I would hazard a guess that most of us have utilized an exploit or two in our gaming careers. Perhaps you’ve cheesed a Dark Souls boss fight or taken advantage of an infinite money glitch in your favorite RPG. It is okay to admit that — sometimes they can make a game more fun. However, exploits or cheats in single-player games do not hold the same weight compared to ones in multiplayer games. Usually, players gain an unfair advantage over another person, which can completely hinder their enjoyment of the game. But what do we do when an exploit is working exactly as intended?
Last week, Pokémon Unite, a MOBA game set in the Pokémon world, went live for Nintendo Switch players. The game is free-to-play with an option to use real-world money for cosmetics and item upgrades. The latter part is the important part here. In the game, players can equip up to three items onto their Pokémon that can grant bonuses such as extra health or cooldown reduction. Players can use the Item Enhancer currency to boost these items to increase their stats.
The unfortunate wrinkle in this is that Item Enhancers can be purchased with real money.
These items, even fully upgraded, do not make a player automatically win. It’s not like unlocking the Pokémon equivalent of Exodia with a Shell Bell and Wise Glasses. However, these fully upgraded items can give players a huge advantage over their opponents.
Take the Shell Bell as an example. At a base level, the item grants a Pokémon 1.6 special attack, 0% cooldown reduction, and a small heal every time they hit an enemy with an ability. Now, let’s crank that all the way to the max level of 30. Now it’ll give players 24 extra special attack, a 4.5% cooldown, and up to 75 health per special attack. Those might still sound small for many people, but as someone who has been playing MOBAs for ten years, I can assure you that this is a huge buff. Many MOBA characters live or die on their abilities and their cooldowns. This item can rocket Pokémon to higher levels of play.
A couple of days ago, Twitch streamer MoistCr1TiKaL decided to test out the extent of a fully upgraded item set in Pokémon Unite. By spending over $100 in real money, he had three fully upgraded items and practically destroyed his opponents. In one ranked match while playing Gengar, he managed to get 49 kills against the other player without ever dying or even returning to base to heal. While the conversation about the pay-to-win aspect of Pokémon Unite has been going on since its launch, MoistCr1TiKaL’s stream really brought this discussion out in the open.
Can Unite survive like this? This is not the wavedashing-like “exploit” found in the Super Smash Bros. Melee, or even like Pokémon cloning tricks that are rampant in the series. MoistCr1TiKaL and anyone who has a credit card are technically not exploiting the game; it is working as intended. It gives those that spend real money for item upgrades a considerable advantage, and this can destroy a game’s community. What incentive do new players have to keep playing when they won’t even make a dent in the matches compared to the pay-to-win players? Eventually, they can upgrade all of their items without spending real money, but at an incredibly slow pace. Should they endure and inch closer to the mountain top while the ones already there are just pelting them with rocks?
This is somewhat new territory for Nintendo, as this might be the first game under its wheelhouse with such a blatant pay-to-win model. Much like with everything Nintendo does, it feels like it is a couple of years behind the current curve. Most games nowadays allow microtransactions for solely cosmetic purposes. Pokémon Unite’s currency model feels like a game out of 2016, and not in a good way.
If this isn’t addressed soon, we might see the death of a blossoming community. Pokémon Unite has the bones of a solid MOBA that is easily approachable to new and interested players. However, when a game allows pay-to-win systems to exist, it gives the people who are willing to spend money an exploit-level advantage against those who don’t.
The future of this game will not be determined by what Pokémon or what new game modes are added, it will be determined by how Nintendo handles this situation.