What is pay-to-win? The source of all wisdom, Wikipedia, says:
In some multiplayer free-to-play games, players who are willing to pay for special items or downloadable content may be able to gain a significant advantage over those playing for free. Critics of such games call them "pay-to-win" (p2w) games. Wikipedia
Let's tidy up that defintion as "paying real money for a significant gameplay advantage over non-paying players." So it's not really pay-to-win, but pay-to-gain-advantage.
I remember one player with a "overpowered" mecha saying "it's not pay-to-win; I lose games in this all the time" and "other people score higher than me." Facepalm! It's like saying "I'm racing against Mazda 6s in my Lamborghini but the Mazda 6s win sometimes so it's not like I'm buying an advantage"
Pay to win can be rather obvious. If everyone in a shooter has a gun that fires 50-damage bullets at 500 rpm with a 20-round clip; but paying players could access a more accurate gun that fired 75-damage bullets at 800 rpm with a 50-round clip... ...it's pretty easy to see paying players are gaining a significant in-game advantage.
But sometimes it's harder to spot - in the same Wikipedia free-to-play article that defined "pay to win" it went on to cite WoT as a good example of "non-pay-to-win."
Amongst its "good, anti-p2w practices"....
....titles such as World of Tanks have explicitly committed to not giving paying players any advantages over their non-paying peers, while allowing the users buying the "gold" (premium) ammo and expendables without paying the real money. However, features helping to grind easier, such as purchasing a 100% training level or converting experience to free experience, remain available for the paying customers only.
Well boys, where shall we start?
Premium (gold) ammo has much better chance of penetrating hits. Firing this "gold" ammo will boost your damage per game a lot (20% or more) - heck, some enemies are functionally immune to standard ammo. Non-paying players can access it too, for in-game credits - so not "pay to win" right?
....Buuut.... players with a paid premium account earn double the in-game credits, allowing them to fire twice as many premium rounds as a non-paying player, who would quickly run out of credits if they used similar amounts. Even worse - a player paying directly with cash can fire as many "premium rounds" as they are willing to pay cash for.
Premium ammo: Pay to gain a significant advantage? Check.
Now, these features that make the grind easier - XP boosts and the like. That's not paying to win, surely?
A bit more of a grey area, but let's look at it more closely:
Well, a 100% crew fires ~25% faster and more accurately, drives and turns faster, and spots enemies from further away. Quite a big deal. But both players can access a 100% crew. Not pay to win, right?
But.... ....A paying player can instantly access it with cash. A non-paying player may have to to earn up to 95,000XP (at ~1000XP/game) = 95 games (8 hours of game time) where he has an inferior crew.
Crew-for-Cash: Pay to gain a significant advantage? Check.
The "convert free XP" is also a bit vague. In practice, this "free XP" allows you to instantly upgrade your "stock" tank - from say a 76mm gun to a 90mm gun - or even a 105mm, or from a 450hp to say a 650hp engine. As you could guess, these are absolutely massive advantages. But again, both players can unlock the upgraded weapons. Not pay to win? Sure, the non-paying player can access upgrades, but may be stuck playing with the stock guns for perhaps 30-50 games. In a 1v1 duel, the stock tank may not even be able to penetrate the upgraded one, which can easily penetrate it in return.
Convert Free XP/Instant Upgrades: Pay to gain a significant advantage? Check.
I object, your Honour!
Wait a minute, for the last two examples, the paying player only gets an advantage for a set time period.
That's not pay-to-win, that's "pay-to-avoid-grind" or "pay to not wait!"
You want it for free? Just play more!
You're ignoring the fact both players can access the same stuff - it just takes longer for the non-paying player. It's not exclusive to the paying player.**
(**Actually the wiki article did not mention premium tanks, which ARE exclusive to paying players, and many are very overpowered due to the dev's unwillingness to ever nerf them - and thus be liable to offer refunds)
However, this argument ignores the fact that for that set time (anywhere from say 20-90 games - up to 8 hours) the paying player has a a significant advantage. There is a paywall. It may be "temporary" (although several hours of gaming time is, for me at least, not "temporary") but have the players paid to gain significant advantage? Yes they have. It's pay to win.
Using the pay-to-not-wait logic: If I played a club football match and paid the referee to make my opponents play in stilettos and ballroom gowns until they scored 3 goals.... ...it's fair, right? I mean, they only had a short term disadvantage and they can "grind" the right to wear proper kit if they score goals... the lazy scrubs
(In games like Mechwarrior:Online, new mechs may be "locked" and not be available to non-paying players for up to 6 months... by which time they are often nerfed... and players claim that is merely "pay to not wait" and not "pay for advantage.")
So what's not pay-to-win?
Well, anything that does not offer a gameplay advantage either directly or indirectly, over a short term or a long term.
In most cases, things that do not effect gameplay. Like cosmetic items such as fancy camo for your tank, or unit markings and insignia, or a fancy hat (Team Fortress 2).
So even premium accounts and XP boosts are pay-to-win?
Well, if you can use the benefits of them against other players in PvP, then yes, they are. In WoT there is no "solo" or singleplayer mode which makes it even more problematic.
In a non-PvP/non-competitive game where there is no really way to "win" or disadvantage other players, then sure.
For example in Warframe (a 4-player co-op) everyone gets the same loot; so a player buying better gear or getting higher tier gear faster does not inherently disadvantage other players. A powerful player may help the others defeat higher level bosses than they otherwise might.
So you're saying pretty much the only non pay-to-win things players can buy are cosmetics?
Pretty much, yes.
Hey, what's this PC content? This is supposed to be a wargaming blog!