Airdrops, Whales, and Weasels: H1Z1’s Pay to Win Controversy in Context

“Every MMO is pay-to-win.  But H1Z1’s design is the best for immersive, interactive worlds.”

H1Z1 launched Early Access last week and was faced by three simultaneous storms: the first, a storm of overwhelming interest that catapulted the game to the top of the Steam sales charts and to the top Twitch viewership over the weekend.  The second, a darker storm to a host of server issues as a direct cause of that popularity.  And the third, that we’ll talk about here: AirdropGate.

For those who have been living under a rock or a large loot pinata in the shape of a military crate, one of the core features in H1Z1’s design (and monetization strategy) is the ability for players to purchase airdrops, items that trigger a plane that traverses the 64 kilometer world map and then drops a slow-falling parcel to the ground.  The first player who is able to successfully defeat the accompanying zombies – as well as any other players also vying for the package – is rewarded with loot.  Loot that can be found elsewhere in the world, given the investment of time, but not with the same ease.

It’s a system that has immediate design roots from other games in the genre: the survival game Rust is the most famous example, though the airdrops there are on a timer rather than player-initiated.  But the concept of players making a purchase to enter into a competition with other players, where to the victor goes the spoils.  Hearthstone’s Arena is based on a similar competitive concept, as was the initial design (subsequently tweaked) with Guild Wars 2’s tournament system.

And yet, within a day of H1Z1’s early access launch, it was attracting attention from a broad swath of gamers on Steam and Reddit alongside a variety of journalists from various outlets, who were crying foul.  Within hours, a post made on Reddit’s /r/Gaming community has garnered enough interest to not only catapult it to the front page of the subreddit but to the front page of all of Reddit – the hallowed halls usually reserved for puppy pictures, cheating spouse stories, and Serial podcast theories.

So why the controversy?

Everything erupted after thousands of players watched, in real time, a popular streamer call in three airdrops – all of which landed in rapid time in his immediate vicinity and contained the rarest loot that can be found in the game, in particular guns and ammunition.  The lack of lead time for the airdrop to land led to it not being contested, and the high yield was dramatic in both the quanity and quality of the loot within.  “Pay to win,” gamers cried out, and loudly.  Sony Online, initially caught off guard, finally admitted the issue – with SOE president John Smedley, agreeing with the perception that in the current iteration, the airdrops were, in fact, pay to win.

It took that admission, alongside the presentation of a free refund policy, coupled with a patch the next day that changed the quality of loot within the drops and an increase in the amount of time from notification to being lootable, before the tide of anger subsided.  Senior designer Adam Clegg’s statement likely helped, as well:

“The dev team loves airdrops, and in testing, every time we used one, they were highly contested where the person who actually called in the airdrop had to earn it through a gladiator style brawl. They usually weren’t the one that ended up with the airdrop but no matter what, the person who called it in was satisfied with the event that they got to make happen. That event is the magic we are trying to capture with everyone. The last thing we want is it to be a boring item that someone can sneak around and quietly get to find gear without it being contested. In our opinion that is basically cheating and nobody should be able to do that.”

What Adam is saying here is that the execution and implementation of a design does not always meet the intention of that design.  It’s the reason that one class is always at the top of the DPS charts in World of Warcraft despite the good folks at Blizzard insisting that they’re aiming for parity; the reason for flavor-of-the-month builds and the existence of a “meta game” in MOBAs and card games.  You don’t always get it right on the first try.

The reaction to H1Z1 was overwhelmingly passionate when compared to other execution/intent breaks, however.  In part, this is due to the nature of H1Z1 itself – in a game where you can lose anything and everything based on the actions of other players, advantages stick out like a sore trigger finger.  But mostly, it’s because it hit on among the most controversial of topics in gaming: money.

Paying for in-game advantages is decried across demographics of gamers.  Younger gamers, who often have more time than they do cashflow, hate the idea that someone is able to overcome their investment (as measured by time spent) in a world by a currency that exists outside of the game.  Older gamers, who are often short on time but have more disposable incomes, hate the idea that they need to spend that income to be on an even playing field with their peers – and the implication that has on their own skill.  (My mother, an avid CandyCrusher, refuses to purchase the helpful items because she sees it as an insult to her ability to pass the level.)  Gamers of all stripes are disenchanted after being scorned by countless free-to-play cash grabs that have emerged over the year – and that manifests itself in all sorts of comments, particularly those indicating a feeling that developers have lied to the players.

So, on one hand, the uproar makes perfect sense – even if the experience of the airdrops was a far cry from SOE’s design intentions, and quickly patched to be closer in line to them.

On the other hand, it’s surprising, because every MMO is pay-to-win.  I’ll say that again:

Every MMO is pay-to-win.  And every MMO in history has been pay-to-win.

Many of the posts on Reddit and elsewhere pleaded with SOE to remove all microtransactions from the game and replace them with a subscription model, but this is shortsighted.  Even the subscription cash-cows of old (and current) had a very present – albeit often obfuscated – real money economy.  In EverQuest, top guilds accepted cash payouts and subscription renewals for NPC spawns and raid runs.  In World of Warcraft as of this very minute, top players are offering challenge mode times, raid runs, and arena rating boots in exchange for dollars.  Same in Elder Scrolls Online.  And that isn’t even touching on gold purchases, an industry that the World Bank claims surpassed three billion dollars annually in 2009.  These subscription-based games have sought out the moral high-ground by pointing towards their EULAs that mark such activities as bannable offenses, but the number of players punished for these purchases are few and far between.

And with more than three billion dollars at stake, game developers have rightly asked themselves how they, instead of a third party, can receive that income.  Several – including EVE Online and WildStar – have allowed players to purchase subscriptions using real currency and then use those subscriptions as a lever for trade in-game.  Others, such as Guild Wars 2 and Neverwinter, have allowed for players with the time to amass in-game currency to trade that with the players who have spent money on tokens for cosmetics and other exclusive options, under the theory that these two audiences would balance each other out.  For the most part, it’s worked well, though the games still remain firmly in the camp of paying for an advantage.

Even other free-to-play games, wary of player sentiment about monetization strategies and fearful of being labeled as a pay-to-win product, have attempted to locate content rather than in-game resources behind their paywalls.  Dungeons and Dragons Online blocks off huge swathes of the game world to players without a subscription or an out-of-game purchased pass.  Star Wars: The Old Republic offers all of its content but at a limited number of sessions per week.  And in both cases, due to the progression systems in the games, a player who has not invested in a subscription will always be at a disadvantage in relevant power to those who have.

So if we assume that all MMOs have players who are willing to spend real money to gain an advantage over other players, how do we gauge which monetization strategies are best for the overall health and playability of the game?  One way, and the historical, is to hold up the development houses who have attempted to minimize the overall effect of real world money on the in-game economy, progression, and power differential systems.

But I’d suggest another.

If among the design cornerstones of interactive worlds are ongoing narrative and an immersive, seamless world as the backdrop, it would lead us to believe that the best monetization strategies are the ones that further both the ability for narratives to exist and the immersive power of the world.  By locking content – and thus seamless immersion – strategies such as those used by Dungeons and Dragons Online fail the sniff test.  And so do games that point half-halfheartedly and with rounded shoulders toward their EULAs; where players who give money to other players in order to reach the carrot on the stick faster are avoiding the central design philosophy of the games – where working hard with others to overcome challenges is both rewarded and creates the social narrative that makes up the fabric of the game.

The best strategies, then, are the ones that create content and conflict for players, spinning new narratives and furthering immersion in the world.  And that is the very design intent of H1Z1’s airdrops – something we should collectively celebrate, and that other studios should learn from.

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