Before Magic: the Gathering really hit big, the crew from Wizards of the Coast did a “tour” of game stores down the west coast of the United States, showing off their game. I just happened to be visiting a game store on the day that the crew was there showing off the game and explaining the rules. Peter Adkinson himself demoed the game for my friend and I, and I immediately fell in love with the mechanics. Then I saw the game had “booster packs” which were completely foreign to me at the time.
I asked Peter about these, and he told me they contain random cards that you can use to customize your deck. I processed what he just said, and I repeated back to him, “you mean, I can buy a ton of these packs and make a deck made up entirely of the best cards?”
His response was simple. He said, “That’s the idea.”
I replied back, “You are going to make… so… much… money.” He simply smiled and I went off to purchase about $100 worth of what would later be dubbed “Alpha” magic cards. And yes, my friends and I played a ton, and yes, we played for ante, and yes, none of us used card sleeves. Our wearing down of those cards are why mint Alpha cards are worth so much today.
Collectible Card Games became an entire subset of the gaming industry. Companies rose from nothingness with innovation, and just as many crashed as printing and development costs outweighed any profits they attempted to see. The thrill of opening a pack of cards and seeing what it contained was like Christmas morning every time you went to the game store. It was only a matter of time before this concept was married into games where you were already spending money on a monthly basis.
Does this prey on addictive personalities? Yes, it does. Does it poke at the players who “gotta have it all”? Absolutely. Does it make money for the developer? You bet.
If you ever purchased a quantity of “packs” in an MMO you know that there are some packs you got that had absolutely nothing of value to you (or nothing even approaching the value of the pack, at the very least). Although every pack contains “something” there are those packs where all the something is virtually worthless. Those packs are pure profit to the developers. You just gave them money for something you have no use for.
Games that have included these packs will see that they substantially move the needle when they are introduced, especially if they contain “chase” items that have a 1 in 100 (or worse) chance of dropping. These get people buying tons of packs to get a single item they desire.
Some games allow you to sell the contents of the packs. Star Wars: The Old Republic binds the items of the packs to you for 36 hours, but after that point you can sell/trade the items. This allows for an alternative acquisition method for the items in the packs: buy them with in-game currency from other players. You see, since a 1:100 item might have taken someone 200 or 300 packs to get through the laws of randomness, someone else might get it in 5 or 10 packs, or even their very first one! Of these people who are not interested in the item, but in the currency it can be converted into, they will be willing to sell it for a decent price. If that price is something you are willing to pay, you have a transaction that leaves all parties satisfied. Player A gets in-game money for something they spent real money on, Player B gets an item for in-game money instead of real money, and the Developer got their money in the end, because if no one bought the pack to begin with, the item wouldn’t exist.
With SWTOR’s 36 hour bind time, prices (in in-game currency) for items from the packs start off extremely high 36 hours after a new pack is introduced, but as time goes on, the prices come down as more and more of the items are found in packs and unbind. It will be interesting to see if this cannibalizes pack sales as time goes on, as items in the packs are freely available for purchase in-game for credits. If the 36 hour timer gets stretched to 48 hours or even longer, or is removed altogether, that will be an indication that they are seeing a substantial drop in sales over time and start experimenting to see what they can do to sustain sales for the longest period possible.
Some games offer up a different tact to the selling of packs, and that is the selling of keys that unlock containers. These containers drop from kills in the game world. This is very similar to just selling packs, except you need to have acquired the container first. Now, some players want nothing to do with these systems at all, and this is the system where they are rewarded the most, by unloading their unwanted containers to players who are willing to shell out real money for the keys. But all the while, some of those players will be enticed by the sheer possibility of what their container might contain, and spend money for keys themselves. It’s a different play on the psychology of the packs, but the end result is the same: the developer makes money, the players get rare and powerful items, and in the end, everyone should be happy.