Pay2Win - Blockchain Gamings Downfall?

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If you ever read any of my articles, you might have figured it out yourself already. I like blockchain gaming. Not only that, though. I think it might be the best thing to happen to us since the invention of sliced bread. Putting your games on the blockchain just feels like the logical next step in the evolution of gaming. By giving your players true ownership of their items, by allowing them to trade them with each other, and, ultimately, to cash out of your game when ever they want, you bring gaming to the next level. A level where players will actually be able to Play2Earn. A level where players will not only get entertaiment from gaming but they'll have something to show for once they are done with a game. Top players that invest their time (and skill!) into a game will be actually able to make a living with it eventually.

Well, at least, that's the idea. So far, things are yet to manifest. There are still many things holding blockchain gaming back and a lot of them would warrant to have their own article (which I just might write eventually). One of the biggest issues, though, is the amount of Pay2Win present in a lot of these games and that's exactly what I want to talk about today. What exactly is Pay2Win, how is it present in our most successful blockchain games and why is that a problem? Finally, I also want to showcase some ideas of how to fix this, so let's get right into it!

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Photo by Louis Hansel

There's no exact definition of what Pay2Win actually is and different players will tolerate different levels of the mechanic before they call it out. The basic idea is that you can spend money in order to gain an advantage against your enemies. The most blatant forms of Pay2Win are often found in mobile games where money often will outright buy you a win against your opponent. There was (is?) a Command & Conquer mobile game for example that allowed you to do additional attacks as often as you wanted as long as you paid for them every time. This mechanic allowed whales to simply "buy enemies out of the game". They would just shell out money until their base was destroyed and there was no stopping it other than paying money yourself.

These mechanics are usually frowned upon by most gamers, but there are more subtle ways of Pay2Win and these are the ones usually present in blockchain games. In this case money won't buy you the win right away, but it's going to increase your winning by a lot, up to a point where it's impossible for a "normal" player to beat a whale. It's mostly the trading card games that work that way and incidentally, this is one of the most successful forms of blockchain gaming so far.

Take Gods Unchained as an example. The game resembles Hearthstone and is indeed pretty fun to play for a while. It even has some cool Play2Earn mechanics and you can advance quite a bit in the game without paying anything. That's changing abruptly once you get high enough to face paying players, though. Many games in Gods Unchained are a back and fort where both players counter each other threats until one manages to set up something the opponent can't counter any more. One of the most common examples of that is Echophon, a card coming from the long sold out Genesis Edition:

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This card is a total game changer, because it can attack the round it is played, usually clearing the opposing board. At the same time it is super tough and can't be taken out by a single spell because the first spell targeting it will be countered. In short, the card will both counter what ever the opponent has on the field and at the same time poses a game ending threat. Thing is, cards like that are not available for free, right now you'd have to pay about 0.2 ETH (~250$) to buy it. So without spending a lot of money, your chances of winning games against players that did are slim at best.

There are even worse examples, though. Just look at Splinterlands. Thanks to their level mechanic, you'd have to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars just to have a shot to compete in the top league. It doesn't stop there, though. Right now there are about 300 different cards present in the game. In theory, you'd need each and every single card at it's maximum level. Only at this point Pay2Win wouldn't be an issue any longer.

Don't get me wrong here, I love Splinterlands, I'm invested with thousands of dollars myself and I feel like it's the best blockchain gaming has to offer by far, but that doesn't change the facts. A lot of matches come down to who has access to a certain card or sometimes even the higher level of a card. There are summoners that will be subpar in a lot of matches but next to unstoppable in others.

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Brighton Bloom for example gives all your monsters flying. In the Earthquake + All Monsters loose all abilities rule set this is an insane ability. In most other rule sets there's at least one better option to go with. Getting the card to max level would cost you about 110$ and Splinterlands is full of examples like that. But why is this whole Pay2Win thing an issue in the first place? Splinterlands is doing great, isn't it?

The truth is, it is, yes. In blockchain gaming terms. But even as the number 1 blockchain game, it's completely irrelevant in terms of mainstream gaming. If we want to change that, we need to at least 10X, better 100X the number of active players in the game. We blockchain people are not the ones to be put off by Play2Win mechanics easily, we are used to investing money in all kinds of stuff. Regular players are, though. Realistically, if Splinterlands was on Steam right now, it would have a mostly negative rating with people accusing it of being the worst Pay2Win game they've ever seen - and they'd be right about it, simply because the amount of Pay2Win is unheard of in the mainstream world and indeed, they've never seen anything like it.

So what can be done about it? There are two paths to be followed and ideally, we'd do both. For one, there are a lot of mainstream titles that have just as bad Pay2Win models. Just look at Hearhtstone. The difference is, they hide it a lot better! Hearthstone is showering its players in free stuff all the time and over all these rewards, many players ignore the fact that they still have to pay hundreds of dollars to compete for the top spots. I'm not saying we need to hide the Pay2Win elements better, quite the contrary actually. What we should do is educate the players about blockchain. This one is hard and it's going to take a long time, but it's rather simple once they figured it out.

My main Splinterlands account has cards worth about 2.900$ in it right now. If I wanted to, I could sell everything right now. Sure, I wouldn't recover all I've invested, but I'd make back a healthy portion of it. There's no such option in non-blockchain games. So isn't it better to invest in something that will allow you to do so? We know the answer, but mainstream players don't. This is the long road and it's one we'll have to go eventually. But there has to be something else we can do? There is! Get rid of Pay2Win altogether!

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This is something that existing games will have a hard time doing, obviously. But new games can and there are already games in development with that exact target. The image above is from an upcoming game called Synergy of Serra. To make it clear, I don't know much about the game yet and I certainly can't comment whether it will be worth our time or not. But there's something unique about the game. It's a collectible card game and they are a deck builder just like the above examples. The key difference is - instead of each player playing their own deck, both decks are shuffled together and both players then draw from the same pool of cards. This simple twist already gets rid of Pay2Win for good and it's the way to go in my opinion.

There are still obvious advantages to having a larger collection with this system. You have access to more cards, you can try more and possible more interesting strategies. But no matter what you do, you can't buy yourself an advantage. Shuffling both players decks together is just one way to do it and I'm sure we can come up with many more interesting ways to level the playing field.

The more blockchain developers realize that they don't have to have Pay2Earn elements to sell their NFTs, the sooner they realize that that's what's actually keeping them out of the mainstream market, the sooner we'll see blockchain games conquering said market. I for one can't wait to see that happen, blockchain gaming is the future - we only need to make it happen!

And that's all from me today, thank you all for reading and see you next time!

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Nice one and important content - just a little thing that I am not sure of:

Just look at Splinterlands. Thanks to their level mechanic, you'd have to spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars just to have a shot to compete in the top league.

I personally did invest max 500$ but play with 3 accounts between diamond and CL, one is always CL 1 and my main account is worth around 20k $

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That's true, the question is when you got in, though.
The later you join the game, the more expensive it's going to become to compete at the top.
My account is worth a lot more than what I've payed and I think that's cool (like I said, I do love the game) but anybody coming in fresh will have to invest more and more money to get to where we are now :-)

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I really think that Splinterlands is onto something big with rentals. If they can get that right they will change the model. Renting sets of cards for a season for a low cost could be the gamechanger.

Absolutely, I feel like renting is a really unique feature to Splinterlands and it could help a lot. It does need a lot of explanation, though. Much like with the business model itself, mainstream people won't be used to the idea of renting cards. This is something both the game but also we as a community have to address whenever it comes up.

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The main difference with blockchain games like Splinterlands is that the cards and assets have real world value and can be readily sold for real money. In a lot of traditional computer games, companies can afford to be generous because it doesn't really cost them anything, and most in-game assets can not be readily sold or traded.

Because the blockchain assets have real world value, at the end of the day, the money for the rewards has to come from somewhere. If tons of people are playing the game to earn rewards and sell them, but aren't putting money into the game, then where is that money coming from?

While Synergy of Serra has an interesting concept, I just don't see how it is sustainable. If there is no incentive to owning your own cards then why would people buy cards at all? And if that is the case, how is the game going to continue to get funding if no one buys cards and just uses their opponents' cards instead? I won a Splinterlands tournament hosted by Synergy of Serra and got 62 Transcendent Crates + 62 Base Set Crates but honestly I'm a bit uncertain about Synergy of Serra because the economics don't seem sound.

I suppose one option is to have different foil types which have the same play value but some are more collectible. Splinterlands already does this with Gold Foil. Gods Unchained has 4 foil "shine" types.

Ultimately, Splinterlands' model is much closer to Type I Magic the Gathering. If you want to play at the very top of Type I, you need power cards like Black Lotus, the Moxes, Time Walk, etc. But one key difference is that Splinterlands makes trustless borrowing and renting possible due to their delegation system. In Magic the Gathering, lending someone your Black Lotus and Moxies involves a lot of risk but it can be done safely in Splinterlands. And while buying max level cards can be a major hurdle, renting max level cards is far far more affordable.

Personally, I think the biggest flaw in the blockchain gaming space (including with Splinterlands) is there is too big of an emphasis on earning and investing. I come from a gaming background and I think it's better when players have a consumption mindset. They are paying for enjoyment and the experience. They aren't expecting to make money or to be able to recoup what they have spent. Instead, we have a lot of participants who are focused only on making money off their investment and hitting their ROI benchmarks. A lot of blockchain games initially court such investor players because they can provide useful capital but the game can suffer if they are too beholden to investment interests. It's like when a company loses sight of its mission statement and the needs of its customers because it is solely focused on maximizing profit for the shareholders.

It's great that Splinterlands has such an international playerbase. And it's really interesting that some players in developing countries can earn more money playing this game than they could earn from regular jobs. (Though for those in developed countries, the earnings are less than you'd get working a minimum wage job). The issue once again comes down to basic economics. If lots of people simply view the game as a money making mechanism, aren't putting money into the game, and are only focused on extracting what they earn, then where is the money coming from and how can you keep it sustainable?

Forgot to say a few things in my other comment.

A lot of games like Clash Royale are essentially "pay to win" (like Splinterlands) even if they frame it more as "pay to progress." Paying money speeds up your progression but once you hit max level 13 (for Clash Royale), you're on an equal playing field with other top players. But the same could be said with Splinterlands. Given enough time, you could use the rewards you earn to build up your account all the way to max level (though that will take a very long time). But once you have leveled up your cards to the league limits, you're on an even footing with other comparable players.

In most other games and sports, there are "pay to win" elements even if they are more subtle.

When it comes to real-time computer games (like Clash Royale and League of Legends), CPU performance speed, gaming accessories, and internet speed/connection can have major impacts. When I play Clash Royale, about one out of every three or four games I usually experiencing lag (with that flashing internet signal) and sometimes lose connectivity. I know I can't compete at the upper echelons with my current internet package and I'm okay with that. I'm not going to shell out extra money for better internet just for this single game!

If you look at sports, there are plenty of cases where equipment plays a key role. Rowing boats, blade runner prosthetics, swimming fast suits, Nike Vaporfly shoes, high altitude training, blood doping, and legal performance enhancing supplements.

There is also the time factor. Some people have the luxury of spending more of their time practicing their sport or their game.

"Skill" can be represented in different ways. There can be the mental, strategic side. Or, for many computer games it can be about who has better hand-eye coordination and who is the faster typer.

Great comment(s), thank you for taking the time to write all this, it's basically an article on its own.

I agree on Synergy of Serra, I'm really not sure if their model will be sustainable, either. But I respect them for trying. Simply because everybody has done things in a certain way doesn't mean they'll have to be done that way for ever. Shuffling both players cards together might be a brilliant idea or it might blow. Either way, it'll be an important step for the genre, simply because the ones coming after them will be able to work with the experience they made in that game.

Depending on who I'm discussing with, I've been on both sides of the Pay2Win/Pay2Compete discussions. Essentially, once both players have access to all cards in the game, no money in the world can buy you an advantage, so the game is essentially a pure test of skill (and some luck) at that stage. The question remains how much it costs to get there and how many players will be willing to pay it. If you've been with the game from the beginning (and are good enough at it) there might be a chance to keep up with all new cards just by playing. Anybody joining now will never be able to do so without a sizable initial investment.

The comparison to MTG is sound and that's obviously where Aggy and Yabapmatt are coming from. They iterated on a lot of the things MTG set up and build their designs on top of it. That said, it's a bit like MTG would ask you to bring an additional 8 copies of the Black Lotus so it provides you with 4 mana instead of 3.

In regards to earning vs. gaming this is certainly one of the main issues in blockchain gaming in general, a problem both created by the developers and the players. When I promote a new blockchain game one of the first questions is often going to be "how much can I earn playing it". At the same time, developers are often building their economy first and only then will they care for the actual game. In the end, this whole genre is still in it's infancy and it's a learning process for everybody invovled.

I'm a gamer first myself, have been ever since I powered up my dad's C64 more than 30 years ago. I have no issues with paying for my entertainment. At the same time, I find the prospect of a gaming world fully powered by blockchain to be extremely promising. In the end, we need to find ways that benefit all kinds of players - from the casual gamer that will never get too involved with anything to the most involved whales..

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i totally agree with you. one of the main reasons i don't play splint or other similar games is the paytoplay/earn attitude. It's ok to pay a certain amount if you want some extras but not extras that can deem who is better.

The purpose of the card games was different strategies one can use. I have seen that by paying not only you eliminate the fun of it, but you eliminate the whole "buy packs" think.

We buy the packs for a chance to find some awesome cards and sometimes these packs are bought with a lot of grinding not necessarily money. So back to the question of why a user to join splint for instance?

i wouldn't because i got no chance to do mostly anything except if i pay lots of money that i don't have. and even if i do that i will lose to somebody that paid more. They need to find the balance between "fun" "paying" and "earning".

take lol for example. a game that is solely based on skill and teamwork. Sure they have other problems like the toxic community but it's not a pay to win game for sure

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Aye, that about sums it up perfectly.
Spending money should increase the fun you have playing a game, not your chances of winning said game :-)

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The more blockchain developers realize that they don't have to have Pay2Earn elements to sell their NFTs, the sooner they realize that that's what's actually keeping them out of the mainstream market, the sooner we'll see blockchain games conquering said market.

Nailed it with this comment!

I feel that because it's early developers are going for cash grabs, and there seems to be plenty of people willing to pile funds into the scheme. None of these games are going to have mass success imo. Will this trend shift? maybe not, because we are talking about real money and people will always want to "invest" if there's an opportunity for a return.

So I think its up to game dev's to do the right thing and build a game because it's fun to play! and yes include some play to earn mechanics, but also find a good balance to gamification, and non-monetary rewards. At least move away from the more you "invest" the more you earn. That's not gaming, thats investing.

The opportunity to win a game should be based primarily on skill and strategy, not on the size of your wallet.

I don't feel this issue is entirely unique to blockchain gaming, I can remember playing D&D game Neverwinter which was tons of fun, but the running joke was "dual wield credit cards", because you could inject funds into the game and acquire the best gear which gives a massive advantage and allow you to compete a the highest levels more easily.

I guess it comes down to developers finding a balance where adding funds only gives you so much additional opportunity to play and allowing skill and strategy to provide the majority of opportunity.

Thanks for speaking on this subject, it's important that we have conversations about this current trend in blockchain gaming that ultimately IS holding the space back at this point.

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Thank you for your comment, it's half an article itself!
And I agree that's an important topic that needs to the talked about more. Like I said in the article, I really love Splinterlands, it's great, huge potential. But every addition seems to be making it more of an investment scheme and less of a game. That's a trend I'd love to see broken.

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As an active MTG player I agree 100%, blockchain gaming and play2earn is the future of gaming, especially for TCG. But I deplore the same issue which is that more often than not, your experience and success in the game are more about how much you put into the game than your real skills.

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I mean it's a bit of an issue with Magic as well, but at least there's a cap to it - you need your 60 cards + 15 card sideboard (if that's still the number, I'm out for a while now ;-)) and that's it. In the blockchain world they'd expect you to bring 10x the same card so it gets +1 attack in return or such nonsense...

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Yes you're right, it's definitely worse. To compensate that, they could probably be more generous in quest rewards. So the average player could have access to more cards and buy more packs just by playing the game. The downside would be that the cards value would be a bit lower but it would be a great incentive to actually play the game and at least everyone could have fun and be competitive.

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It's a logical model for indie devs, I mean you will likely work in a blockchain game with the idea of winning a salary and for that is way easier to fund a game like SL where you need huge investments to be on top.

Also the mechanic of MTG was like this and has been a great success in the past, I say it as a veteran player of MTG and SL. In the case of Splinterlands anybody can have interesting returns which isn't possible in mainstream games.

I'm not pissed off for loosing against a player that invested more than me, if that players uses his time for it, what pisses me off is to see bots that are rewarded without that effort.

About the team members taking big returns I also know who you are referring to and I guess that he should be more sensitive with this issue and with the feelings that other players have about it.

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both decks are shuffled together and both players then draw from the same pool of cards

That's an interesting twist. I'll be interested to see how that one pans out.

Another thing that really irks me about the current climate of crypto gaming, at least the ones I'm involved in, is the game developers taking big slices of the pie for themselves. Investing in their game is one thing but playing it at a level that puts them top of the prizes I find really off putting.

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I hear you - I know exactly what and who you are talking about it.
I find it highly irritating as well. I mean Jux is playing Rising Star because he enjoys his own game, but he's not competing, he's not in the rewards pool, his account is just outside of the competition. And that's how it should be!

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Exactly! 😊

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Every blockchain game I've played so far is 100% pay to win. This can go for a while still while the tech is fresh, but with time people will start to hate it more and more. It would be nice to have a good blockchain game where you can only purchase cosmetics which will fund the game and let the best gamer be the best. Just a dream.

I would love to purchase cosmetics with SPT for Splinterlands and earn new cards through skilled playing against real people. None of this is possible right now...

It's a great dream, though, one we share.
It might still take years, but we'll get there eventually, it's the only logical next step.

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I feel you. I hope eXode avoids this and I'm pretty sure elindos will do a great job with that. The idea of keeping things more collaborative and player versus game instead of pvp is a winner i think. I guess pvp is fun for a lot of people but at the same time if the win just comes from having deeper pockets that doesn't seem much fun for anyone anyway.

Agreed, fully trust in elindos on that matter, he has a great vision and by making the game cooperative Pay2Win no longer is an issue!

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It is crap for sure - If I see someone with more than 2M power i just surrender, there's no point playing.

I know other people do the same with me when they've got half the amount of power i have.

I dreaded that kind of behavior... only to do it myself by now.
If I get matched with someone from the top of the top and can't play my top splinters I just surrender. It's a waste of everyone's time to even pick cards. Sad but true...

Yes - if you come up across someone who knows what they are doing with even a few hundred thousand more power than you and there's an obvious winner summoner that you don't have - there is no point!

I seem to have had a reasonable season of being matched up OK this time around. Balancing out last season which was just awful.

Pretty much the same for me, although I've yet to push to Champion I which is going to be pretty annoying again I guess...

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These days I just aim to get to C2, C1 is a bonus!

Understandable... I'm grinding again. I have 3/6 strong splinters, 2 okay and 1 I just surrender with.
Sure I could up those as well but we'd talk about another few hundred bucks to do so.

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You're doing well as far as I can see - well into C1.

Did you not notice the fog of war rule in the last battle?!? Time for a break maybe!

Haha, no I didn't, sent you a DM in Discord afterwards. That was... awkward :D

The voices are getting louder. Will they be heard by the team or not? Aggy would now defend himself and talk something about communism. I hold cards worth 18k USD and I share your concerns. Am I a communist now?

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good write up. thanks :)

Thank you :-)

In theory, you'd need each and every single card at it's maximum level.

one thing i find is having too many cards to choose from is a pain - it confuses me :). Wonder if there is merit in a max cap to solve more then one challenge

Level progression (League structure) help a little in Play 2 win in splinterlands. I do not want to go big in SL, so stopped at level 5 (and gold league)and it is now quite a mix experience (as I occasionally face level 8 summoners too.) but rest are manageable.

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I agree that the idea is a good approach at first sight. The issue is, though, that often people compete in a league that they should not be in. So the top of each league under Champion is usually made up of people that should compete in a higher league than what they do.

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Yeah, Leaderboard rewards actually encouraged some to play in lower leagues.

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