There is good and bad in nearly everything. Often it can simply be a matter of how you present something that can paint public perception. The latest hotness in conversation is that of loot boxes. You might not know this about me, but I spent a very long time working on games with loot boxes in them back before many people even really knew what they were.
Indeed, I have seen the good and the ill that these little trinkets can cause. It has painted my personal perception of them and I would love to show that painting to those interested. My plan in this article is to tell you my opinions on the is it gambling and does that matter? What’s the good, the bad, the necessity, and the how about execution? Perhaps not in this order and certainly don’t be surprised if you see me jumping about.
I planned for this like most things in my life, which means I didn’t plan for this.
Firstly, I just want to get this out of the way. Loot Boxes are, and have always been, gambling. You might be wondering if I think Magic: The Gathering is gambling, or any other number of randomized pack opening schemes. Yes, all of them are. The only question that anyone should be asking is how far will it be allowed to go. How young are you comfortable with and how manipulative are you comfortable with? Finding examples in the real world of unregulated gambling doesn’t mean that loot boxes aren’t gambling. Just like finding legalized drugs in the world doesn’t mean that illegal drugs aren’t illegal. We live in an unjust world and lots of things are very by the seat of our pants.
This isn’t a value judgment, this is just common sense. Every single argument I’ve ever seen used to say these things aren’t gambling could be applied to actual games literally in Vegas right now. Guaranteed minimum return, a necessity of value, the tangible nature of the good, these things and more are all either present in Vegas or already the case for the items in question. If a product didn’t have value, you wouldn’t pay for it.
But this shouldn’t even matter. Gambling isn’t inherently evil, and I’d argue it isn’t even special. Much like the Tomato argument, most of the debate really would be about whether you tax it at one rate or the other. Is it a vegetable, is it a fruit? The legal definition doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. A rose by any other name.
With that squashed and definitely nobody writing rebuttals about it, lets move onto the positives of loot boxes. You might be thinking there aren’t any! While I definitely believe you can always do it better with flat MTX, I’m going to discuss this with the understanding that these things will exist. I mentioned earlier that I’m going to be discussing things out of order and mixed, and indeed we are about to see it here.
You can easily add loot boxes to an experience and not have the world come crashing around you. In many ways it comes down to honesty. When I worked on F2P games the bulk of our profits came from loot boxes. The translation on them was broken for a few games so they were called “Gotcha” boxes. You’d add money and then the text “Gotcha!” would appear and frequently you’d get bupkiss. In hindsight that’s kinda funny, especially when you consider that it wasn’t intended to mock the player. It was a situation of non-English speakers trying their best to translate things.
But for the player, it wasn’t quite so funny. Naturally we fixed this but the next problem arose. In Korea there were (perhaps still are) laws against how long you could play a game. Somehow it was totally legal to sell you more time. So in the gatcha boxes you would get energy pills that refilled your energy and let you play more missions. These were the bulk of what came out of the box. Since the team didn’t want people buying them they set them up to sell for a single in game coin.
Keep in mind these boxes at their cheapest were generally between 3 and 5 dollars and it went up from there.
When this system came over to the US you had boxes you spent 3 to 5 dollars on and most of the time you got an item that sold for a single coin. And in the US that item did nothing. There was no energy system here because we have no law for that.
Here you are, a likely North American player, spending 5 dollars a pop to get almost literally nothing. You’d need hundreds if not thousands of these to sell them to buy even the cheapest item in the game. It was, as you’d guess, not well received.
A few months passed and many complaints came in. I was finally given the power to actually edit these things. I started making some obvious changes. The first was that you couldn’t get duplicates from the boxes. It made no sense, even with our freakishly small Korean team there was enough content made before launch to keep bringing out new planes for an entire year without a single new thing being made. Each month we’d just add new planes to these boxes and Bob’s your uncle.
The next new thing was even more obvious. I removed the energy pills. This created a massive vacuum in the loot tables that needed to be filled. So obviously, being someone who hates disappointment, I filled that vacuum exclusively with items that would benefit the user in some way. Upgrade items for their weapons, upgrade items for their armor, upgrade items for their planes, and so on. These items weren’t exclusive to the physical goods in the box but you could very well save them up if you wished.
In doing so you literally gave the player agency without any kind of manipulation. They knew that they could spend X dollars and at worse they’d be seeing a guaranteed increase in their power. Additionally, if you stored all your items then once you DID get that rare plane from the box you could immediately upgrade it to maximum and feel like a total sky gangster.
At times I even told the users the drop rates for these boxes. Because a box that has nothing to hide doesn’t need to hide anything. Our complaints dropped from dozens nearly daily to perhaps two a month. Those generally were well warranted as well. Even though the odds of getting bupkiss over any reasonable sum of money was low, some people did manage to spend hundreds of dollars and not get what they wanted.
The response you got in this situation would go one of two ways. Either they’d be players from outside of the country and be incredibly sweet, or they’d be Americans and be absolutely furious. I can’t recall an exception but to the best of my memory I always handed them the items they were shooting for. They’d dropped far more cash than I could ever be comfortable doing. In cases where the player was genuinely done with the game I’d let them close the account and just refund them the money. But ultimately it was crucial that the experience not be predatory.
We were running a free game. Users could choose to support us by buying these boxes and I wanted to make sure that no matter what the surprise they got from them it was a welcome one. Anytime probability shit on one of our players I made certain to hand them a wipe and offer them a free meal (as it were).
In the end this fostered a community that I still miss to this day. They would educate new players, I would frequently find myself helping players trade items when the game wouldn’t let them, and overall it was the nicest group of people I’ve ever met online. I strongly believe a part of that was my transparency and adamant hatred of predatory practices.
Naturally we also sold a lot of things outside of boxes. But at the end of the day Korean F2P games and Gatcha Boxes are like FPS games and firearms. You kinda feel weird when they don’t have it most of the time.
I suppose one last point to make on this before I move on. I also recognized that the players were not just wallets and that beyond that even if they were not all wallets have anything in them. We made sure to frequently have free events that were very easy for people in most time zones to participate in. I routinely handed out gifts and on occasion we even had players spend money with the specific request that the raised revenue go towards a community event.
This all probably sounds very hippy dippy, and I admit that its not at all reasonable to expect every community would evolve into some kind of utopia. But I strongly believe that the flow of a community is determined by the build of the river. If you leave it to its own devices it will eventually break down, but if you maintain it you can keep all the beautiful curves and diversity that made you love it in the first place.
Now, we move onto the bad. How do you execute loot boxes in a way that will fire off a hell storm of rage and hatred from your community? Presentation is a big part of it. Even in our F2P games we didn’t navigate users to the shop. Not even once, much less all the time. Incredible greed and a lack of confidence are things that users will pick up on. I’ve heard it argued that the problem is “spinning” it the right way.
No action should require spin. You should be able to act openly. And if you can’t you should be able to express without spin why you cannot. I’ve seen it done. And that qualifier “without spin” is crucial, marketing speak is poison to any healthy community.
Building a progression system off of loot boxes has, in my experience, almost always lead to negative results. One size does not fit all, and not all genres are created equal. TCGs and games like them are literally built around the mechanic and they are honest about that, which is largely why nobody tries to light them on fire. There is no spin, no manipulation, and in both digital and physical there is not a single MTG card (that isn’t banned) that you can’t just buy flat out. It’s second party, but that ability helps to satiate both gamblers and non-gamblers alike.
I don’t believe they are many, if any, other genres where that system actually improves the experience. And once something is no longer improving an experience and it requires energy to satisfy, eyebrows begin to raise. If I’m being asked to spend money to circumvent a system that appears to have been added to motivate me to spend money I become defensive. This isn’t an uncommon response and it shouldn’t even be a surprise.
We’ve already hit a snag. We are trying to get people to spend money on something that they aren’t enjoying, they are tolerating it. That’s a very bad place to be. When you are seeing what your users will tolerate, rather than what they’ll enjoy, you have already sewed the seeds of contention. Good will fester and die in first order, sorry I mean short order.
It’s even how it has been presented to me. I’m willing to tolerate it in some situations. And this is entirely true. If you keep your cash shop well hidden and basically never ask me to visit it I will buy your game. If you ask me or, god forbid, you have a quest telling me to visit your cash shop I’ll likely not buy it until the complete edition if ever.
Duplicates are another system that does well to poison the well. Seeing a rare item flip or reveal to be worthless garbage is a fantastic way to raise a person into the sky and then body slam them through a table. Do that enough and its like shocking a mouse at random, they’ll become an anxious mess of anger and mistrust.
Progression or power tied to loot boxes is another bad move. This will usually be the death knell that finally tilts the scales into all out malice from your userbase. Because you are taking something they tolerate and making it unavoidable. You aren’t adding a sweet new mode, you are monetizing the game itself.
This is great if you see games as a product or as a service. But if you are someone that sees them as experiences or art this is likely to raise alarm bells. I suspect this ideological difference is what separates people. Certainly, most of my discussions in support of this always come back to the magical b word. “Business.”
I guess now that we’ve hit the big B, we might as well move onto the necessity. This comes back to our original discussion of honesty. You will note that the games that tend to monetize the hardest are generally games that are already slated to rake in incredible sums of cash from flat sales. In many cases these games have multiple versions already, they frequently have DLC, some have expansion passes (since we can’t say season pass anymore), preorder bonuses, store exclusives, and more.
These aren’t mom and pop shops trying their hardest to get out a game they’ve slaved over while eating ramen. These are companies that see a billion plus dollars of profits every year. And that’s not a billion plus sales, I’m talking the cash you get to swim in after you pay your bills.
As best as I can tell, and I’m willing to relent if any evidence ever comes up that suggests otherwise, major publishers are making sums of cash that you can’t even fathom. A billion dollars is an inconceivable amount of money. And, again, that’s not the yearly income, that’s profits. That’s a billion dollars a year of money that could be used for anything.
But it isn’t, like most companies these higher profits largely get sourced to the top. You aren’t paying extra money so that developers can stay employed. Because if a billion extra dollars can’t keep them employed, nothing can.
You are paying extra money because a small group of extremely wealthy people want to be even more extremely wealthy. And frankly that’s not something I actually have a problem with. Everyone has the right to want more, even if after a point it does start to look rather disgusting. My problem is the lie. Just be honest. If you want to fleece people, to abuse addictive personalities, and to subsidize games on the backs of people who need help, I can’t really stop you. But at least be honest.
Do what I did when I ran loot boxes. Tell people the rates, make them routinely pleasant, and explain to people that you really would like another mansion.
A closing point, since this is all very long in the teeth and I don’t want it to get any more ranty. Don’t let anyone tell you that games are the only entertainment medium that hasn’t gotten more expensive. This is the exact opposite of reality.
For the cost of a single trip to McDonalds you can get a month of unlimited access to hundreds of different full shows on a handful of services. For that same cost you can get a month of unlimited access to more music than you could listen to in dozens, if not hundreds, of human lifetimes.
For the cost of a single DVD when I was a kid I can watch thousands of films worth of media. For the cost of a single CD when I was a kid I can listen to thousands of hours of music. For the cost of a handful of comics as a kid I can read nearly every marvel comic ever written.
And these things work (and occasionally don’t work) because the number of people buying things and the buying power of people that are buying things hasn’t remained static since 1970. And to be blunt they frequently don’t work because monopolies decide they want a bigger cut or they try to bring things back to the status quo.
But that’s a topic for another day! Basically, all I want at the end of the day is honesty. Because with that honesty there will be fewer people surprised when Loot Boxes become part of the status quo alongside all the other monetization in games now, rather than a replacement.