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Pokémon Unite feels a little too ‘pay to win’ for some players

The Pokémon MOBA’s competitive balance is upended by free-to-play monetization

Froakie, Vulpix, Squirtle, Charmander, and Pikachu in a still from a Pokémon Unite cinematic Image: TiMi Studio Group/Tencent Games/The Pokémon Company

Pokémon Unite, The Pokémon Company’s popular free-to-play MOBA on Nintendo Switch, has a system that many players are criticizing as “pay to win” and unfair for the competitive integrity of the newly released game.

Early on, players can earn Aeos Coins (capped at 2,100 per week) and Tickets. Either of these currencies can be used to purchase held items in the Aeos Emporium. Held items are similar to items in traditional Pokémon games and can be equipped to a single Pokémon. In Pokémon Unite, they increase stats like health, defense, movement speed, and attack. Each held item can be upgraded to increase those benefits up to 30 times. To do so, you need to invest in yet another currency: Item Enhancers.

Here’s where fans of Pokémon Unite are calling the game “pay to win.” Item Enhancers are normally earned via limited time challenges and the battle pass. You can also spend 10 Aeos Tickets to purchase them, but if you don’t have enough, you can purchase them with Aeos Gems — Unite’s real money currency. If you choose to get them that way, the exchange rate for Aeos Gems to Item Enhancers is one to one. That means to upgrade an item for the first several levels, it’ll only cost you around $1. But as you upgrade, the number of required Item Enhancers increases, which results in about $40 needed to fully upgrade them 30 times. Without real money, you’ll need to spend several hours to upgrade the first 10 or so levels and many, many more past that.

None of this would matter if the stat increases didn’t impact the game all that much, but in the context of a MOBA, where small advantages snowball into big advantages as the game progresses, they very much do. An item like Shell Bell goes from 1.6 increased special attack at level 1 to 24 at level 30. The Assault Vest increases its base increased health tenfold by max level. Equip three of these maxed-out items in a single match and you’ll easily eclipse any opponents in gained levels and strength no matter what stage the game is at.

Twitch streamer moistcr1tikal demonstrated this method in a popular YouTube video last week. You can see him play matches where the enemy team can barely leave their spawn with how much damage he was able to put out. What’s worse is that it’s currently impossible to tell what items your opponents have, so it’s difficult to even strategize against players like him. It’s possible that matchmaking might take held items into account, but in order to see steady improvement in the game’s ranked mode, you might need to put forth some cash.

Fans of the game have been discussing this issue with the game since its release, comparing it to traditional gacha games with several currencies made to obscure efficient methods of earning them in favor of spending real money. Along with the held items, many players are also upset with how long it takes to accrue Aeos Coins to purchase new Pokémon.

Many players hope that Nintendo and developer TiMi Studio Group will fix these issues — along with other issues — in a future patch. The developer’s other popular free-to-play games, like Arena of Valor and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile: Army Attack, don’t get as much ire for egregious “pay to win” tactics as Pokémon Unite. At the time of this writing, neither Nintendo nor TiMi Studio Group have responded to the criticisms, but a recent player survey could help direct the developer toward change.

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