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Conquest In Pay To Win Land

Given my decision to take a break from Sims 3 for awhile, I found myself once again spinning my wheels on a certain fandom's forums, partly due to pending drama of said fandom and partly due to just plain not particularly caring to play anything.     Of course, after a couple days of forum-going, it was clear to me (once again) that just about anything else I could do would be more productive, even if that involves playing a game.

So I played a bit of Crawl and became slightly better at it thanks to reading a strategy guide that suggested something the game doesn't bother to tell you: when starting, turn off all skill gain except for your most important killing method for awhile.  That definitely boosts a character's chances of survival, albeit in a game created to block the most prevalent exploits in a formula designed to fiendishly kill you in a wide variety in procedurally generated manners.

For the greater bulk of "well invested" time, however, I played Planetside 2.  Me, my brother, and a friend of mine are all enjoying the present-day free-to-play massively multiplayer first person shooter that is this.  But it's a tough love, for a few very poignant reasons.

Major Problem #1: "Pay To Win" Syndrome

This is probably a matter of some debate amongst Planetside 2 players, but I feel that the game gives far too much advantage to players who are willing to shell out real money to play it versus the free to play players.  How the problem manifests is thus:
  1. Of the six classes and many vehicles the player is directed to drive, each will have a starting default weapon.  That starting weapon is a generic weapon intended to be useful in most situations but, by virtue of not being a specialist weapon, will be outperformed by specialist weapons in specific situations.
  2. If you obtain a specialist weapon, you will have the upper hand in a specific situation of your choice.  For example, if you buy an SMG, you will likely win fights at close range versus people using the default.  If you buy a battle rifle, you will likely win fights at longer ranges versus people using the default.
  3. It's not too hard to simply pick your fights based off of what you are specialized to win.  Consequently, people who pay to obtain these weapons will be able to choose fights that they are able to win the majority of the time.  People who do not obtain these weapons have to rough any fight they face and hope they're able to overcome a better equipped enemy.  
  4. Skill can overcome a difference in equipment.  However, in a scenario of players of roughly equal skill, the player with the most specialized weapon will have the upper hand.  
My argument is self evident in the respect that, if you have the best equipment for the job, you will have the best equipment for the job.  Until you have unlocked the best equipment for the job, you just have a starting weapon, which was chosen to be an all-rounder weapon, not best at any one job.  Once you have the best equipment for the job, you will be able to seek out the jobs that suit you.  The only way in which this argument fails is that sometimes, the battles come to you, and having equipment specialized to do the wrong job can be a disadvantage, however I think that this is not much of an issue due to the ready-availability of equipment terminals in the game.

It's somewhat more pronounced in the case of MAX.  There's three kinds of MAX guns: anti-personnel, anti-vehicle, and anti-air.  Starting MAX get one of each kind, an anti-personnel gun unlocked for their left arm and the anti-air or anti-vehicular gun on the right arm.  However, a fully-specialized max would have both arms specialized for the appropriate task so it can open fire with both at the appropriate target.  Consequently, a starting MAX is only half-armed.
This guide wasn't created to show off how ridiculous of an advantage you
will have if you pay for content in Planetside 2, but it nonetheless gets the job done
if you've ever tried using a Lightning without the benefit of an specialized gun or if
you've never seen just how powerful
infrared attachment is at spotting enemies.

Now, it should be pointed out, rightfully, that you have the option to buy weapons with the "certification" points you earn through play instead of "station cash" (the currency you can buy with real money from SOE).  However weapons are among the most expensive certification point investments in Planetside 2, and will run 250-1000 certification points to unlock a new weapon.  In fact, the greater bulk of the weapons cost 1,000 certification points, and only a one or two from each class of weapon discounted in certification cost.

I assert that most players will want to upgrade the weapons on a single ground vehicle, aircraft, MAX, and infantry class.  This is because it is an optimal use of resource points, although the MAX is optional and shares the infantry point tally.   My weapons of choice are a skyguard cannon for a Lightning ground vehicle, a secondary weapon for a Mosquito aircraft, two longer-ranged anti-infantry weapons for my MAX, and a battle rifle for my Engineer class.  I want to unlock five weapons.

Because I am not a subscriber, nor do I use boosters, I earn about 20 certification points an hour.  I probably do about average, but you might be able to do better with certain tactics.  A friend of mine is a subscriber and calculated he earns 36.73 per hour, and that's with a 90% subscriber boost (+45% experience and +45% passive certification gain), so it could be I'm estimating a little more optimistic than I should be.  Lets just say 20 certification points/hour is accurate, which means I would have to play 50 hours straight to get the 1,000 certification points needed to unlock one weapon.

Only once you have unlocked a weapon can you then purchase the "attachments" that make that weapon even more effective.  Purchasing attachments for your starting weapon is a comparative waste of certification points because chances are you're not going to use that weapon anymore once you specialize and your attachments do not transfer over.    

You can only unlock attachments for weapons with "certification" points, Station Cash is not an option.  This purportedly is done to even the battleground between free to play players and paid players, but it has the opposite effect.

Here's how.  First, I don't want to grind for 250 hours to unlock all the weapons I need, that's just not reasonable to me.  However, lets stay that I consider doing so anyway.   Because the means in which I would unlock the weapons would involve spending the very same "certification points" I need to unlock the attachment for my weapons, it seems like a better idea to just use Station Cash to unlock the weapons and then the certification points I saved in order to unlock the attachments for the weapons.   

Lets put this all together.
  • I need to unlock weapons to compete fairly by having the freedom to choose battles I am good at.
  • I earn 20 certification points per hour of play.  Each weapon costs 1,000 certs (though there are exceptions).  I need to play 50 hours to unlock each weapon.
  • I need to unlock 5 weapons.  I do not feel it is reasonable to grind 250 hours to unlock my weapons.
  • I also do not feel it is reasonable to spend the same points I would spend unlocking my weapon attachments on unlocking my weapons when there is a paid option available, because then I would just have to grind even more.
The conclusion is that, in order to compete fairly, I must buy Station Cash to unlock my weapons so I will not be penalized to spend my certification points to unlock the attachments I need for those weapons (and other things certification points can be spent on that Station Cash cannot).  Thus, the game has become "pay to win."  If the greater majority of players feel the same way I do, then Planetside 2 will have earned a "pay to win" reputation.
Things haven't changed much since Angry Joe was lambasting the game's ridiculous 1,000 cert cost for weapons.
Pay to win scenarios are a serious problem for "free to play" games because nobody likes feeling like a second hand citizen.  You vitally need people who will never drop a dime on the game in order to encourage the bandwagon effect on a F2P game that increases its population into the millions.  Since individuals who never drop a dime on the game are going to feel like they're facing an inherent disadvantage, they're going to quit and never come back.

If previous F2P games that have been successful can be determined to have a good model, the solution is to remove anything that can be unlocked with certification points from being directly purchased with Station Cash.  This leaves Station Cash as only good for buying boosts and cosmetic things, which is what most F2P games do.  However, it also makes it painfully obvious that the weapons are way overpriced, so a hasty revamp of weapon unlocking methodology would be necessary as well, one that either dramatically decreases the cost of weapons or causes them to unlock from a method other than certification expenditure.

Major Problem #2: The Haphazardly Balanced Player Population

If you're developing a massively multiplayer game, logistics of how to handle two thousand players on a map should largely factor into your game design.  To a great extent, some effort has been spent to try to make a cohesive experience out of Planetside 2.  However, there's ample evidence that the Planetside 2 developers really have no idea how to handle the most fundamental of open world PvP population problems.

Basically, open world PvP has a natural tendency to become a popularity contest.  The faction who has the most players is going have a numerical advantage.  Another self-evident assertion.  However, you really can not predict who is going to have a numerical advantage at any given time: wait a few hours, some people log out, others log on, and now the faction who has the upper hand may have changed.

On individual servers, there's going to be an upper hand of population to one faction the majority of the time.  Just take a look at how things turned out on Warhammer Online: there were servers where either Destruction or Order had won, and were basically unbeatable, because players on the opposite faction were at first outnumbered and then simply stopped playing because they were tired of being beaten all the time.  On that note, the Planetside 2 faction population imbalance problem only gets worse when weak-willed people get sick of losing and start defecting to the winning faction.

People defecting just to win a game is a problem, participants need to be encouraged to fight fairly, this is game design 101.   Historically, it is difficult to do in an online Open PVP Environment, which has a history of devolving into a popularity contest by default unless working measures are implemented.

To my knowledge, the current methods being employed to encourage a fair fight in Planetside 2 are a population cap per continent and an experience bonus to sides with a numerical disadvantage.   However, the population is not high enough for the population cap to matter and the experience adjustment for population is not severe enough for enough players to care to try to balance things out.  So the current design fails to get players to fight fairly, and the open world PvP remains a popularity contest.

One thing the Planetside 2 developers could try is to create far more powerful incentives for players to be encouraged to fight fairly, like making it so you make next to zero experience points if your faction has a massive population advantage.  However, many players would not enjoy making no experience because a bunch of turncoats showed up the hog the glory.   A more comprehensive solution would involve revamp the game balance so that factions which are undermanned are given a power advantage to make the fight fair.  For example, if you are playing a faction that is outnumbered 2 to 1 by another faction, your ammunition is rebalanced to do double damage against the members of that faction.  These are two of the more basic solutions in open world PvP balance balancing, and each may be found to have unique disadvantages and challenges to balance.

Yet, this is only part of the population problem Planetside 2 has.  The other problem is that there are three active continents.  The introduction of more continents has already been announced, and will likely make the problems this causes even worse.

If the players were evenly balanced between the continents, this would not be a problem, but that is not the reality.  Instead, most people looking for a big fight go on the "big fight" continent.  People who are either less informed or have some other reason (such as wanting a change of scenery) end up on the less populated continents.  It causes the same population imbalance problem as above, but heightened to a greater severity because the relative imbalance of players of differing factions is much more likely greater on the continents with less players.  This is partly because the overflow of a faction hitting the population cap on another region will likely find itself there.

On some servers of very low population, even the higher population map feels lacking in population, and that would be less of a problem if there were not people diverted off to the other two maps.

An immediate solution is probably going to happen soon: continent locking, where only certain continents are accessible to players at a given time.  This is a good mechanic in that it forces players to diversify their environment a bit instead of just playing on the same old continent all the time.  However, it is not a perfect solution in that many players may want the freedom to choose which continent they can play on.  Something much more elaborate would be needed to improve this solution and mitigate the downside, but these solutions are not without risks of their own.

The Only Game In Town

Planetside 2 does have the advantage of being one of the few massively multiplayer first person shooters in existence, and the only one to be all that popularized.  This does give the developers some margin of error.  However, even that may not save them if they provide a lackluster, unbalanced experience, both in terms of being "pay to win" and in terms of having population issues.

Population should never decrease on a F2P game, these games run on a bandwagon affect to assure that there's always adequate new players to replace the old.   Based off of a subjective observation of what I see in Planetside 2 when I play it, the population is decreasing.  That would mean that Planetside 2 is failing, especially when they're the only game of their kind, as you can't very well blame the competition.  They're blowing the opportunity of a monopoly.

At the time of this writing, I'm waiting for a Station Cash sale.  I know I want to unlock those five weapons, and I know I don't want to waste my precious certifications to do it.  Currently, it could cost me $50, barring sales they may be holding.  I would rather it cost $25, and I know that sooner or later they're bound to have a half-off Station Cash sale again.

On a somewhat related note, I have a 3D Vision 2 kit coming in the mail, and it would be nice if the Planetside 2 developers would prioritize making the game 3D Vision Ready like they told NVIDIA it would be.  I hear Hawken is 3D vision ready, and it may well end up getting my F2P bucks for this reason alone.

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