My good colleague, Billy Murphy, early last week wrote about five things we should stop complaining about. The fifth entry was random reward lootboxes and out of the entire list, I will never - as long as I draw breath - stop complaining about these. They are, as far as I’m concerned, a cancer across multiple genres, intended to do nothing more than extract money from unsuspecting players.
Often cheap to buy but with highly randomized rewards, they tap into the same vein as lottery tickets, scratch cards or slot machines: players are drawn into the prospect of “winning” despite odds that aren’t anywhere in their favor. For anyone who lacks control over their impulses or who is impressionable, they can prove an addictive but hollow quantity that all too often leaves players lighter in their wallets but still with the hope that “one more go” will secure them what they want.
Such an approach is the exact same system that casinos and bookmakers rely on when enticing customers to their roulette tables or high-stakes, high payout machines. They want players to have a compulsion - a behavior motivated by the desire to relieve a ‘need’ towards something - and in this instance, certainly in gaming, it’s most often rare cosmetic items. By pricing lootboxes cheaply, usually a few pounds or dollars, they’re affordable and potentially lucrative. Unfortunately, the reality is that the odds of success for anything remotely rare are often very slim and at times a fraction of a percentage. Irrespective, that doesn’t change the fact that lootboxes provide a valuable source of income for developers.
Their arrival into gaming isn’t anything new but my first experience with them was in Team Fortress 2 where they were appropriately named Mann Co. Supply Crates. To open the crate you would need to purchase a key from the store, at a cost of around $2.50. Although crates were easily obtainable just by playing, it was the keys that formed the backbone for the loot model. The Mann Co. Supply Crates were effectively enticing you to purchase a key and one assumes proved successful, based on Team Fortress 2’s revenues (no doubt hats helped a great deal).
Since playing Team Fortress 2, I’ve encountered lootboxes - in some form - in almost all the games I play and despite originally having spent money on them in Team Fortress 2, I haven’t since. I suspect with age and based on my personality, they simply don’t appeal. The lack of certainty at getting what I want, after handing over real money, is immediately off-putting. Unsurprisingly I don’t gamble in real life and find no pleasure in betting on horses, using a scratch card or even visiting a casino. Fortunately for game developers there are many players who are willing to gamble with their money in the hopes of landing lucky.
Guild Wars 2 is possibly the worst offender when it comes to lootboxes because not only have ArenaNet applied RNG to what’s inside, but the valuable content that you do want (Black Lion Ticket or Scraps) are so low in probability that it’s infinitely easier and cheaper to simply exchange your Gems for Gold and buy the weapon of your choice from the Trading Post. Unfortunately some poor sap, to provide the supply of weaponry, has clearly gone through the RNG misery.
Even Overwatch, a game unquestionably popular, isn’t averse to lootboxes and outside of players purchasing the game, relies solely on them for a continued revenue stream. While there’s absolutely no need to ever part with your cash to acquire them, everything of value in Overwatch is hidden behind them. This leaves you with little choice other than to rely on the trickle of them from actually playing the game, or stumping up and handing over your money: neither option is particularly satisfying.
It’s with interest, then, that I read the interview with Scott Hartsman (thanks again, Bill!) and his admission that “whenever there’s something purely cosmetic on the item stores less than one percent of the game population ever buy that item.” While I wouldn’t want to argue with his statistic, it would be short-sighted to just assume there’s no interest in direct cosmetic purchases (quite the contrary – see League of Legends). Instead, it’s usually the case and certainly in MMO’s, that players have little choice but to buy these lootboxes because most desirable items are bound to them.
Using Guild Wars 2 as an example once more, almost every single newly released weapon is in a Black Lion Chest, bound by RNG, instead of being found in the game world. It wouldn’t be surprising to find, were ArenaNet to reveal it, that Black Lion Keys actually sell considerably more than the armor sets you can buy. Fundamentally they have to because people need to constantly buy them to bully their way through the RNG, in the hopes of obtaining a Ticket or Scrap.
At the heart of any lootbox system players need the option to ignore them entirely and still stand a chance at getting what’s in them. While most games permit this (Overwatch and Guild Wars 2 certainly do) the pace of gain is always so painfully slow. All I ever think is “why can’t I just hand you $20 for the bloody skin?!” and the answer, simply, is because there’s more money to be made when gambling is involved. Unfortunately for the gamer, they always end up losing out unless they land extraordinarily lucky and until people stop spending money on the roulette wheel of lootboxes, developers will continue to utilise them.
My best advice? Don’t part with your cash irrespective of how tempting a lootbox is: the house always wins.