Neverwinter and the Dreaded Pay-To-Win Label

Yesterday I had an interesting discussion on our brand Twitter account about Neverwinter and pay-to-win. It’s an evergreen. It seems like every game is trying to avoid the dreaded label, but how many actually succeed? In the exchange, I reasoned that Neverwinter is pay-to-win while others settled for a less harmful term like pay-to-accelerate or pay-to-loot. I continued to think about it and eventually decided to pick the topic up for today’s blog post.

What Is Pay-To-Win

First of all let’s clear up with the major misconception that pay-to-win actually means buying power. It does not. MMOs have long moved past that type of monetization and settled for more subtile ways of getting player money. Today pay-to-win essentially means gating progression behind microtransactions. That can be power, but doesn’t have to.

Neverwinter does that. The ZEN store offers a lot of mandatory items that are required to progress. Without real money spend, the game would break.

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Unlock by Gameplay

One gimmick the NW devs usually use to avoid pay-to-win discussions is that you can unlock all features by gameplay. That’s absolutely true for the story and all content. But not for the progression. While you can get ZEN by farming and trading the ingame currency Astral Diamonds on the player-driven exchange, it’s not that easy. You don’t actually get ZEN items by gameplay, someone else pays for it. And conceptually that’s a major difference.

A small amount of whales paying for the vast majority of playerbase is not bad in itself however. In an extensive Twitter thread, former Star Wars: The Old Republic lead systems designer Damion Schubert rightfully mentioned that it’s a core component of why the free-to-play model works (info taken from MassivelyOP). He however also said that systems fail that make spending mandatory. Instead you should sell items players do actively want to pay for, because they are “perceived as fair”.



The other argument that’s constantly thrown at pay-to-win accusations is that Neverwinter is actually pay-to-accelerate. Yes, spending money only makes you get somewhere faster, all stuff you need drops somewhere in the game. But what if the chance and/or quantity is so small that you literally need years to complete progression? Is that going to cut it? I don’t think so, progression that’s called free-to-play should be reasonable. In Neverwinter, the RP economy is driven by enchantments and runestones that drop from lockboxes. Without them, upgrading would be much more cruel. And what about Wards? They drop, but they actually don’t.

Let’s Do a Thought Experiment

Here’s where I’d like to invite you to a little thought experiment. If Neverwinter was truly free-to-play in terms of progression, everything should be possible to achieve with zero money spend not only by individuals, but by the whole population. I know it’s not realistic, because no money means no game, but let’s go forward with it for a second.

So no money at all means no VIP for anyone, no lockbox keys, no ZEN items. In such a “f2p” environment, think about how progression would look. Players would have trouble getting enough RP and then be forced to beat those 5%/3%/1% upgrade chances largely without Wards. You would not be able to end progression in any reasonable time. Not to mention that there are dozens of gameplay relevant “lockbox” exclusive items. This is what makes spending in Neverwinter mandatory, and is why the game essentially features a pay-to-win monetization model.

Backlog a Symptom?

That being said, it’s not like we should condemn the game now. But I also find it silly to work around the fact that Neverwinter is pay-to-win by inventing new terms or state that you can earn everything by gameplay when it’s clearly not the case. If it was, we wouldn’t have a massive ZAX backlog before any major expansion or sale on PC. And make no mistake, the war on lootboxes has already begun, as the most recent Battlefront 2 example shows. The perception is changing quick, and it’s an argument studios can’t win long-term.

Systems in which players think they have to pay are bound to fail. On the contrary, if people feel something is fair, they are going to buy it. It’s no coincidence that the most successful titles feature microtransactions based around cosmetics and not gameplay or progression. Instead of trying to avoid the dreaded pay-to-win label, shouldn’t you actually not make games pay-to-win?

What’s your answer to that question? Do you think pay-to-whatever is bound to fail longterm or is the system still going strong? And what about the dreaded pay-to-win label and Neverwinter? Share your thoughts in the comments below and visit the corresponding thread on our message board!

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j0Shi plays the Neverwinter MMORPG since the open BETA in 2013 and is a regular contributor to the blog and the whole UN:Project. Originally a Guardian Fighter, he has built up ALTs of all classes and plays on BIS/near-BIS level.

15 thoughts on “Neverwinter and the Dreaded Pay-To-Win Label

  • November 16, 2017 at 8:12 am

    Removing the ZAX is nonsensical because NW is a f2p game that relies on the zax exchange to be f2p to free-to-play players. NW PR announced the game was entirely free to win everything in-game by playing because they were confident enough of they quality of their game that would make the ZAX flow. Today, it might take weeks to buy ZEN with AD on PC but the model still works.

    If in the thought experiment the ZAX is removed, we can not consider the statement that NW a free-to-play game for f2p players any more to be true as a direct consequence. The NW f2p model is entirely based on ZAX, if you remove that might as well redo the whole business model.

    • November 16, 2017 at 1:19 pm

      Thanks, interesting perspective. I don’t think we contradict each other too much. Removing the ZAX and redoing the business model is actually what I’d actually like to see. I do disagree however that a free to play model can be based on something like a ZAX. It’s pay-to-win in that case. It’s a clever setup, but in the end someone always has to pay for progression.

  • November 16, 2017 at 12:38 pm

    Path of Exile is a very nice (free) game, in which I feel the microtransactions are purely optional and very non-intrusive.

    Still I bought some packs and tabs just because I wanted to support the developer, I really hope it does well on Xbox in the future.

    • November 16, 2017 at 1:19 pm

      PoE pops up a lot in discussions about free-to-play done right.

  • November 16, 2017 at 1:09 pm

    I actually view NW as a tiered-model game system that blends the systems:
    Tier 1 (truly f2p) – anyone who doesn’t use the ZAX system (e.g., new players, players who play casually, don’t have high-end enchants, are not VIP).
    Tier 2 (pay-to-accelerate players) – people who use ZAX, but don’t invest real currency. Typically they have VIP, work to excel, do daily AD grinds, have good, if not the best, enchants/gear usually after it has been out for a while.
    Tier 3 (pay-to-win players) – people who buy and sell Zen with real currency. Typically they have VIP and have the best gear immediately or soon after release.

    My general impression is that the bulk of the population falls into Tier 1 and Tier 2. Some of the recent changes (i.e., Random Queue) appear to try to shift more Tier 1 to Tier 2. Tier 2 feed the AD profits of Tier 3, who pay for the actual game development. The game fails if there are no Tier 3. The game has appeal because you can play as a Tier 1 with no negative repercussions other than not ever approaching BIS and possibly not participating in the current end-game content.

    Sadly, the Zen store doesn’t have all that many attractive items for purchase outside VIP, keys, storage (e.g., bags and bank space), mounts (which is not really a repeat category after you buy 1), FotM Companions (usually whatever is linked to the current expansion), and maybe a few of the packs (Dragonborn being popular for contents and race unlock). Most of the remaining Zen store is either poorly priced, just poor quality, or a trap for the economically stupid. They desperately need to do an overhaul of the Zen store if they want to generate more Tier 3 players/Zen store sales, particularly if lockbox-key sale model is ever challenged in the future. The companion token bundle is one example of a squandered opportunity as economically it makes no sense to buy as your return-on-investment is worse that just paying directly for an upgrade (of any quality – it’s a trap for the economically stupid).

    • November 16, 2017 at 1:22 pm

      True. My arguments only work if you consider the progression from R1 to R14, so to speak. If you’re fine with Rank 8s this game is as free to play as it gets.

  • November 16, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    Well in neverwinter I can grind for AD without limit using the market, then with the zen i can buy everything off the market. That might be pay-to-win, but as long as others pay for it and I am not forced to it, then I’m fine with it.

    I am not fine with cosmetic microtransactions, as you call it. Just 2 examples for the games i played the most:

    destiny 1, we had events where you were handled 2 maybe 3 free boxes. Those boxes contain all the cool things from the event, so if you were lucky you might grab something interesting. But that was it. There was no way in game of grinding for more boxes, you couldn’t exchange anything with other players cause there was no trade at all.

    Warframe, I was in love with that game, I still login for the daily stuff incase I want to play again someday. The trade was great, you could farm stuff and sell to other player for the premium currency. It was really easy,no complaints on that. But with every major update, there was a “pack”. With a bunch of useless stuff (for me at least) and a really cool looking armor. Exclusive, untradable and you can’t get it anywhere else. Those packs were 70€ each…

    That what is frustrating to me, the unobtainable things. This game has a lot of very expensive things, I agree, but at least you know you are making progress towards it.

    Sorry for any mistake, english is not my native language. And congrats on the blog, tons of info and interesting stuff.

  • November 17, 2017 at 5:36 am

    One of the ways the game may defend itself from the true pay-to-win label is that they cap the ZAX exchange rate. If they removed the 500 AD/Zen price limit, it would be closer to a pay-to-win label as the value of Zen (at least on PC) would skyrocket (over 12 million backlog atm indicating a high demand, which is common right before an anticipated sales event like Black Friday). I’m personally surprised they haven’t raised the cap as a way to offset the value of AD to push more Zen-currency sales, though that may deter incoming f2p players from even considering the system. Such a change would be wildly unpopular after the most recent changes and they might not be willing to risk the potential loss in participation, but it may be something they consider down the road.

    • November 17, 2017 at 8:06 am

      The exchange cap is an excellent counterpoint. Thanks!

  • November 17, 2017 at 7:29 am

    ..disagree.. The Zax takes it back from being p2w while still enabling them to put convenience, progression, and refinment roadblocks that you mention in the Zen store, or even the tarmalune store. Tarmalunes are an extra roadblock for free players as they have to zen purchase keys or VIP to have access to them.

    The zax is not unique, but it is rare. Knocking that out of the game would kill off yet another sub-section of players. There is no reworking of the business model that would provide the convenience and accessibility of an AD to Zen conversion.

    • November 17, 2017 at 8:09 am

      People seem to have trouble separating the concepts and continue to come back to the ZAX as integral “free-to-play” element. If you’re saying that free-to-play is that you can unlock everything without spending a dime, then Neverwinter is free-to-play, and the ZAX a big part of why the system works. I absolutely agree here. But that also means you’re generally good with gating progression behind real money, and with systems like the one Star Wars: Battlefront II for example uses, which just takes the concept of gating progression behind microtransactions one step further.

      My approach is different. I’m saying free-to-play to me is not gating any progression behind the ZEN store. Then Neverwinter is definitely pay-to-win, even if someone else is paying the progression for you. In that case, the ZAX is only masking the issue, because it makes players believe that they can earn progression by gameplay when they clearly cannot.

  • November 17, 2017 at 7:38 am

    There is another factor not directly exposed in your article, even though it could be put under the general framework of ‘subtler means’. It is my hypothesis that loot RNG if not refinement RNG is not truly random but has at least a variable related to zen purchased.

    Studies of my guild have led to solidifying this belief over time. We have people in our guild that have never spent real $, people like myself that have spent occasionally usually at a sale, and those who spend massively. Of the latter we’re talking hundreds a month and more than a thousand USD at sales times.

    Ive seen 2 of the high payers refine armor/weapon enchants for 3 or fewer preservation wards, 5 documented times. No one else in our guild of the other categories has managed this. One of the mid payers has managed 1 on 30 tries. ..and we do a similar amount of upgrading, so it isn’t an opportunity mismatch.

    Theres a group of 2 high payers and 3 mid payers, or 2 highs 2 mids and 1 free that have taken to doing CN since its first days. We’ve done it hundreds of times. Since I started documenting, nearly 500 times, which is 2500 chances for the team overall. Within that 12 shards of orcus and 5 orange rings have gone to the high payers. 1 shard of orcus and 0 orange rings have gone to the other players.

    Yes these are anecdotes.. but as the numbers grow larger it begins to come clear that RNG is in actuality missing a significant amount of ‘R’.

  • November 17, 2017 at 9:21 am

    You sum up nicely the category of players, I couldn’t agree more with the 3 tiers.

  • November 17, 2017 at 9:27 am

    Yes, I noticed and have thought the same: I pretty much repeat what you said in the post :p Btw, I not only mean the ZAX but also the ability to sell ZEN items in the AH.

    I don’t know if it’s the best business model of character progression to an mmorpg for the players and for the publisher….

  • November 17, 2017 at 10:15 am

    Oops, I was wanting to reply to different comments each time. Clicked the wrong reply button, my bad.

    About the high/mid payers and CN runs, it could also mean that the high payers were the ones that contributed the most to the successful completion of the dungeon by the game’s parameters hence the better rewards. These will only be suppositions as we, the players, will never know the algorithm and factors involved of RNG-rewards.

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