In 2005, before mobile gaming shaped the pay-to-win landscape with hundreds of Skinner box inspired apps, I willingly entered a bittersweet and protracted relationship with a then newborn World of Warcraft. At the time, I was studying something I didn’t want to study, working someplace I didn’t want to work, and living with someone I didn’t want to live with. Ostensibly, World of Warcraft provided an element of agency otherwise absent from a life of constraints and compromise.

It wasn’t until years later that the roots of my obsession surfaced, and through hundreds of Hot Pockets and hand-crafted mountains of cereal boxes, I realized that it was the online relationships — forged in the crucible of make-believe war — that helped rank the importance of my Warcraft subscription between keeping the lights on and buying groceries.

Fast forward to 2016: the framework of my life is very different, but those in-game friendships, bonds and memories — now mostly lost to adult commitments and responsible hobbies — remain tangled in my habits like an ex-smoker’s tar coated lungs. And while World of Warcraft hasn’t quenched my thirst for escape in nearly a decade, its social constructs, unabashedly influenced by years of temperamental online multiplayer experimentation, still call for me in various forms.

The worst of which being Game of War, the app store sensation that practically prints money for developer/publisher Machine Zone, and made me its bitch for longer than I’m willing to admit.

World of Warcraft vanilla

If you’re unfamiliar with Game of War (which is nearly impossible considering its outrageous ad campaign featuring Kate Upton’s cleavage), it’s a strategy game not unlike Civilization, tasking players with managing an assortment of quests, buildings, battles and, perhaps most importantly given its exaggerated title, war. And while superficially it’s an adequate time-waster, there’s a shallowness to its shameless, almost audacious demand for continuous investment.

It’s true that Game of War — not unlike many recent app store hits (*cough* Candy Crush Saga *cough*) — manipulates eager players into spending money by drip-feeding rewards, dangling opportunities for virtual achievement, and advertising flashy “must have” sales with Kate Upton’s — and more recently Mariah Carey’s — boobies on every loading screen, it’s ultimately the alliance system that takes the cake for practically selling happiness.

Like in World of Warcraft, and nearly every MMORPG since, Game of War features an engaging alliance setup that welcomes newcomers to a motivated playerbase, offering incentives to those who participate and remain active within its ranks.

Successful alliances in Game of War work a lot like you’d expect, with group leaders at the tippy top shelling out hundreds if not thousands of dollars to keep a competitive edge in their respective realms, shipping resources to newbies in hopes they too grow from tadpole spender to whale, frequently offering useful advice, shields during dangerous events, and friendly conversation by way of the game’s chat system, which, impressively, offers concurrent chatter across the globe.

And that’s really where the waters get murky. In World of Warcraft, being responsible for wiping an instance or raid can be devastating, but there’s no real loss (discounting time commitments). In Game of War, everything you’re given, be it resources like wood and stone, or boosts like speedups and attack debuffs, cost somebody REAL money. Not a subscription for an entire world of possibilities, but an in-app purchase that ranges from an affordable $5 (offered only once to new players), to a mind-boggling $100.

In Game of War, your allies — friends, whatever — are just that supportive, encouraging your participation in the never-ending spending cycle. After all, if you’re not a help, you’re a hindrance.

Game of War trailer screenshot

After a few days or weeks or months of clicking at free gifts and donated materials, you’ll feel obligated to help your groupmates, gain a little power and influence, maybe rally some troops for an alliance buddy or spend your life savings on making the leaderboard for a kingdom event. The connections you form with other members start to mean something, and careful consideration melts into puddles of careless spending.

Investing in advancement becomes less about yourself and more about the greater good, especially during hectic kingdom vs. kingdom events, or battles for the realms “wonder” — activities only major spenders can truly enjoy.

Yes, playing Game of War made me happy on occasion. It brought back memories of late night raiding and a supplemental dose of social interaction, but it was a happiness that cost me more than I could afford. It’s a happiness that costs more than anyone should afford. At some point, paying to progress starts feeling like paying the cool kids to come to your birthday party — a temporary boost of satisfaction followed by quiet regret.

Maybe I’ve been playing games wrong, but fun shouldn’t come with maintenance fees. And although I was lucky enough to escape the clutches of nostalgia and artificial friendship without too many scars and bruises, Game of War continues to dominate the app market, proving only one thing is certain when it comes to the ever popular pay-to-win genre: happiness is expensive.