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LONG BLOG

Do loot boxes need transparency?

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A friend suggested to me that people would rather listen than read these days. So I have provided a youtube reading for those interested - Sorry about the voice.

It’s looking more and more like loot boxes are going to be part of gaming for the foreseeable future. Be it Overwatch, Shadow of War, Battlefront 2 or Assassin’s Creed, this is where we live now. For many of us, this is an unfortunate reality but it is something we are going to have to endure for at least the next few years. Over the past few weeks, there has been an ongoing discussion in gaming communities on whether or not loot boxes should be classified as gambling. Some people want to see loot boxes classified as a form of gambling as a means to protect gamers vulnerable to addictive behaviors; other people see classifying loot boxes as gambling as a way to push back against publishers. What I haven’t seen talked about as much, but is equally important in my mind is the lack of transparency in loot box systems.

So, what do I mean by transparency in loot box systems? Let’s define that. For me, a transparent loot box would be a loot box which displays the exact probability of the items inside before the customer purchases the loot box. Using Overwatch as an example. Imagine when a customer goes to buy a loot box, that there is an information button they can click next to the purchase button. This info button would expand into a box that would explain that each loot box drops 4 items and each item has a 4.5% chance of being an Epic quality item and a 1.8% chance of being a legendary item. For the record, these are the actual numbers Blizzard published for their Chinese version of Overwatch. The information may or may not still be accurate as Blizzard no longer has the information public.

That information would be the absolute bare minimum for a transparent loot box. The system should be much more transparent. Staying with Overwatch. The game should also be providing drop rate information character each character if the drop rates are not uniform across the board. If Zarya skins drop more frequently than Mei skins, and you are buying boxes to try and get a Mei skin, this is useful information. Likewise, the actual skins themselves, if they have different drops rates beyond rarity rates, that information should also be conveyed to customers. A customer should know if Mei’s Firefighter skin drops half as often as her Yeti Hunter skin.

Now, some of you might be thinking that this is a little over the top. Way too much information. After all, loot boxes are basically just booster packs from trading card games but for video games. When you buy a booster pack, you might know the ratio of common, uncommon and rare cards before you buy the pack, but you are unlikely to know the odds of any specific rare being in the pack. So why do we need this information for loot boxes but not for booster packs? I assure you there is a very important reason.

So the reason is basically Activision. Well, not them specifically and not them alone, but I am going to pick on them. It recently made the news in gaming circles that Activision had filed a patent back in 2015 which showed they were exploring the idea of how matchmaking could be utilized to promote the sale of microtransactions. There were a couple of examples of how this could work in the patent. A player could be matched against a more skilled player of the same role to promote the less skilled player purchasing the items used by the veteran. Another example suggested making a player’s games easier after they purchase an item to make them feel good about their purchase. While this idea may be simultaneously brilliant and horrifying the matchmaking aspect of the patent is not directly relevant to our topic of loot boxes. What is relevant is what allows this the matchmaking system to function. The system functions because the game is capable of putting together different fragments of information on the player to learn what items each player desires. Did you mouse over that sniper rifle in the shop for 10 seconds longer than any other item? Do you have more play time with a certain class? Do you spend more time spectating a certain type of player when dead? The game can create a profile for each player. Now let’s bring this profile idea over to loot boxes.

We currently have no transparency in our loot box systems. We also know games are capable of building player profiles and learning what items a player wants. Do you see the potential problem here? Currently, there is absolutely nothing stopping a developer or publisher from rigging loot boxes for maximum profit based on individual player profiles. There are countless ways loot boxes could be manipulated without players knowing. Maybe the loot boxes you are awarded for free are more likely to award you duplicates or items for classes you don’t play. Maybe the game knows you want a specific sniper rifle, but it also thinks you're willing to buy 5 loot boxes to get it. So the first 4 loot boxes have a 0% chance to drop the sniper rifle while the 5th box has a 100% chance for the sniper rifle. But hey, at least those first 4 boxes might have had an attachment for your sniper rifle. In this scenario, I pity the player the game thinks will buy 20 boxes for the sniper rifle.

Now, I want to stress that I am not accusing any game of rigging loot boxes right now. I’m just putting forward the idea that without any transparency loot boxes could be rigged and players would have no real way of knowing. Without transparency, you are putting your faith in publishers like EA and Activision to not cheat their players out of money when they know they can get away with it. That, that is a big leap of faith, bigger for some publishers than others. At least if all of the drop rates were public knowledge players could collate information and compare with the advertised drop rates to make sure everything drops the way it should. It might still be possible to rig loot boxes with a transparent system, but the extra information and the law of large numbers would help to significantly reduce the scope of the potential rigging.

What do you think? Is this too tin foil hat? Do you think publishers are above exploiting their players like this? Would you welcome the drop rates of loot boxes becoming public knowledge? This is something I've been mulling over since I played the Battlefront 2 beta and I'm interested to hear what other people think of the idea.

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About MJBone of us since 2:57 AM on 08.29.2017

Avid gamer, future author. Looking for a place to practice my writing and hopefully receive criticism on it.