I play a lot of League of Legends and DotA 2 and I’ve played some Warframe. The stark difference I noticed between the former two and the latter, apart from gameplay of course, is the currency system and how it comes into play in the games. In League and DotA, you have the option of spending real money to buy skins (alternative character models for your “champions” or “heroes” respectively), things that don’t alter your gameplay at all. WoW allows you to spend real money to buy a lot of other stuff too, stuff that makes you a lot stronger in the game without actually having to play it at all (by that I mean the best gear). This makes it a pay-to-win game whereas the other two aren’t.
I’m all down for spending real money in a game, especially when it’s free because otherwise the company won’t make any profit from it. However, these purchases should be purely cosmetic. Hear me out – Imagine you’re playing a multiplayer game, and you’ve sunk in 60 hours into the game, farming items, leveling up and getting stronger. You suddenly run into a new player and get into a fight with him; you expect to beat him harder than ManCity beat ManU last season. However, things turn out to be quite the contrary as you’re beaten in seconds and left on the ground as the apparently new player loots your body. You find out that this guy had spent a lump of cash buying the best items and a ton of XP instead of having to work for them. If this player hadn’t done that, you would have beaten him hollow, but he did and you’re left angry, frustrated and disappointed. It’s these types if problems that micro-transactions can create. Then again that needn’t be the case – in League or DotA, it all comes down to your individual skill. No amount of money that you pour into the games will help you win against a superior player. Both these games are absolutely free and you can keep playing them without spending a penny on them, but as previously stated, they do allow you to spend money on them. However these are limited to skins, huds, etc. There is no way on earth that the new Katarina skin that you just spent $10 on is going to help you defeat your enemy, unless of course your enemy gets too distracted by its beauty.
The point is you can’t buy progress or skill in such games. I really don’t see the fun in using an end-game item that you just bought using your hard-earned dough to one-shot enemies in the first level. Maybe it would be entertaining for the first few minutes but then the novelty of it would wear off and the game just wouldn’t seem challenging any more. (Imagine spending money on getting your Borderlands 2 character to level 72, let’s say, and buying a similarly leveled SMG and insta-gibbing enemy bosses when your story missions themselves are level 8. Boring!) Micro-transactions are a boon and a curse. I’d love to spend some cash on some new clothes for Vayne especially now that I’ve learnt her so well (she deserves an upgrade from her plastic shades to some Ray Bans, wouldn’t you say?) and micro-transactions allow such a thing. A game world should be fair (as some are), but a lot aren’t and I guess that they’re just mirroring the real world – you may deserve that promotion more than anyone else but someone else gets it because his father has powerful friends in high places; similarly, you may have deserved to win the fight against that new player, but he was just more free to spend lots of cash on the game than you. It seems that even in certain games, money seems to be the distinguishing criteria.
Games really need to step away from this and maybe some sort of equality will be established. I personally hate being beaten by a twelve-year-old kid with almost no skill but lots of cash, and then being called a “noob”/”scrub” by him. Well, if more games follow the example of League and DotA, then the incident I just described can be stopped (though you might still be beaten by a twelve-year-old, but this time it’ll actually be merited to his skills). Note: I only discussed a few games here, but there are tons of games out there who follow both philosophies. I feel that the best examples of pay-to-win games are the mobile games.