Kiss of War, Part VII - Confessions of a Pay To Win Whale

Previous: Kiss of War, Part VI - Kill Event 

After almost two years of Kiss of War I finally walked away from the game. I'd threatened to leave several times, but this time I can say it was for real, as my accounts are now flaming wrecks, armies zeroed to nothing and the bases pillaged of all resources. I've deleted the game from my iPad, and I intend to follow this up by removing the game from my iPhone and PC. The fact that I have so many accounts stretched over several platforms is a revealing indicator of how much of a hold this game had over me during the COVID era. But in this span of two years I went from a neophyte to the top of my server in kills, and also became leader of the server for a time. My server had been in decline for a while now, and my departure signaled an end to an era, as no one was willing to step up to lead the server after I left. The old leadership scattered to the four winds, and server 29 as I knew it came to an end.

I wish I could be more proud of my accomplishments, and I am, to some degree. I organized, I fought, and I spent way too much of my time again in a digital battleground. I am proud of my guildies and my server, and of our shared exploits. But it was all tainted by the nature of the game, which is an egregious example of mobile pay to win games. In a nutshell I started playing the game two years ago around March 2020 once lockdowns became a feature of daily life. This was the beginning of a long and glorious online campaign which saw my guild rise from early punching bags to becoming leaders of the server. This achievement was marred by the fact that I spent at least two to three hours a day playing the game, and even worse, I spent an enormous amount of money in order to stay competitive. I was a whale - not a blue whale or a sperm whale or any of the more titanic species, but definitely at least an orca or a pilot. I was, at one point, tracking my spending but I stopped once my total amount of money spent exceeded a couple of grand in US dollars. Who knows how much I spent by the end? I know that without spending money, I would never have presented such a threat to my guild and server's enemies, nor would the casual players have rallied to the cause as readily as they did. 

You'd think spending money would guarantee victory, and in a sense it does, but only against people who don't spend. The power differential that money can buy is so much that only truly the most incompetent of whales can lose to non-spenders. They do exist, though, and it's always great to go up against someone who has the most expensive officers and ships but is unable to optimize them correctly. Those kind of players are literally spending to lose. 

What happens at the apex of the game, however, is that spenders end up fighting spenders, and they attempt to rally the casual player base to support their efforts. The most dangerous player is a competent whale, and you soon recognize them and develop a rivalry and kinship of sorts. At the end of each server versus server event (SvS) a lot of effort is made to recruit spenders who were defeated and try to entice them to defect to the winning server. The server base and leadership pander to these players, and allow them much more latitude in comparison to casual players because their presence strengthens the server. What beats a competent whale are groups of competent whales, and what beats those are organized groups of competent whales. I believe that our server was well-organized and had a strong officer and diplomatic corps, which allowed us to win 3 out of 6 SvS events despite being the smallest server every time. SvS is a month long event in which four servers are pitted against each other, and what happened in all six events I participated in was that two of the servers would ally and fight the remaining two, who either allied in response, or chose to fight on their own. Non-game specific skills like diplomacy, communication and organization come into play, but at the end of the day it was still the same group of fighter-spenders who marched into the field and took on their equivalent on the side of the enemy. These clashes would invariably become cash sinks, as the spenders threw their money down the well to pay for new troops, repairs, weapons and so on, in order to compete with other people doing exactly the same thing.

All the while the game developers are laughing at the players and making bank over their efforts to try and best each other. What all these organizations have in common is that they are all spending - some officers are there because of their organizational or diplomatic skills, but when the rubber hits the road and the armies have to clash it's the dolphins and whales that are making the inroads. The role of casuals in KoW is to provide the cannon fodder - they supply the raw troops that make up the rallies or the garrisons, while the big spenders provide the literal leaders who command these forces. Rally leaders act as force multipliers, and are decisive in determining how powerful an army or a garrison is. Of course the leaders in KoW are expensive and while they can theoretically be acquired through normal play, it takes months to do so. Weapons and ships also boost a leader's capabilities, and they too, take months to acquire through normal play. However, if you are willing to shell out the money you can acquire these upgrades immediately, giving you huge advantages against non-spenders. There is a direct correlation between power and spending. 

The most powerful player I met during my KoW days was a Japanese player called Arthur from server 62. His army on his main account would have cost tens of thousands of dollars, and he didn't hide the fact either. He was quite vocal about his chain of restaurants in Roppongi, Tokyo's most exclusive neighborhood, and whether he was telling the truth or not, it was plainly visible to all of how quickly he replenished his losses after each battle. In some cases his overall power would increase after costly battles, indicating that he had just spent literally hundreds of dollars to recruit more troops and replenish his losses. Not only that, his army was the best money could buy - he had the best officers, the best weapons and the best warships. No one could stand with him head to head, and even coordinated attacks were very costly. His base was literally siege proof, because it had so many troops it would have cost millions of casualties to crack it open.

Incidentally, my proudest moment was when our server defeated 62. We merely hid when Arthur was around, and laid waste to his support structure. We worked out his time zones, his close friends, and applied pressure constantly whenever he wasn't around. Our diplomats also worked hard to isolate his server, and to coordinate attacks whenever we were able. It was a classic case of asymmetrical warfare, and I've said many times on this blog how much I like this type of gameplay. However, it is all poisoned, tainted and unpalatable thanks to the addition of the pay to win model. What I've learned about myself is that I am willing to tolerate almost all asymmetry in persistent world PvP EXCEPT for inequalities arising from the injection of money. I wonder if there is an element of sour grapes in that, because I was a spender, too, but mostly I'm annoyed at myself for having been ensnared by such a transparently rapacious business model. Being stuck indoors thanks to the pandemic is no excuse. It was just a failure of judgement. But I've also re-evaluated my stance on asymmetrical open world PvP, of which I have been a staunch defender. Clearly there was a line that I could not tolerate, which means what I previously thought as acceptable might pose similar Rubicons for other players, who are just not willing to put with the same inequalities that I would.

What I'm not ashamed of is the friends and team mates I made during my time in Kiss of War. I have met people who I would trust in real life, and we have literally spent hours together either spearheading offensives, fighting field battles, or manning the walls to defend against enemy counterattacks. But these lasting bonds are also exploited by these greedy fuckers, who use the good things about people to make them spend more. Tom and I have spent a ridiculous amount of money trying to protect our guild against outside threats, and even more once our server became united and we began fighting other servers. Ego and competitiveness are big drivers of player spending - but so is loyalty, devotion and friendship. Asymmetrical games are really empire building simulations, and you need people you can trust - alliances and coalitions are much more important than individual player prowess. In the end you find yourself staying for the sake of your team mates, and these companies exploit that to the fullest.

As a final testament to my Kiss of War days I included a video I made and shared with my server during our apogee. I was going to make another one, detailing the rise and fall of my server, but perhaps it's not needed. I have a bad habit of not finishing my series, as evidenced by my Long War and Mortal Empire series, and thought I'd at least wrap this one up. Goodbye Kiss of War - I won't miss you, but I will miss my awesome guildies, and the other great people on server 29.