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Clash Royale And The Guilt Of Pay-To-Win Gaming

by Andrew Reiner on Mar 22, 2016 at 12:14 PM

A quick perusal of my Xbox One digital game collection doesn’t give way to software launching. I scan the games again. I still want to play The Division, but I'm putting the game on ice until a known progression bug gets patched. I also plan on wrapping up Far Cry Primal, but the feeling of repetition hit me hard in my last play session, and I need to divorce myself from that world for a little while. Other recent purchases like Marvel Puzzle Quest and The Walking Dead: Michonne don’t sound appealing at the moment. I have dozens of games and none of them are grabbing me.

My gaming mind is clearly elsewhere. Clash Royale is the only game that is calling out to me like a Siren song. I want to play it, but I’m trying my best to resist the urge, something I rarely do with games. The reason? I’m flirting with the idea of dropping another $10 to buy more cards. Alexander Hamilton’s assistance would greatly improve my battle deck.

The idea of spending more money on the game makes me feel guilty, and I can’t place my finger on why. I’ve already called upon the great Andrew Jackson to fund a flurry of card purchases, and his aid paid off handsomely. My beefed-up Mini P.E.K.K.A has his name all over it, and the Witch he added to my deck is a real game changer.

The guilt quickly gives way to another question: Why I am playing Clash Royale? It doesn’t have an end game, story, shared experience with friends, or a scoring system I care about. I usually gravitate toward story-driven games that have a definitive beginning and end. My first answer to the question is: I like winning, and hate losing. Clash Royale pumps out the satisfaction of victory and the agony of defeat every three minutes. Games fly by, battles are fun, and great exhilaration comes from earning a magical chest for a job well done. I convince myself I’m playing it mostly to unlock every card. That’s my end game. It’s something, I guess, but it isn’t a hook that I feel good about.

I probably won’t venture into Clash Royale weeks or months from now. The game could surprise me and have more staying power than that, but I’ve done this dance before, dozens of times with other games of its ilk. Their magic eventually dissipates, and I move on to the next big thing. That’s entertainment for you: I graze, enjoy the taste for a while, and then move on to a different meadow to feast upon.

The question remains: Why should I throw down another $10 into a game that I’ll likely abandon in weeks or months? Should I instead invest my time into tracking down the next game that will hold my attention? Will that $10 make the game more entertaining, or am I just using it to gain an edge over people who don’t invest in it? Sure there's plenty of skill and strategy involved, but a high-level card brings clear advantages. Is the game mostly a competition of who spends the most money?

That last thought reminds me of baseball, my favorite sport that almost fell apart from players cheating to gain an edge. The cash I’m thinking of spending is starting to sound like a syringe full of steroids. Clash Royale is a game anyone can enjoy, but it encourages juicing to build an army of Barry Bonds-esque cards.

The guilt hanging over that final thought is enough to make me back out of Clash Royale’s shop. I instead tell myself that I will earn cards the slow way, by playing the game. I’ll likely fall behind the other players in my guild, and I know I’ll struggle to reach the next arena, but at least I'm not gaining an edge through cash. In my time with the game so far, it seems like most people are paying in to win. Supercell must be making a fortune.

I don’t feel entirely bad about the money I’ve invested so far, however. Supercell made a fantastic game, and I have no problem paying for the thrills I’ve experienced. But there’s a line between the intent to support a company for a job well done, and being exploited to win. All too often free-to-play games err on the latter. Supercell's creation doesn’t feel outright evil all of the time. Being able to get cards from people in the clan, and earn chests for victories is fair, making it possible to enjoy Clash Royale without spending a cent. But Supercell also knew players would go nuts with the pay-to-win functionality. And they have. Spending is not necessary; it just means I toil in the minor leagues with the same deck of cards for longer than I would like. The most devious design decision on Supercell’s part is players who spend a lot can be knocked down to the lower arena levels – meaning low-level players frequently spar against players with high-level epic cards. Those encounters are infuriating, and almost always lead to the thought, “I need better cards.”

The question remains: If I’m enjoying the game, why not spend the money to compete at a higher level? This thought hangs over me like a storm cloud each time I boot up Clash Royale. I know I'll debate spending another $10 when I fire it up tomorrow.

My recent bout with a free-to-play game is nothing new, and I'm sure many of you have dealt with similar conflicts. But I just realized there was a time when gaming didn’t make me feel guilty like this. Games delivered entertainment and that was it. I feel lost in the current landscape of gaming. What’s the right amount to spend on a free-to-play game without feeling like I’ve crossed a line? Is there a correct answer? I don't think there is one. I miss the days of guilt-free gaming.