Tobold put up a post today claiming that everything that every online game sells is pay to win. He's been saying for an awfully long time that League of Legends has to be pay to win because he didn't think selling skins was a viable business model. So he'd say things like xp boosts were pay to win power boosts when they're completely irrelevant for the majority of the player base. He doesn't seem to have backed off from that stance, though in this post he at least acknowledges that LoL has a successful business model for their game. (Even if he makes that point only to deride it as an option for any other game.)
At any rate, there was a conversation in the comments and I started typing and typing. When I was done the system wouldn't let me post my comment because it was too long. So I pruned it down, but I still had a bunch of stuff written up and I figured I should just make a post about it. On the plus side thinking about the topic in an attempt to figure out why I think Tobold is wrong is useful for thinking things through. Needing to work through why I think what I think is important!
One phrase I took particular exception to was...
Please do! Either there is no win condition at all in World of Warcraft, or everything you want is a win condition in World of Warcraft.
This is a false dichotomy. He's making the claim that it has to be A or B when it should be pretty clear that a spectrum of possibilities has to at least be an option.
What could be more accurate is that anything _could_ be a win condition in World of Warcraft. As essentially an open world game with a plethora of things to do any given person is certainly free to feel good about accomplishing whatever they think is cool. My big concern is when someone else's win condition impacts my win condition. For example, think about the specific instance of pet battles...
Some people will want a lot of high level pets. Some people will want a specific few high level pets that allow them to beat the legendary pet battles. Some people will want a specific few high level pets that allow them to beat other players in pet battles. Some people won't want any pets at all.
Blizzard sells plenty of pets in plenty of ways, and some of them are actually quite powerful. I don't know if they actually sell an exclusive best pet or not, but let's pretend they do. Someone who is an A will think this is mildly pay to win. They'll never be able to get ALL the pets without buying this one. They can still get close, and they can still have fun getting close.
Someone who is a B might think this is pay to win. The difference will be how good the 'free' options happen to be. If the epic PvE fights are trivial without them then they don't matter at all. If they're impossible without them then it is extremely pay to win. If it's somewhere in the middle then you'll have a spectrum of how the B people care about it. If they want a challenge they'll do it without the paid pet. If they want to win easily/quickly then they'll feel obligated to buy the paid pet.
Someone who is a C will think this is definitely pay to win. There's no way to avoid the existence of this pet because your opponents might or might not have paid to get it. Your experience against these people is absolutely impacted, and that's the specific thing you care about. In this hypothetical world you either buy the awesome pet or you can't play the game the way you want to.
If you're a D then you really don't care at all. Picking the pet out of your mailbox wouldn't be worth your time so it could be free or cost a billion dollars and you wouldn't care.
So, is this pet pay to win?
I'd argue the way to make that decision is to look at how many win conditions are impacted by the existence of the item. So the distribution of the players between the different categories and the way non-buyers are impacted need to be considered.
In a world where most people are Cs then this pet has to be considered pay to win. Most people care about head to head battles, and you can't win without paying money. So a large proportion of win conditions among players of the game are impacted.
In a world where most people are Ds then the pet isn't really pay to win. It would probably be more accurate to say that the pet battle part of the game is a paid mini-game. Competitive PvP pet battlers aren't going to be able to play WoW without this pet. Similar to how they won't be able to play a mythical Pokemon Fight game without paying for the game. Now, this mini-game may well be pay to win, but I don't think it existing in a world with mostly Ds would make the overall game pay to win.
The tricky part is when most players are Bs. How many win conditions are impacted in this scenario? The people who like a challenge won't care much because their game experience doesn't change by the item existing, unless the PvE fights are tuned under the assumption you have the awesome pet. (Also, some people will be annoyed that other people get to take the easy mode. I don't particularly care for that argument but I'm sure it can be made.) So it would come down to how the Bs are split and how mandatory the pet feels.
Now, change the framing a little. Instead of a pet it's now a weapon. How would the argument change? The Ds and Cs and As wouldn't change. The Bs would. Why? Because PvE in WoW is often group based. The game itself explicitly gates who can join group content based on their gear and historical experience tells us that players will act the same way. (See: gearscore) So you having this weapon does change my win condition. The game and the players will exclude me from the content I want to do (and by extension make my win condition harder or impossible) regardless on what level of challenge I want.
In a world where the other players or the game itself will exclude you then purely PvE items do impact my gameplay and are pay to win. In a world where I don't interact with the other players in this aspect it isn't pay to win. If you could buy outhouses to get more easy achievements that could be pay to win if your achievement score impacts my game. If it doesn't then it probably wouldn't be.
Basically... I don't care about your win condition. I care about mine. If you spending a lot of money makes it easier for you to win, and that makes you happy, and it doesn't change mine then that's awesome. The developer should make money and this setup probably results in me paying less. But if you paying money hurts me then I'm not happy. So if you can buy a max level character I don't actually care. Extra level 100s wouldn't hurt me. (It might cause some groups to have inexperienced and therefore likely subpar players. But there are plenty of those players anyway.) But if you can buy all the gear to enter the hardest raid finder raids and I have to grind for months before I can get in then I'm not happy.
Note that the game being pay to win isn't necessarily a deal breaker. I still play some CCGs and you'd be hard pressed to claim that someone who spends a lot of money on Hearthstone packs won't have better cards than I do! I am more likely to get frustrated and quit because of the pay to win aspect, though.