skill. Frankly, I cannot think of any games (or situations in general) where skill is not very, very tightly correlated with time. Everyone who manages to git gud puts in the time. Skill is still its own thing, some multivariate monstrosity of innate abilities. We can safely think of skill as a constant. Every multiplayer game will have it, it will always contribute to inequality between players, it’s going to be highly correlated with time, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. It is, in fact, the constant we want to stick around!

Star Citizen is not a pure arena sport. However, it’s also got death and loss of property as very real in-game possibilities. Other players are part of the game. CIG has, in various ways, teased the idea that powerful Organizations will be able to have a noticeable effect on the game world. A living, breathing, player-influenced economy. In the seemingly opposite direction, they’ve stated that NPCs will outnumber players in the ‘Verse, and that therefore the economy will be dominated by NPCs. A ratio of 10 NPCs for every 1 player is the number routinely thrown about.

Well, can we, or can we not have a substantial impact as players? It’s a bit of a pick one situation, unless it’s a sort of grey, highly localized, hopefully not lame compromise.

It feels like a bit of a rock and a hard place. There will be no unfair advantages to people with too much time, but clearly there will be! I guarantee you every high-level player will put in a lot of time to get there, and their skill will only grow with time. If they’re also innately talented, more power to them. Every online game has this inequality. Roberts sees a balance somewhere, where those without the time to hone all their skills to their natural maximums will still be able to hop in and enjoy the ‘Verse. They can just buy some time-savings and jump right to the fun. They don’t have the hours needed to outfit their expensive ship package with Class A components in-game, but they can afford to buy enough UEC with real money to do so.

Of course, by Roberts’ own words, this shouldn’t give them too much of an advantage, since a high-skill (generally time-rich) player will still walk all over them. In any good skill-based game this will be true, and my years of gaming do back this up. Yet, now we must consider the money-rich and time-rich. They can get the best stuff first, they can replace their losses, and they will likely be high-skill too. They might also be highly organized, and they might be out for your blood (and they might be you! Hi!).

The most important question here, I think, is: How much will players be able to impact the ‘Verse, and particularly other player experiences?

Worded in other ways, can the most powerful players in the ‘Verse block off or harm the experiences of weak players? Oh yes, you’re quite free to go mining! But not here, or there, and oh absolutely don’t go over there you will lose your ship. Go exploring! Ah, but not that Jump Point, or that one, yeesh, you got a deathwish buddy? You should probably just stay in this starter system, honestly. It’s worth mentioning, as I did in my previous article, that systems in Star Citizen could end up so vast no one needs to go interstellar (but, I mean, come on). Maybe hanging out in a high security system for fifty hours will be great!

And with that, Tenet 1 returns. If each slice of each type of gameplay in Star Citizen is great fun, the average Citizen may not have their experience impacted in a big way.

Tenet 4: NO Pay2Win.

Nothing is pay-only. This is a very, very good thing in Star Citizen’s favour. Sure, the money-rich and time-rich are going to end up the most powerful Citizens in the ‘Verse, but everything is theoretically accessible. Content and experiences are not gated by direct real money barriers as they are in some Pay2Win games. Real money UEC purchases currently are and will continue to be capped. How they’ll stop folk from using alts to get around the UEC caps - to say nothing of completely inevitable third-party sellers - we don’t know. That’s a bit of an arms race that will not abate.

There is, thankfully, no Magic Spaceship of Death. Well, there is the F7C Super Hornet of course, but to the cries of thousands of pilots the planned Fuel mechanics will bring important balance to the future ‘Verse. Everything will come with some compromise. No one ship can do everything, it can merely excel at certain tasks. Bigger ships have bigger overheads, even well-rounded fleets will have huge overhead, and so on. Any wear and tear mechanics, assuming they only apply to online entities, have a greater effect on time-rich players than on time-poor ones, working slightly in our favour.

I’m glad for a lot of this, although the literal interpretation of Pay2Win is a bit of a strawman on Roberts’ part. I don’t think people are worried about literal, real money acquired god-ships. I believe they are worried that the social, competitive, and experiential fabric of the game will be impacted by allowing money inequality in addition to the normal and ever-present time (+ skill) inequality.

Borrowing the term from Wargaming, the developers of World of Tanks, Star Citizen seems on course to become “free-to-win.” If there were no microtransactions, then the rulers of the ‘Verse would be the time-rich. Now, they will be both time-rich and money-rich, but nobody has to pay a subscription or spend extra money if they don’t want to.

There is no Pay2Win without Win

You can’t win Star Citizen. There is no final boss, no point where credits start to roll. So you can pump some real money in to change up your own personal experience and… So what? It’s your money and your experience. You can do what you want.

It’s true that Star Citizen is evolving into a sort of space sandbox, a spacebox. It is vast, and it will be home to many different activities in many different game locations. You generally don’t win in sandbox games, you just play until you’re bored. It could be right after you mine your first diamond ore, or some seriously mind-blowing shit.

This interpretation is a bit disingenuous, however. Just about every game worth its salt has progression. Star Citizen looks to have a metric fuckton of it. From Minecraft to Hitman to Mount & Blade, sandbox games love progression. Outliers do exist. Sea of Thieves is a gorgeous sandbox game with almost no progression. It also sucks and is very boring, but for a few special cases. Sure, you don’t literally win Star Citizen and get to the end credits, it’s a game that goes on and on until you decide to quit it. At the same time, an exceedingly vast majority won’t do nothing in Star Citizen and call it a great time. They won’t login for the first time and stand still. I don’t know many people who played Minecraft but never crafted tools or built anything. If players never progress, there’s a good chance most will get bored and stop playing. Star Citizen is a potentially never-ending sandbox, yes, but it has ample progression. You amass UEC, you collect ships, you upgrade them, you buy other stuff, some stuff may break down, new ships or models will come out, you’ll want to upgrade those… and on and on. What each person’s “endgame” exactly is might be unclear and personal, but you could generally look at a day’s progress in Star Citizen for any player and conclude they won, did alright, or lost.

Assuming this is still the ‘Verse we’re talking about, there are other players, and they can have some impact on your game experience. They can, directly or indirectly, gain UEC by hunting you down and killing you. This isn’t Arena Commander, but the Persistent Universe could end up a very harsh place. There will be inequality in the game without letting real money factor in, but Herculean effort must go into a balance that doesn’t push the inequality so far that the poor, unwashed masses have a bad time, or that the game becomes socially stratified into “those that can experience the whole ‘Verse” and “those that can’t afford to.”

Crowdfunding: The Necessary Evil

Awww, look at the little baby Star Citizen!

This was never not going to come to pass. Star Citizen is so hilariously far and away the largest video game crowdfunding experiment ever, it is more than an order of magnitude larger than the second place game. Selling the dream is one thing, but you don’t cross one hundred and eighty million (fucking) dollars crowdfunded on the dream alone. It’s raised so much bloody money, some people think it’s a scam. CIG needed incentives to get that far. Those incentives were ships and they were present from the very beginning.

Ships in Star Citizen are content. They are the keys that unlock certain ‘Verse experiences. Although CIG has claimed that customizations will allow a breadth of game experiences through same-ship customization, players that want a wide breadth of experience must collect ships, and the ship-collecting already started in 2012. In a way, ships can be viewed almost like access to different classes in an RPG. You’ve got your Fighter (fighters), your Healer (medships), your Ranger (scouts), and so on. Ships go well beyond that, creating whole new games within games. Small ships work for solo players, but medium and large ships become their own unique co-operative and social experiences. Viewed in just the right light, people buying all their ships are spoiling their experience of earning those same ships through sweat and blood in-game. But then, not everyone wants to do that, and not everyone has the time to accomplish their way from a sputtering Class C Aurora to a Class A turbocharged 600i.

Despite mitigating factors and well-meaning design tenets, Star Citizen falls somewhere on the Pay2Win spectrum. I don’t think it’s an egregious example yet, but the final structure is also non-existent, so we can’t exactly place it. Not even Roberts comprehends the beast he’s building. But this had to happen. Star Citizen wouldn’t have gotten the funding it needed without selling ships (it could probably have got by without selling land claims...), and so without bringing in some real money inequality, it wouldn’t even exist.

The Good News

Mitigation is now the only option, and the inequalities of the Alpha or Beta don’t really matter in the long run. If Star Citizen is going to be at least a little Pay2Win, it’s important to understand that the definition shouldn’t be taken as the literal slur, and it’s important a happy medium is established roughly as Chris Roberts envisions it. For the most righteous defenders of CIG, it would be alright to show acceptance of the facts and awareness of the dangers. For the Pay2Win hating purists, this doesn’t have to be the game killing apocalypse the term summons from P2W’s worst offenders.

We’re somewhere on the Pay2Win spectrum, but we won’t know exactly where until the game is developed further. Thanks to the transparent development and community of testers, the warning flags will be present well ahead of time. If CIG can’t get the balance of the ‘Verse in a place all parties can approximately call fair, we can let them know, and it has the potential for change and evolution. As long as the upper echelons of the ‘Verse can’t ruin the game experience of those below them (and some will probably try if they can), and as long as real money can only buy so much, this will be an amenable situation for 97% of Citizens.

As for the poor people who want to be highly competitive with other players and there may be some wealth barriers in your way… I hope they can be overcome with practice. If you don’t even have much time for that needed practice, then damn I’m sorry. I would recommend joining a fan community (like maybe Relay!) or a welcoming Organization.

I’m also sorry the very term Pay2Win is a bit of a misnomer. It’s often read literally, and it’s also used as a sort of slur. All of this stunts any discussion from the start. Maybe we do need a new term, although we don’t need twenty different terms, each individually defined. The existence of these new revenue streams doesn’t have to mean the apocalypse. Most downloadable content (DLC) is absolute trash, but there are excellent DLC, and great DLC, and good DLC too. CIG aren’t hiding their plans from us, and the plans in the air right now aren’t the malicious type.

What Can Be Done to Mitigate Pay2Win?

There are no doubt several things that can be done. I do feel as though many of the features in Star Citizen such as Ship Roles, Reputation, System Security, World Size, NPC Population, and others can already help mitigate Pay2Win issues, and reduce the extent to which the game is even competitive at all. I’ve drawn up a few additional thoughts:

  1. Make Sure The Game is Incredible. Because it’s really hard to overstate just how much gamers will forgive if the game itself is wonderful and fulfilling. I’m confident CIG is working on that, and they’ll get feedback loud and clear.

  2. Speak Up. If you notice the balance of the game slipping further along the Pay2Win spectrum, where advantages are becoming too unfair for one caste of players, or the game experience has too many harmful impacts for the peasant class (henceforth called the Aurora class), start that dialogue. Communicate with CIG. If it’s just a matter of tweaking the balance of the game, that can be done with relative ease. The economy can change, the NPC and player levels of impact can change, the security levels of systems can change, ship/item entropy can change, death penalties can change. Pretty much everything is subject to change. I believe a happy, fairly minimalist compromise is possible that still provides a revenue stream for CIG.

  3. VERY Careful Real Money Purchase Balance. There are a lot of gameplay factors that play into the whole P2W situation, but one big avenue of attack CIG has is in how they might bottleneck real money purchases. They are walking a knife’s edge by allowing a time-poor person to buy and outfit ships. The true valuation of UEC and these purchases are unknown, but they sound substantial by example, with time-savings of hours or tens of hours. That UEC buying power will also be in the hands of the money-rich and time-rich. Complicated as it is, consider ways to bolster the game experience for just the time-poor and money-rich, without giving too much advantage to the time-rich and money-rich. Off the top of my head: You can only get a balance-affecting amount of game wealth once per account via a “Starter Boost Package”. That fails some edge cases, but it’s something. How about only UEC earned in-game can be traded in-game?

  4. Private Servers. Since the ‘Verse will be running off cloud infrastructure, there’s no technical reason I can think of why this power couldn’t be brought into the hands of the players. Whether it’s a slice of the ‘Verse on a dedicated server or one cloud instance, or a mirror of the whole ‘Verse spread across multiple instances, give priority to this feature and don’t make it a late, post-launch one. Finish the game, of course, but give an out for those inevitably disgruntled with the social structure of the ‘Verse. Run your own ‘Verse, or join a community pooling together to make their own. Let them set their own rules. If CIG strikes some kind of deal with Amazon to provide these cloud instances, perhaps CIG could still get a slice of revenue coming back to them from private servers too.

  5. Matchmaking Systems. I hope it doesn’t come to this, but with a big enough player population, there can always be a system in place to match players within divisions of skill levels, often called matchmaking ratings (MMR). These divisions can be broad, and matchmaking can be based on a large variety of factors. If other factors aren’t achieving the balance the game deserves, it could help nudge in the right direction. This is it’s own brand of stratification that I only view as a cruddy compromise.

  6. Get a Refund. I actually asked the editors of Relay if it was kosher to suggest this. Look at how cool they are! I don’t suggest this lightly, but everyone should draw their own line in the sand and make a call. This is a very long and sometimes arduous project to follow, and it’s changed a lot over time. Overwhelmingly supported community polls on game direction or not, some folks are just going to be alienated by the project trajectory. Landing on the P2W spectrum doesn’t necessarily ruin a game, but it absolutely opens up the possibility. Hey, it is just a game, don’t let it ruin your life! Exercise your rights, and no one should look down on you for it.

CommanderLlama

For whatever reason, this author doesn't have a bio yet. Maybe they're a mystery. Maybe they're an ALIEN. Maybe they're about to get a paddlin' for not filling one out. Who knows, it's a myyyyyyystery!