I've been playing 4 online games recently which have drastically different ways to pay. I have a deep seeded aversion to some of them and I'm not entirely sure why. Those games and how they make their money will be detailed here to try to figure it out. The games are Starcraft 2, Final Fantasy XI, League of Legends, and Galaxy Legion.
Game: Starcraft 2
Payment Plan: One time fee of $60.
What You Get: Balance patches and a matchmaking server ostensibly forever for no additional fee.
Can You Pay More?: $40 extra for the collector's edition which contains a bunch of random stuff with no impact on playing the game. Music cds and art books and the like. Eventually they will release two expansions for the game each of which will have a flat fee for a full campaign and probably new units. You'll have to buy them to play online with other people who buy them which will be most people I'd imagine.
Game: Final Fantasy XI
Payment Plan: One time fee for the game, one time fees per expansion ($10 for them all now but much more when they came out), ~$14 per month as long as you want to keep playing.
What You Get: Constant content updates, more GMs.
Can You Pay More?: If you buy an authenticator from Square you get some more storage. On top of that you can buy in game currency from questionable websites for money. If I pound away at it I can probably make something like 50k gil an hour with my level of crafting skills. A very quick web search tells me I can buy that much gil for about 88 cents. So if I really wanted to I'd be better off getting a part time job a couple nights a week and buying gil instead of trying to make money in game. This causes problems with the game though since the gil I'm buying would often be stolen or obtained by cheating with a hack of some kind.
Game: League of Legends
Payment Plan: Free to play.
What You Get: Constant content updates (a new hero every month or so), balance changes, and a rotating set of 10 heroes you can choose from. You will also earn in game currency which will let you eventually hit max level, be able to play as every hero, and have access to every rune.
Can You Pay More?: You can pay money for a second type of in game currency. This can let you level faster, have more options faster as far as heroes and runes go, be able to have different skins for your heroes, and be able to save more sets of runes.
Game: Galaxy Legion
Payment Plan: Free to play.
What You Get: Sporadic content updates. I'm pretty sure it's just one guy doing it so he does what he can when he can.
Can You Pay More?: You can pay money for an in game currency. This can be spent on very powerful items, some of which can be obtained in game through normal means. Some of them are incredibly rare and others are completely unique. A guild which spends money will have a base twice as big as the base my guild has. This would cost about $220 if we had a maximum sized base, or about $4 per person if we had a max size guild. This is a combat game and some of the things you can buy are irreplaceable for people who don't pay. You can certainly still have fun without paying but anyone with deep pockets will be way more powerful.
The traditional game model is the one Starcraft 2 uses. You buy a game and it is yours. You can play it as you wish and everyone else has the same experience you do no matter how much they want to spend. If you look around my apartment you will find many such games so clearly I don't have a problem with this model. Subscription based models still feel a little bad to me despite the math showing it's a pretty good deal.
Buying in game currency for money in an MMO just seems wrong. I just took a look to see how much WoW gold is going for and the first site that came up on my search charges about $20 per 10k gold. My account is cancelled so I can't check for sure but I think I had 450k on it, or $900. But selling it feels wrong. But here's the thing... If I was still playing the game and a friend signed up I'd have no problems with just giving them a whole ton of money to get them started. A couple hundred would probably be sufficient but I'd have no trouble at all with giving Andrew 50k gold so he wouldn't have to worry about gold or professions at all. He wouldn't be giving me money in return so does that somehow make it ok? What if he bought me a Coke for it? Or a steak?
Clearly I don't have a problem with someone illegitimately getting power from a friend. I think my big problem here is the culture that tends to surround it. I don't have an issue with someone paying me for my time and really wouldn't be opposed to selling my old WoW account. (Max level DK with purple loots! Lots of hard/impossible to get achievements!) The problem I have is someone stealing an account or gold and selling that. Or 'Chinese gold farmers' who camp spawns 24/7 because the real life return on that investment is a good use of their time.
I also don't mind so much if you're paying the money to the developer itself instead of to some dude. League of Legends, for example, lets people decide how they want to hit maximum level. Either by spending a lot of time or by spending a bunch of money and some time. You can trade money for time, pretty pictures, and a little convenience. But not for power. Two people with an equal investment into the game be it time or money have equal chances of winning.
The real problem comes, I think, when there's no way for time to overcome money. Galaxy Legion has no maximum level. It does have maximums in terms of how high some of your stats can go. Unless you're paying money. And there's no limit on how much money you can keep spending to keep getting more power. No matter how good I am at the game or how much time I'm willing to invest there's no way I can possibly be the best. And yet part of me wants to spend some money to get a little bit of the unique power. For less than $10 I can increase my ability to do things by 10% forever... It seems like if I'm going to keep playing the game it makes a lot of sense to buy it. And $10 for a game I spend a lot of time on seems very reasonable. But why stop there? I could get some bigger guns for another $10. And our base could really use the $110 in infrastructure... Once I accept spending money for power is ok and makes sense where do I stop? Can I stop?
I'm also tempted to spend some money on League of Legends. I'm getting close to max level as it is so I'd really probably just buy a couple heroes and maybe some skins. My goal there would be just to support the company which is making the game. If it was a game in stores I would certainly pay $40-$60 like I did for Starcraft 2. So why not spend that much on some skins? By that logic, why not spend that much on Galaxy Legion too? If it can make sense why does it still feel wrong?