Why ‘H1Z1’ Early Access And Pay-To-Win Complaints Are Probably Off The Mark

The H1Z1 Early Alpha Access launched Thursday night and, not surprisingly, it launched with problems. While the initial problems were just with players logging in, players later noticed something was up with the airdrops feature that led gamers to begin calling the free-to-play zombie survival game “pay-to-win” instead. Developer Sony Online Entertainment responded to the complaints by offering a no-questions asked refund for those unhappy. But is this a question of pay-to-win, miscommunication, or players expecting more than they should out of an alpha?

The controversy with airdrops starts with the fact that they cost real world money in H1Z1. Selling boosts or items in the game are a common free-to-play revenue stream and shouldn’t be particularly surprising. However, the controversy comes in with how airdrops behaved and what they contained.

Livestreams of H1Z1 being broadcast Thursday evening and Friday morning showed players calling in airdrops. One streamer, who had three airdrop tokens, was able to call in one after the other and have them appear almost immediately in front of them. What’s more, these drops contained firearms and ammo, something that is supposed to be rare in the game.

This immediately set off a firestorm of “pay-to-win” accusations after a video showing one of the Sony Online Entertainment developers explaining how weapons and ammo are supposed to work in the world (40:40 mark).

“There’s no way that you can get ammo,” a SOE developer stated in a January 12 livestream, three days before the H1Z1 Early Alpha Access release.

“You can’t buy ammo. You can’t buy guns. You can’t get them out of a crate. There’s zero way. You have to find them in the world.”

Additionally, SOE President John Smedley stated the following in an April 22, 2014 Reddit post.

“We will NOT be selling Guns, Ammo, Food, Water… i.e. That’s kind of the whole game and it would suck in our opinion if we did that [sic]”

Cut and dry, right? SOE lied and the game is pay-to-win because air drops have weapons and ammo in them. The H1Z1 subreddit is raging at Smedley and the rest of the development team. Forbe’s contributors Paul Tassi and Jason Evangelho (previously of VGW) both penned screeds decrying H1Z1 airdrops and the concept of Early Access games.

Tassi specifically points out the following update in the launch notes reported in the Inquisitr yesterday.

“We have made the decision to allow paid for airdrops into the game with things like guns and other things being randomly selected as part of the airdrop. We’re making them highly contested and building a whole set of rules around this, but you should be aware that our goal is to make this a way to keep things interesting on the servers but still be contested. If these offend your sensibilities just know that they are going to be there. We have gone out of our way to make sure the airdrops are contested in-game and that you can’t simply expect to easily walk about to the airdrop and grab it. Even if you paid for it.”

Warning: What I’m about to write is contrary to the current complaints about H1Z1 and Early Access games in general.

The fact that airdrops may include ammo, weapons, and other gear should not be surprising. Yes, Smedley said in April 2014 that there would be no weapon drops. However, SOE clearly reversed that decision over the next couple of months.

VG247 wrote the following on August 16, 2014 (emphasis mine):

“Airdrops will provide survivors with ammunition, food, water, weapons and other supplies. These aren’t free supplies being handed out by a group such as the Red Cross or anything either: they are purchased via the in-game store.”

“Players will need to pay the organization providing the supplier money – and watch out – your payment can be in vain as other players will be able to see the planes and supply drops. This means they can snatch it before you get to it and there is no assurance the drop will land near you.”

Game Informer added this on September 2, 2014 (emphasis mine):

“One of the things we’re looking at is selling airdrops. We don’t want to mess with the hardcore survival aspects, but … Once you order one, it spawns into the world. Players see the C130 spawn into the world, so you’re giving other players the opportunity to jack your stuff,” says senior game designer Jimmy Whisenhunt.

“We want to see what happens, because in the end you want to get something from it but you’re also impacting the world. I mean, you could plop this into the world and cause chaos. We want to see how it goes. Various things can be in the crates, including high-end gear.”

The first problem with the current H1Z1 controversy appears to be that the developer on the January 12 livestream misspoke by not mentioning that airdrops will include weapons and ammo. Crates were mentioned, but those are not the same as airdrops. Airdrops with ammo and weapons was obviously in at that time. SOE previously mentioned the feature with multiple outlets prior to release. The developers were not going to throw ammo and weapons in at the last second while they are trying to get a playable build out to distribute on Steam. As someone who works full-time in IT and deals with software deployment deadlines, I can say that adding in a significant feature that late is just not going to happen.

The second problem is that the airdrop system appears to be broken. Just looking at the update note and the descriptions of how SOE wants them to work indicates that players should not be receiving them immediately with zero risk. Additionally, getting weapons and ammo and other high-end gear with every single drop also should not happen. But you know what, that’s why it is called an Early Access Alpha and include the following note every time you start the game.

H1Z1 Early Eaccess (PC)

In fact, Smedley has already stated that SOE will fix the problems with airdrops.

“we’re going to lay out exactly what we’re doing here sometime today. I’m super happy with the update to what we’re doing with Airdrops. I agree with the P2W commentary from yesterday because what we saw wasn’t what we wanted it to be either. Also with regards to stuff like food, water.. right now the loot spawn problem is making the game way harder than we meant it to be. Getting food in an airdrop should be a letdown not a savior. [sic]”

This gets me to the other point about Early Access games in general. Like Kickstarter, the purchaser of an Early Access Game should not put their money down before they are willing to accept a certain amount of risk. It’s a case of buyer beware: the larger the game, then the larger the risk. H1Z1 is a large MMO game.

I’ve had lots of fun with a small indie game called Robot Roller-Derby Disco Dodgeball. I can’t even log into H1Z1 right now, though. Yes, I purchased H1Z1 because I felt it was necessary if I was going to write about it. I accepted the risk that it was not going to work properly.

Jason Evangelho titled his article, “If You Paid For H1Z1 Early Access, You’re Part Of The Problem.” I disagree with that on a couple of levels. There’s nothing wrong with a paid early access, even for free-to-play games. Making games isn’t cheap. They cost money. Even the F2P ones. However, if you paid for any early access title while it is in an alpha state and are expecting a functioning game, you are part of the problem. It’s not going to happen. Accept that fact or don’t put your money down.

On the other side of the coin, developers should probably avoid putting alpha state games in the hands of the general gaming public, even if you are trying to limit participation by charging a fee. It’s obviously causing major issues with the perceptions of their work. A bad first impression can be a death knell for a developer’s new title. Games in an alpha state should be limited to a small audience first before expanding and eventually opening to the public.

What do you think of the current kerfuffle over H1Z1? Sound off in the comments below.

[Images via H1Z1]