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Bribing Your Way to Victory

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"Never. Sell. Power. This is seriously micro-trans 101, but we still seem to have this temptation to squeeze the maximum amount of money out of our players by selling them things that alter the balance of gameplay."
Daniel Floyd, Extra Credits
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Don't feel like doing a quest to get the reward? Don't care about taking time to unlock the game's super ultra secrets? Or perhaps you just suck?

You may be in luck. For a "modest fee", the game's developers might be willing to sell you "something extra" to "boost your performance". Don't worry, it's "not really cheating" since anybody else could do the same, and you gotta trust the game's developers on this, right?

Rejoice, gamers, for now we can have Truth in Television Video Game FUs, where only the rich kids will have all the cool stuff.

Some online games do such a thing as a response to Real Money Trade, on the logic that players would do it anyway. The sister trope is the Allegedly Free Game, which advertises itself as "free to play" but requires purchases to unlock content, up to and including higher levels and/or the actual ending. To clarify, the difference between these tropes is that Real Money Trade is forbidden by the game's developers, while an Allegedly Free Game cannot be played in its entirety without paying money, and Bribing Your Way To Victory allows you to buy better stuff but doesn't lock you out of content.

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A common variant of this trope is to put in countless hours of incredibly dull Forced Level-Grinding with minimal content at the lower levels, then allow players to skip it by buying Experience Points and/or whatever currency they would otherwise need to grind out to progress. This essentially results in an Allegedly Free Game with the illusion of being able to Earn Your Fun, even though the latter is rendered useless since you rarely save more than a dollar per hour of grind compared to just coughing up the money - mowing the neighbor's lawn would be less work, more fun, and still pay more. In cases like this, and other situations where you can buy quicker access to stuff you can get in the game, it seems like the developers think their game is boring enough, at least at the early stages, that people will pay money to play less of it.

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This is very difficult to implement in a way that doesn't hurt the experience for players unwilling to spend the extra money.

A Real Life subset of Screw the Rules, I Have Money!.

See also Revenue-Enhancing Devices. In-game money doesn't count; it has to be real money.

Not related to Crimefighting with Cash.


Examples

    open/close all folders 

    Anime & Manga 
  • In the Lucky Star OVA, during the MMORPG segment, Nanako manages to defeat a monster whilst using a "Pizza-La" (which is an actual pizza chain in Japan) shield, which Konata explains to Kagami is a promotional item a player receives temporarily when ordering a pizza. Kagami comments that it feels like being ripped off.
  • Kyou in And You Thought There is Never a Girl Online? buys a lot of premium items the MMORPG Legendary Age that give her a huge advantage in battle, to the annoyance of Hideki and Akane.
  • In the backstory of Overlord (2012), while the New World was still a VR MMO, these items existed. Since a condition of membership to the guild of Ainz Ooal Gown was being gainfully employed in real life, the Supreme Beings of the guild had a steady supply of them, which contributed to their fearsome reputation. Even after being trapped in the New World as a physical place, Ainz still has his supply of cash shop items, and they're terrifyingly powerful in a world where they blatantly break the rules of reality. However, he can no longer replace them, and uses them very sparingly.
  • Gabriel Dropout: At the start of the anime, Gab plays a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game and picks a healer class, then runs out of MP, but conveniently gets a magic staff offer that costs real money to solve her problem. This can very well be interpreted as the moment everything went down-hill in her life.
  • This is how Mr. Satan keeps winning the World Martial Arts Tournament in Dragonball Z.
  • In Gundam Build Divers, the mysterious Big Bad of the series is doing this, selling "Break Decals" to players that increase their Gunpla's power substantially. On the downside, it's causing the Gundam Battle Nexus to experience terrible glitches. And he knows this.

    Card Games 
  • The Munchkin series of card games has a set of official T-shirts. According to the official tournament rules, wearing one of these shirts grants special powers, such as the ability to draw extra cards and increasing the amount of treasure you get when killing monsters. It also has a series of bookmarks that cancels out the effect of the t-shirts. In fact, all Munchkin related products affect the card game in some way.
    • Possibly the most outrageous example ever? A cookie.
    • One card lets you go up one level by, in the card description, bribing the GM with pizza.
    • Possible case of invocation of this trope, given the nature and tone of the game. Another basic rule is that cheating is OK if you don't get caught.
    • Not technically bribery, but you can start a game of Munchkin at Level 3 by donating to one of John Kovalic's charity bike rides.
  • Seen as the downfall of many a Collectible Card Game. It's not bad enough when players, (stereo)typically spoiled little kids who can scream "BUY ME THAT ULTRA-SUPER-DELUXE MEGARARE!" at their parents, can buy the rare and powerful cards or even entire pre-built "munchkin" decks from shops and collectors, but then the actual makers of the game have to get in on the act with "Buy this cheap tin box 'storage bin' and get a deluxe chromium omegarare card free! Only thirty bucks!" A designer who doesn't want to be accused of this should decide rarity by complexity instead of power.
    • Somewhat inverted when Wizards of the Coast released a Magic: The Gathering boxset containing tournament-winning decks from two of the best professional Magic players, including several expensive rares. The catch was that the cards had visual notifiers marking them as not tournament-legal, and thus effectively worthless on the resale market.
      • Furthermore, there are 'Limited format' tournaments, where the price of entry (around $20) includes several packs of cards, which the tournament participants must then make decks out of (in some versions, the player is limited to whichever packs were given him at random; in others, the players pass the packs around the table and pick a single card). At the end, cards are kept (though rares are sometimes put aside to be handed out, with higher ranking participants going first.) Because cards are chosen non-randomly, this is actually a cheaper method of obtaining the cards you want.
    • The Star Wars Customizable Card Game managed to work Screw the Money, I Have Rules! into the rules. Many conflicts in the game are resolved by chance, but instead of rolling dice you draw the top card of your deck and check its "Destiny" value, which goes from 0 to 7. This was supposed to reflect how the Force in Star Wars is often with the underdog: cards which were rare, powerful and expensive had low Destiny, whereas the common and sucky ones had high values. Thus, players with cheaper cards get more luck. In the end, it actually didn't work, but it was still a nice try.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh! is a major offender (yet not at Munchkin levels), although for very different reasons. UDE has an annoying habit of increasing the number and rarity of cards in the expansion sets before releasing them, as well as making it easy for retailers to pluck those cards out and sell them as singles. The only people able to get the better cards are either rich enough to buy them from the retailer, at high prices; buy whole boxes, at high prices; or have the luck to find an honest retailer.
    • Ever since UDE was dropped as a distributor in the West, Konami has continued the practice, but toned down the blatant practice slightly for a while. Their rarities got shuffled, but at most a card didn't go higher than Ultra Rare (compared to UDE's 'powerful card=highest rarity possible' tactic). The more useful cards get bumped down a bit, like Blackwing - Sirocco of the Dawn, a cornerstone piece in a Blackwing Deck, one very powerful deckstype, is a Common in US, compared to the Japanese Super Rare. Of course, since then, they've gone back to the well, bumping up countless formerly Common or Rare cards up to Secret and seeing their prices skyrocket.
      • For a very blatant example of UDE's tactic: Dark Armed Dragon is in the U.S. Secret Rare (one per BOX maximum chance, and a box is around 30 9-card packs) while the Japanese version is a Rare (second lowest in rarity) and can be found in one of every 5 5-card packs). It is a very common joke for a Japanese/non-US player to stumble upon an American bidding of the card and go, "80USD for a rare?!"
    • Also, the US tend to release TCG exclusive cards that can ONLY be found in the US version pack, with the minimum rarity of it an Ultra Rare (3 Ultra Rares per Box). In retaliation of this, the OCG (Japanese/Asian base) also create exclusives but make them a 100% guaranteed pick from boosters (usually dedicated packs costing double the regular price of a booster), but also reprint TCG exclusives and make them dirt-cheap commons at worst or Super Rare (a rarity level below Ultra) at best.
    • Cyber-Stein. Dear god, Cyber-Stein. When it was first released in the TCG, it was exclusively a tournament prize, and only a rare few were handed out. This, combined with a fairly good effect that makes one turn kills extremely easily, meant that the one eBay auction that sold this card saw a bid of 20,000$ USD. (The bidder welshed, however, and the card was later sold for 7,000$.) Fortunately, the card saw a proper public release... way back in 2005, and hasn't had an appearance since. The OCG Cyber-Stein does not share the same problem, however, as it has appeared in a handful of sets, especially two structure deck appearances, meaning that the card is quite easy to come by.
  • The Illuminati New World Order SubGenius set has a card with a special ability that is activated by sending one dollar to the SubGenius Foundation. The card suggests that the other players require the user to actually mail the dollar.
  • You can play Alteil for free forever, getting all cards, even. Just don't expect to expand your deck as quickly as those who are willing to dish out dough. Oh, and there are also some cool customization stuff you can get with cash, but it is entirely optional.
  • Like Alteil, Shadow Era is a completely free, cross-platform CCG. Players who don't pay aren't limited by what they can get, only by how long it will take to get it.
  • There are several features of Shadowverse that can only be bought with real-life currency, but often these are merely cosmetic features (like card backs or alternate leaders) that do not offer any significant gameplay advantage. Monetary investment can allow players to purchase more packs and rapidly expand their collection but the game is already generous enough that this is not necessarily mandatory for success.
    • With the release of Rise of Bahamut, Cygames added preconstructed starter decks that can only be purchased with Crystals that are bought with real money. While the cards in those decks are no different from what can be obtained by playing the game normally (except for an alternate art legendary card), the decks are guaranteed to have a copy each of two different legendary cards, and buying 3 of them can easily allow a player to gather playsets of important gold or legendary cards and put together a competent deck for ranked matches, saving on vials that would otherwise be spent crafting them.
    • The third iteration of starter decks are a little more expensive (800 crystals, as opposed to 500 to 750 previously), the decks are more complete, with one containing two to three full playsets of archetype-important gold cards to help a new player get started in the Rotation format. On the other hand, said decks can only be purchased once, as opposed to up to three times with the previous ones, no longer contain alternate art legendary cards, and ultimately benefit a new player seeking to expand their collection more than a collector trying to round off playsets.
  • The Pokémon Trading Card Game, as of the Pokémon Black and White sets, has increased the rarity of the most powerful cards. This is a bane for not only players looking for some of these specific cards, but for collectors, as the quantity of these cards have increased too, requiring the spending of 3 to 4 times as much money to obtain a complete set than before.
    • The Pokémon Trading Card Game has tipped on its head now that 3 of the most powerful Pokémon cards, namely Darkrai EX, Mewtwo EX, and Rayquaza EX, of which all three have been proven to be strong cards (and in some cases, game breaking), having a copy of one of these cards sold in a tin, which would normally cost $40 online is now UNDER $30 with 4 BOOSTER PACKS.

    Comic Strips 

    Fan Works 
  • In Arcadia or Bust, one conventioneer could tell that Jim and Claire are not staying in a hotel and try to bribe them with paying for a night at a hotel and dinner if Jim drops out of the costume contest.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Cutthroat Kitchen invokes this with the ability to buy sabotages to either give yourself an advantage, or more commonly, hinder your opponents.

    LARP 
  • The live-action role-playing game NERO plays this very straight — you can straight out buy experience points with real-world money. There was a company which hired temporary workers by paying them in NERO experience points instead of dollars. They had to stop when someone pointed out that they were paying them the equivalent of 67c per hour, which is far below the legal minimum wage. And yet, some of the players preferred this to getting real money!

    Tabletop Games 
  • The parodic roleplaying game Violence: the Role-Playing Game of Egregious and Repulsive Bloodshed allows a player to improve his character's stats by paying the Game Master, or by sending money to the game's author.
  • Tracy Hickman, fantasy author and Dragonlance co-creator, often ran a "Killer Breakfast" joke role-playing event at conventions. Attendees would buy tickets for a chance to play pre-generated characters whom Mr. Hickman would kill out of the game as quickly as Rule of Funny allowed. Blatantly bribing him with snack food was often the best way to deflect his lethal attention to somebody else's character.
  • Hero Clix does a pretty good job of dodging this, keeping rarities reasonable and and power spread out well across the rarities. Of course, the secondary market means that completely escaping it is impossible — at Origins in 2014, the winning team cost over $300 on the secondary market (although this is an extreme case; it used two chase figures from a set that was much rarer than usual). By contrast, second place could have been easily purchased for under $50.
  • Scrabble For Cheaters does this in a tongue-in-cheek way. You can buy the ability to play proper nouns, add 10 points to any tile, or even make up entirely new words for a *cough* modest fee ($50 - $500 per use.) However, the tournament where this is taking place is a non-profit tutoring center, and all proceeds (i.e.: Scrabble-bribes) go to keeping it running.
  • The short-lived Fistful of Aliens toy/game line a fairly simple system: you would buy packs of aliens where the types were visible but their power levels (for tiebreakers between two aliens of the same breed) were not, plus a concealed "mutant" that combined two types and fought normally against those, would have a power level high enough to hammer any non-mutant, and instantly killed the third type; your lineup was typically limited to six standard aliens and one mutant. Now, sometimes in these packs you would find a Rare Alien Metallic Mutant that would kill all of the above, but that's not the real demonstration of this trope. No, that would be Jangutz Khan, the Big Bad. Rules-wise, he instantly defeated virtually anything except himself or a SciRoid, but also allowed players to field an entire team of mutants. He could never be found in random packs; you actually had to order him, and he would go so far as to come with a T-shirt! You could also only get the only enemies he couldn't instantly defeat by purchasing the SciRoid Battleship set. It's probably not surprising that the line only lasted two "seasons" before quietly disappearing.
  • In the Lamentations of the Flame Princess adventure The God That Crawls, there's a magic axle that can turn a normal chariot into a "Chariot of Unreality" - a flaming fireball that moves at incredible speed. If players use it for more than five rounds, they run the risk of their vehicle (and its passengers) breaking free from the conceptual realm and disintegrating. If this happens, the DM is to tell the players their characters are dead, and then collect their character sheets. The DM will then place each sheet in an envelope marked "PLEASE READ ME" along with their contact information and a note offering a reward, and then place each envelope in a public location. If someone contacts the DM, they're supposed to offer a reward equal to the price of a fast food meal (paid by the player); if the character sheet does actually make it back and the player pays up, their character is restored with a 10-40% increase in experience points.

    Web Animation 

    Web Comics 

    Web Original 
  • Cracked.com's Why Shopping In A Video Game Universe Sucks has a character coming in to buy a sword, for an exorbitant amount of in-game currency (400,000 Credits), or "$10 American". He responds with "no, this is where I draw the line. I swore I would never do... this". He hems and haws over it for a little bit, and finally asks if they take Visa upon being informed that it turns enemies into chickens.
  • From Jim And Yahtzees Rhymedown Spectacular: Yahtzee takes on Death at Words With Friends, and beats him using microtransactions. It Makes Sense in Context.
  • Gaia Online is a forum and gaming site that's centered on buying things to customise your avatar, home, car and such. You can buy with gold (earned in-site) or Gaia Cash (bought with money). The "pay to win" situation and the broken gold economics underneath since the change of management in 2013 are bad enough to warrant being mentioned as an example in a textbook.
    • In their MMO ZOMG Power-ups were primarily bought with Gaia Cash, which requires real monies. Though they were also allowed to be resold on the Marketplace, inevitably for high amounts of Gaia Gold. Rings with high-level attacks also used to be allowed to be freely sold player to player for Gaia Cash before the massive backlash of this trope, but the site creators caught on and locked them to accounts.
    • In the 2009 Halloween event, certain amounts of followers were needed to perform specific actions. Usually you get followers by having people on the forums choose to follow you, however, if you'd rather not go to all that trouble, you could buy virtual followers with real money.
    • With the release of Flynn's Booty, Flynn's Chest, and other Gaia Cash items that give you millions and/or billions of gold instantly, hyperinflation is going beyond control. Some junk items already sell for thousands of in-game currency.
    • Since 2015, the main shops all sell for Gaia Cash as well as gold, there are special stores that are Gaia Cash only, and the player to player market allows players to buy items with gold or Gaia Cash at the rate of 1 Gaia Cash being worth 50 million gold. To compare values your first forum post of the day was then worth 100 gold (unchanged from the pre-inflation value when it was actually useful) with the value decreasing each time you post that day or you can spend under a penny and get something worth 50 million gold right away. If someone buys an item from another player for Gaia Cash the seller gets gold instead which only further devalues Gold. When faced with grinding for months to get a single item or paying fifty cents most people bribe their way to victory.
    • Thankfully, more recently, steps have been made to actually ease the economic crisis of the site, removing the cash shop "gold generators" mentioned above, setting the automatic gold grant of forum activity to fluctuate with the economy (granting more when it's higher and less when it's lower), and a free daily "chance item" (formerly Cash Shop exclusives) to help newbies get going. Prices are still ridiculously high, but much of it has gone down, and it doesn't feel quite so overwhelming anymore.

    Western Animation 
  • In a rather literal case of "pay to win", the Gravity Falls episode "Fight Fighters" features a machine at the arcade that on the outside merely reads "Insert Token!" where you'd expect the name of the game. Stan is curious and inserts a token, upon which the machine immediately says "Congratulations! YOU WIN!", and the screen flashes right back to "Insert Token!". That's right, "Insert Token!" is the game title.

    Real Life 
  • In the UK, there is a mathematical competition called the Senior Mathematical Challenge. There are also 2 follow-on rounds, the British Mathematical Olympiad Round 1 and Round 2. You need a certain score in each competition to advance to the next. That is, unless you pay a fee (£16.50 for Round 1, £22 for Round 2). So you can be really good at maths, yet be in the final round with people who are terrible at math, but paid the fee. That said, the later rounds are much more demanding and require full mathematical arguments to be given, so if you don't have good enough mathematical ability to have got through the previous rounds, you'll do even worse in the later ones. Less "bribing your way to victory" and more "bribing your way to having another opportunity to be defeated".
  • A very old technique of Real Life strategists. In most wars—in a sense all wars—each side is composed of a multitude of factions whose interests happen to coincide. The Byzantine Empire for instance would pay chieftains on the opposing side to defect.
    • During World War II the British gold coins with an image of Saint George slaying a dragon that were typically used to pay for covert ops were referred to as British "cavalry".
  • The difficulty of most college level math and science classes is directly proportional to how cheap your calculator is. With just a basic pocket calculator, they're almost impossible, because everything needs to be memorized and then done by hand. With early level graphing calculators, like the TI-83 and 84, which cost about $80, there are a lot of tricks and shortcuts you can use, like graphing a function to tell you where its intercepts are, or using the nDeriv() button to tell you what the derivative of a function is at any point, which will help you get through most early science and pre-calc classes easily enough. With high end graphing calculators like the TI-89 and TI-89 Platinum though, which cost about $150 each, you can just enter the problem into the calculator and watch as it gives you an answer. Things like giving you derivatives and anti-derivatives in the form of equations instead of only telling you their numerical value when X is a certain number. That's the answer to test questions on 200 level calculus classes right there. Some teachers try to mitigate this by requiring students to show their work, but working backwards from the answer is still much easier than finding it yourself, and few check shown work that closely.
    • Hence why most teachers ban the calculators on tests if it would give you an advantage. Depending on the punishment for cheating, it's probably not worth trying to sneak one in. Obviously different if the class requires said calculator to perform the maths, in which case the calculator is required for the course, and can be paid with student loans/financial aid. (Speaking college level here... if it's in grade school, most teachers just ban the calculators outright).
  • In The Napoleonic Wars, Britain paid most of Europe's crowning heads a number of hefty subsidies, referred to as the "Golden Cavalry of St. George", to either keep them fighting the French, or stop them fighting the British. It was very effective. When it came to foreign policy, Napoleon was hopelessly outplayed by an economic naval superpower going around the continent handing out shit-tons of cash like an air hostess with a bowlful of boiled sweets, while he himself had to run his empire on a shoestring budget because the Royal Navy was stopping him from trading with anybody.
  • Any team-based pro sport without an enforced salary cap is prone to this, as rich teams can simply snap up all of the best players and steamroll the rest of the opposition. Salary caps make this strategy flat-out suicidal; teams that stack star players will find themselves hitting the cap very quickly, forcing them to fill the rest of the team with low-value garbage and making Crippling Overspecialization very much an issue.
    • Of course, paying aging players large sums of money based on their past success does not necessarily translate to success. The New York Yankees had baseball's highest payroll from 2000-2013 and were only able to win two World Series championships. By the early New Tens, the Steinbrenners realized that trying to buy their way to victory wasn't sustainable and so the team began to dump their highest paid players, reduce their spending on free agents, and focus more on developing minor league prospects.
    • Also some teams, particularly in the NBA, have learned to game this system, stacking players for one or two-year runs; banking on players being willing to take one-year lesser deals at a discount in order to play on a stacked roster and/or a desirable location (the 2007-2008 Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat from 2012 to 2014, and the 2016 to 2018 Golden State Warriors being championship examples)

Alternative Title(s): Pay To Win

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