It was 2007, and the server of my favourite Role Playing space sim had been taken down. The server host couldn’t keep working a second job to bear the hardware, internet and electricity costs. I needed a new world to explore, and some friends introduced me to World of Warcraft. The problem was that being a couple of South-East Asian teenagers, none of us could afford the subscription, so we would play on an illegal private server.
The Cost of a Private Server
These private servers had hundreds of players, and the server owners, moderators, pirates, hackers or whatever you want to call them, couldn’t keep the servers up and running without donations from the players.
People who could barely afford a subscription couldn’t afford to donate, but this community also had its whales. The server owners would sell gold and items in return for “donations”. Of course, more donations meant better items, which went on to the point where the moderators offered unbalanced in-game items they had created. This reached a point where those amour and weapons were entirely out of the league of the average players. The players who had paid to get the edge were dubbed “donors” by the community.
You could have a completely levelled-up character with the best armour and enchantment that the regular game could afford you, and a donor could still run at you on the PvP server and kill you in a single blow. That also meant that they could kill the bosses with almost the same lack of effort. Donors became shortcuts to all dungeon raids. Non-donor players would hire a donor to help them push through a dungeon so that they could shortcut their way to getting the best loot. As you could imagine, donors were highly sought-after mercenaries, and they charged handsomely for each group of people looking to avail their services.
However, there were problems with this design, and I’m not just talking about the unfair advantage donors had, although that was the most obvious one. The donors were victims of the system, too, and this statement might have you rolling your eyes but hear me out. An important principle in creating the progression of a game is flow. To achieve flow in a game, game designers need to make sure that the activities are not too hard but not too easy either, as the former will cause frustration and the latter will cause boredom. And what happens when the whales get bored? No matter how much they have spent in the game, they eventually quit, and in this case, the moderators would lose one of the few paying players.
The moderators suddenly found themselves in the shoes of game designers and economists. There was a reason World of Warcraft had a well-thought-out and delicately designed economy and item stats. To fix the problem of retaining their playing players, they started creating content, especially for the imbalanced players. For example, dungeon instances where only donor players with their imbalanced armour could survive. That recreated the very same gameplay balance that the moderators had destroyed. A single donor with tens of dollars worth of armour and weapons could no longer run through a dungeon slicing everything in its path. Like average players, they now needed a party of donor tanks, donor DPS and donor healers to beat these new custom-made bosses. Eventually, an entire secondary meta accessible only to the previously imbalanced donor players.
They were fixing the donor engagement problem, which brought about another issue. The average non-donor players, after getting their expedited complete set of items, would eventually run out of things to do, and they could never experience the thrill of donor dungeons locked to them because they couldn’t afford to pay. The moderators realising this new problem at hand, came up with a simple solution: give the peasants the taste of the armour and weapons yielded by the nobles. The regular players could go through dungeons with a team that needed donors to beat the bosses; if they could survive, they would be able to pick up donor-level loot in minimal numbers. In other words, they could finally grind to experience the mutilated game in its full glory. That also gave donor players more social experiences to keep them in the game.
Letting non-donor players grind to experience paywalled content was the final piece of the puzzle and brought a balance to the game. But the series of adding more unbalanced items and then adding content to allow donors to have fun with it was a continuous cycle.
The illegal servers had other problems too, which made them unsustainable. The servers were plagued with bugs. Usually, the best and most important Raids would remain broken for months. The people who wanted to keep playing on private servers had to wait very long for the addition of expansion packs. These problems drove players to get a legitimate subscription to the actual game. The illegal servers seemed like the game’s trial version for many players. Fortunately, eventually, Blizzard added a trial period to the game.
So how do you balance a Play to Win Game?
Naturally, slapping a Pay-to-Win design on a competitive game breaks the fragile balance. Although if done right, having a Grind-to-Win design in parallel to a Pay-to-Win system works if executed well. Mobile games with a micro-transaction-heavy revenue model have nailed this down very well. In Clash Royale, for example, you can buy the new hero pack when it is launched, or you can wait and grind to get it and level it up. In League of Legends, you can instantly buy the weekly champions you like using premium currency or grind out matches and buy them using the non-premium in-game currency.
A Word on Piracy
Although my story is about playing an essentially pirated game on a hacked server, I don’t condone piracy. It is important to know that children in certain parts of the world either have no way to pay for digital goods or cannot afford to pay full price for a video game. And they choose the latter between not playing at all and playing but deferring the purchase to a point in their lives when they start making money. On a positive note, for a long time now, game stores have given publishers the option to set region-based prices, which has and will do a lot to solve the affordability problem. This topic deserves a separate blog post.