Navigating the Pay-to-Win Debate: Insights from IdleMMO

Since the public release of IdleMMO two weeks ago, I’ve frequently addressed questions about its monetisation strategy. Recognising that not everyone is aware of our previous discussions, I believe it’s important to clearly articulate the rationale, process, and broader context of IdleMMO’s monetisation approach. This will also help in assessing whether the game can be considered pay-to-win.

Before delving into the details, I want to clarify that this post is not an attempt to defend or justify any imbalances in the game, nor is it aimed at swaying opinions in our favour. Instead, my goal is to provide a fair, balanced, and unbiased analysis of what I refer to as ‘the pay-to-win conundrum’.

Defining Pay-to-Win

Before proceeding, it’s important to define ‘pay-to-win,’ a concept we have given considerable thought. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as:

in computer games, involving or relating to the practice of paying to get weapons, abilities, etc. that give you an advantage over players who do not spend money

While accurate, this definition is broad and overlooks the nuances of gaming contexts. For example, a two-tiered subscription model like ‘Old School RuneScape,’ with both free and paid tiers, could be labelled ‘pay-to-win’ under this definition. Yet, this overlooks its balanced monetisation, especially when contrasted with the more aggressive pay-to-win models prevalent in mobile gaming. It’s important to note that I’m not categorising ‘Old School RuneScape’ as definitively pay-to-win or not, as I haven’t played it extensively enough to make that call. However, this example illustrates that the term ‘pay-to-win,’ while technically applicable to RuneScape due to its membership advantages, doesn’t quite capture the full picture of its monetisation approach, particularly in the broader context of the gaming industry.

The core challenge with the ‘pay-to-win’ concept is its inherent subjectivity; it defies a one-size-fits-all definition. In a recent survey we conducted to gauge perceptions of the ‘pay-to-win’ model, participants’ definitions of the term varied widely. Some argued that if a game has little or no definitive ‘winning’ outcome, it cannot be considered pay-to-win. In contrast, others adhered more closely to the strict definition, suggesting that any game offering microtransactions for non-cosmetic items qualifies as pay-to-win. This diversity in viewpoints underscores the difficulty in pinning down a universal definition for pay-to-win. The term’s breadth implies that, in theory, most games could fall under the pay-to-win umbrella, rendering the phrase nearly meaningless.

Taking ‘Old School RuneScape’ as our case study, the debate around its use of bonds illustrates the complexity of the ‘pay-to-win’ concept. A simple Google search reveals divided opinions: some argue that purchasing gold with real money creates an inherent imbalance. Yet, if we consider the bigger picture, buying gold doesn’t guarantee rapid character progression—significant time investment is still a prerequisite for any substantial advancement. This survey highlighted a significant distinction: the concept of ‘pay-to-progress-faster.’ While it’s related to ‘pay-to-win,’ it represents a separate idea within the same general framework. It’s evident that players who invest both time and money will progress faster than those who spend the same amount of time but no money. Whether this is fair or detrimental is subjective and depends on the context—does the progress of others truly impact your own? I remain undecided on this matter, as I understand the validity of both perspectives.

My intent is not to sway you towards a particular viewpoint on the ‘pay-to-win’ debate. Instead, I aim to highlight the complexities associated with the casual use of the term. A deeper examination might lead to the recognition that labelling a game as ‘pay-to-win’ is a subjective judgment that can obscure the merits of a game’s monetization strategy, which may in fact be quite fair and thoughtfully designed. This is compounded by the vast spectrum of individual opinions on a matter as subjective as this.

Considering the broader context

I’ve previously mentioned the importance of considering the broader context when evaluating monetization strategies. This is a pivotal reason why many do not regard ‘Runescape’ as a ‘pay-to-win’ game, despite the option to purchase gold directly. It’s within this context that ‘IdleMMO’ enters the discussion.

Monetisation Models

While developing IdleMMO, we evaluated various monetisation models, from energy systems to a cosmetics-only approach. Initially, we adopted a membership model similar to ‘Old-School Runescape’, restricting certain game areas to members. Yet, we soon recognised that this approach inadvertently marginalised our free players, who are essential to the game’s success. In fact, for an independent studio like ours, free players are just as crucial as paying ones.

Recognising that ‘Runescape’ may not face this challenge due to its established popularity, we shifted our strategy. We introduced a subscription model that offers slight in-game boosts and cosmetic enhancements while granting full access to free players. This change was meticulously considered and aligns with our commitment—outlined in our development blog posts—to develop a fair and sustainable monetisation system that respects both free and paying players. Adjusting our membership benefits was a key step in honouring that commitment.

We’re still deliberating over the membership benefits in IdleMMO, specifically the modest boosts to experience and skill efficiency. We’ve deliberately tuned these perks to be subtle to avoid a significant divide between paying and non-paying players. Our goal is to strike a delicate balance: we don’t want to devalue the subscription to the point where it’s not worth the investment, nor do we want to enhance it so much that it creates the disparity we sought to avoid by moving away from a ‘Runescape’-like model. Feedback from our survey indicates that most players are indifferent to these minor boosts, viewing them as ‘the lesser of all evils’ in game monetisation.

Pay-to-Win Claims

Despite our meticulous efforts to ensure balance in IdleMMO, we’ve encountered claims that the game is ‘pay-to-win.’ This could stem from an oversight of the broader context or a lack of consideration for any alternative models (which I’ll address shortly). To be clear, as stated at the outset, this blog post is not intended to covertly influence your stance in our favour. Its primary purpose is to provide a comprehensive understanding of the context in which monetisation occurs, enabling you to make an informed judgment about whether IdleMMO—or any game—qualifies as ‘pay-to-win’.

In the case of IdleMMO, the ‘pay-to-win’ concerns don’t stem from the subscription model itself, which has seen minimal criticism. Rather, they centre on the feature that allows players to sell membership subscriptions to other players for in-game gold. I acknowledge the logic behind these concerns: the capability to effectively ‘purchase’ gold with real money naturally raises balance considerations. Yet, it’s equally vital to consider the role and value of gold within the game’s economy to fully grasp the implications of this feature.

In designing IdleMMO, we’ve emphasised active participation by rewarding players who consistently engage with the game over those who log in sporadically. That’s why we’ve capped idle time at 2 hours, rejecting the 24-hour ‘set and forget’ model used by some competitors. It’s essential to recognise that gold alone doesn’t equate to rapid progression; dedicated time and effort are paramount. In essence, irrespective of the gold accumulated, it pales in comparison to the benefits gained from actively resetting skills every 2 hours. Time is king in IdleMMO. This principle mirrors the general sentiment regarding ‘Runescape’ bonds—they’re not seen as pay-to-win because, despite the gold they provide, time investment is crucial for real advancement.

In gaming, when players invest both time and money, it inevitably introduces some level of imbalance. The critical question is whether this imbalance matters. The term ‘pay-to-win’ often surfaces in this context, suggesting that monetary investment leads to an unfair advantage. While some argue that without a defined ‘winning’ state there’s no issue, I personally remain sceptical. A game might still foster a ‘pay-to-win’ environment even if winning isn’t clearly defined.

A key consideration is whether another player’s accelerated progress due to financial investment impacts your gaming experience. This can be subtle, as advantages gained through paid mechanisms might indirectly influence your gameplay, something you may not notice until it’s too late. It’s essential to ask yourself, ‘Does a system that allows others to advance more quickly affect or diminish my own personal progress in the game?’

The subjective nature of gaming means the answer varies. For competitive players focused on leaderboards, the answer may be a definitive ‘yes,’ whereas, for others less concerned with rankings, the impact may be negligible. If the former is true, then pondering over alternatives becomes necessary. What viable options exist that respect different players’ circumstances and priorities without compromising the game’s integrity?

Alternative Monetisation Models

Reflecting on current monetisation models from every perspective to identify a superior option might lead you to realise that there may not be any other appropriate methods to apply. Alternatively, if you can conceive a more effective approach, that’s even more welcome! We have unequivocally stated our objective: to create a game that is both sustainable and balanced. Should you suggest a feasible substitute, we are eager to consider it.

Before proposing your idea, it’s important to review the most commonly suggested alternatives and understand why they fall short of meeting our needs.

One-time purchase

Adopting a one-time purchase model for IdleMMO isn’t feasible from a financial standpoint. The extensive costs associated with maintaining an online-only game make this approach impractical, as it would shift our business focus from maintaining a loyal player base to constantly seeking new players to sustain the game.

It’s important to acknowledge that while this model works for some games, it doesn’t align with our operational realities. IdleMMO relies on a server-based technology stack, meaning the game’s processes, with the exception of the user interface, are not handled on the user’s device. This server reliance increases our operational costs substantially. When our mobile apps launch, their small size (potentially under 5MB) won’t mitigate these costs, unlike games that run locally and hence, demand less from their servers.

In summary, the server-dependent design of IdleMMO and the associated ongoing costs, such as administration, salaries, and maintenance, render a one-time purchase model unsustainable for us.

Relying entirely on cosmetics

An exclusive reliance on cosmetic sales for revenue is fraught with challenges. Firstly, not all players are inclined to spend real money on in-game cosmetics; this is a sentiment I share and notice widely among players. While some major games thrive on cosmetic sales due to their massive player bases, the math doesn’t work as well for smaller games. For instance, a blockbuster game with 20 million MAU (monthly active users) could generate $400,000 from a single $20 skin if just 0.1% of its players purchase it. In contrast, a smaller yet popular game with 10,000 MAU players would make a mere $200 from the same percentage of purchases, which is insufficient to sustain the game’s financial needs even short-term.

Additionally, there’s the cost of employing artists dedicated to creating these cosmetics, which further eats into potential profits. Plus, the administrative efforts to manage these processes are significant. The viability of cosmetic-based monetisation scales with the size of the game’s active user base and requires careful balancing to ensure sustainability.

The nuances of allowing subscriptions to be traded

The issue at hand can be distilled to a single core problem: selling membership items for in-game currency allows players to effectively purchase gold with real money. While the fix might seem straightforward – simply prohibit the trade of membership items for in-game gold – this approach is flawed and could exacerbate the issue.

Our aim is to establish a system that is financially sound for us and fair for all players. Removing the option to buy memberships on the market could disenfranchise a significant portion of the player base who rely on in-game gold to purchase their subscriptions, ensuring the game remains accessible regardless of real-world financial status. Currently, over one-third of our members have obtained their subscription this way, without spending real money.

The dilemma presents us with two paths:

  • Ban the market sale of memberships, which could widen the gap between free and paying players, as only those with the financial means could afford membership.
  • Maintain the market sale of memberships, allowing players to use in-game gold for purchase. This runs the risk of a minority accumulating substantial gold wealth.

To me, the choice is clear. Restricting membership to those who can pay with real money, just to prevent a few from amassing in-game wealth, seems unjust and inconsiderate.

Placing a Cap on Subscription Sales per Individual

While I’m not an expert in economics, placing a limit on the number of subscriptions each person can sell might not be effective, and could potentially do more harm than good. Market prices are driven by demand—basic supply and demand principles. Making memberships scarcer could significantly boost their demand, allowing sellers to command even higher prices and earn more in-game gold, thereby exacerbating the issue at hand.

Setting a Maximum Listing Price for Memberships

Implementing a cap on the listing price of memberships is not a practical solution. Given the market’s volatility, especially in the early stages of the game’s life and before it stabilises, setting a fair price that balances profit for the seller and minimises inherent disparities is nearly impossible. Additionally, imposing such a restriction could significantly deter players from selling memberships.


Is IdleMMO “pay-to-win”? Ultimately, that’s for you to decide. The aim of this blog post is to equip you with a deeper understanding to inform your judgement on whether IdleMMO, or any game, fits the “pay-to-win” category, by examining the nuances of the term within the game’s specific context. Additionally, this post serves a practical purpose: to provide a reference we can share in response to recurring “pay-to-win” claims about IdleMMO, to avoid repeating the same explanations.

I want to emphasise and reiterate that this post isn’t an attempt to covertly influence your opinion in our benefit. Whether you still believe IdleMMO is “pay-to-win” is entirely your prerogative, and I respect that perspective. My intention is to clarify that the “pay-to-win” label is highly subjective and can differ greatly among individuals; simply using the term doesn’t capture the complexity of the issue.

5 thoughts on “Navigating the Pay-to-Win Debate: Insights from IdleMMO

  1. The blog post appears to reflect insights from a recent Discord discussion, and while it’s important to respect differing perspectives on Pay to Win (P2W) in gaming, finding a broadly acceptable middle ground is key.

    P2W isn’t a clear-cut concept; it varies based on personal viewpoints. However, I personally adhere to certain criteria to define it:

    Pay to Access: This involves content with significant gameplay mechanics, not merely cosmetic, which are inaccessible without payment. This might include exclusive zones, skills, or abilities only available through real-money transactions.

    Progression Acceleration in Late Game: If paid content allows a player to progress more than 25% faster compared to a non-paying player, particularly in the later stages of a game (e.g., a subscription player reaches level 100 in a skill 25% quicker than a free player), it falls under P2W.

    Early Game Advancement: A more than 50% faster progression in the early stages of the game due to paid content is also considered P2W. For instance, if a subscription player reaches level 25 in half the time it takes a free player, despite similar playtime.

    Premium Subscription and Market Accessibility: The ease of acquiring a premium subscription by free-to-play (F2P) players is crucial. In many games, F2P players can earn a premium subscription through consistent gameplay within a few days. Removing this option from the market leans more towards P2W, as it restricts F2P players from obtaining progression bonuses available to paying players. This balance is vital in maintaining fairness and accessibility in the game.

    Regarding IdleMMO, it seems to be heading in the right direction, particularly as a new beta game. Its approach differs from SimpleMMO, which I perceive as more P2W, especially as a paying player. However, I’d reserve further discussion on this topic unless IdleMMO starts trending towards the P2W model. It’s important to note that SimpleMMO has distinct gameplay elements and limitations that don’t necessarily apply to IdleMMO.

  2. I think it’s a light form of P2W, but that’s only my opinion. How it’s we’ll see later, because we need to see how often you will release new stuff that players want/need to buy and sink gold in it. If the free player always feels left behind, then game definitely is P2W, but if you just need some extra time to catch Whales, then enjoy the game.

  3. For me the membership as it was conceived is more than fine, being able to purchase it with in-game gold and not real ones allows the user to be able to invest part of their in-game earnings to access the membership functions and take advantage of the 30 days to generate more experience and gold in the game. However, in the long run, in financial terms this could lead to a limited and unsustainable profit if it is the only concrete source of income. We need to make the necessary assessments.

  4. I don’t like any P2W progression or mechanics. That being said, the current system is very reasonable and the buying and selling of memberships is the least of the problem; it can actually mitigate botting and 3rd party gold trading if the game becomes more popular in the future.

    Sustainability, both regarding dev financials and game balance, are the highest priorities. If these are being satisfied, then a bit of paid progression is a small thing to suffer.

  5. I agree with the comments here, I find the monetization model in IMMO to be extremely fair to free players.. I don’t find the experience boosts to be enough to make membership a necessity, and while the increased idle time is nice, I don’t find it to be much more advantageous nor do I find the free players limit crippling. I think it’s a fine balance.

    My opinion may be skewed as someone who has followed the game and saw the original benefits of membership, and more importantly the decisions to adjust those to better fit a more even playing field.

    Locking content away from free players is something I couldn’t get behind, but being able to farm high level mats for a few hours to secure a month of slight xp boosts and increased idle time from the market is extremely appealing to me as a player. That’s just my opinion but I’m kinda shocked with how divisive this issue is in regards to IMMO.

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