“The power of [loot] is a curious thing,
Make-a one man weep and another man sing…”
Very occasionally I come across an article that resonates so deeply with my own experience that it spawns a response here on MisspentYouth. It happened with the 25th anniversary of the original Sim City in 2015, and now its happening again thanks to this Kotaku Australia editorial on the ethics of paid loot boxes.
From Heather Alexandra’s Loot Boxes Are Designed To Exploit Us:
“…we need to acknowledge what loot boxes are. They’re slot machines in everything but name, meticulously crafted to encourage player spending and keep them on the hook.” -HA
This particular article struck a chord with me because it goes beyond the numbers in examining publisher-client relationships to reveal a negative human outcome that may be far more damaging than is regularly acknowledged. Alexandra identifies the provision of loot boxes as one way* in which modern day game developers leverage psychological principals and potential human vulnerability to maximise their income streams. Admittedly I have no game development or publishing experience to draw on here, but should it be comparable to other commercial enterprises I suspect that the risk factors associated with manipulative game design become easier to overlook as the potential for profit increases. Video games are typically highly-engaging flights of fancy and as such gamers are ready to invest their available resources heavily:- be those resources emotional, financial or simply the minutes and hours of their life. But how is this devotion seen by each side of the relationship?
“The goal is to hand out loot frequently enough that players always believe they’re on the verge of getting good loot while also keeping probability low enough to encourage the purchase of additional crates.” – HA
I’ll be updating this post to include explanations from developers or publishers as I find them, but it won’t come as a surprise at this point to hear that my own perspective aligns with the above quote completely. I have encountered random reward packages in both free-to-play games like Nintendo’s Fire Emblem: Heroes and paid releases such as Blizzard’s Overwatch. Free loot boxes anchor Overwatch’s progression loop in a way that keeps the player’s eyes on the prize; in this case a handful of random items which may or may not be of value to you. There is always the option of spending additional real-world currency to purchase them in bulk, thereby increasing the chances of obtaining items you actually desire for the characters you actually play. Someone less cynical could view loot boxes as simple gestures of good will from an appreciative development team to their player base, however the extensive time commitment typically required to earn them suggests that they are in fact functioning as the free hit intended to prompt additional play time and financial outlay. I for one recognise that my ability to make sensible decisions is compromised when I’m just one or two games away from the next progression level and random reward drop. Turn it off and get more sleep? Yeah, right. How dangerous would this impetus be were I to start spending money and not just time on the game?
“Loot boxes… encourage real life sales by providing rewards that are rare and yet seemingly always attainable if frequently tantalizingly out of reach.” -HA
This potent combination of desirable rewards and algorithmically drip-fed winnings bears a striking similarity to the economics behind lotteries and casinos. The gaming industry’s overseeing body, however, disagrees with the proposal that loot boxes are a form of gambling. Another recent Kotaku article stated:
“[The Entertainment Software Rating Board] does not consider loot boxes to be gambling,” said an ESRB spokesperson in an email to Kotaku. “While there’s an element of chance in these mechanics, the player is always guaranteed to receive in-game content (even if the player unfortunately receives something they don’t want). We think of it as a similar principle to collectible card games: Sometimes you’ll open a pack and get a brand new holographic card you’ve had your eye on for a while. But other times you’ll end up with a pack of cards you already have.” -Jason Shreier
My issue with the comparison of loot boxes to Collectible Card Games’ (often and importantly referred to as Trading Card Games) booster packs is in their subsequent functions. Whether you collect basketball cards as a hobby or Magic: The Gathering playing cards with a competitive purpose, double-ups and common cards retain an inherent trade value. Don’t want a second copy of Kyrie Irving in his new Celtics gear? Swap it with another collector for something you do need! Same thing goes in Magic or the Pokemon TCG. Blizzard decided – possibly for well-intentioned anti-fraud purposes – that in Hearthstone this trading potential would been reduced to a ‘dust’ value. Dismantling an unwanted card produces a small amount of magical dust which eventually enables you to craft a new card of your choice. This process is kind of like trading for what you want, but with a pre-determined and punitive exchange rate.
The next step in the subtle devaluing of random rewards is illustrated in a game like Overwatch, which follows Hearthstone‘s lead by avoiding player-to-player item trading completely. At this point it is possible to be rewarded with voice lines, skins or emotes of effectively zero value should they apply to characters you don’t play, and here the similarities to traditional gambling become clearer. There IS a mathematical chance that you’ll score the Legendary Halloween event Junkrat skin you’re chasing in any given loot box, but it is more likely to be a common pose or spray. Those rewards may well be for a hero who you can’t foresee ever using, resulting in a net gain of… nothing. Grinding loot boxes is therefore akin to the slowest poker machine session in history, so its a good thing that they’re tacked onto a great game.
“Loot boxes for cosmetics were fine but boxes that affected gameplay were a bridge too far. This is as arbitrary as the ESRB’s position.” -HA
There are some important distinctions to be made when it comes to evaluating the ethical validity and risk factors of these paid random reward systems. Is the income from these microtransactions (in-game purchases) the sole method of enabling continued game development and support? Are there also more transparent and payment-free methods by which a player can obtain the desired items through regular gameplay? Would these rewards have been considered a part of the game’s basic content prior to the microtransaction revolution of the last decade?
In response to these on these questions, my personal take on on the most fair loot box-esque profit models would be:
1. Game systems that provide reasonable, predictable gameplay pathways to rewards apart from through the acquisition of random reward packages.
2. Models that are fundamentally free to play and fully functional but offer permanent, low impact randomised rewards (e.g. aesthetic customisations or emotes) for real money. The items must retain a substantial trading or dismantling value to respect the time or money a player has invested in acquiring it. The game’s enjoyment factor shouldn’t suffer for not purchasing additional loot.
Being of the generation that grew up expecting to receive 100% of a game’s content upon purchase I appreciate games that encourage player engagement through high quality design rather than extrinsic reward systems. Were I, hypothetically, a developer being forced by the powers-that-be to employ loot box mechanics in a project I hope I would opt for one or both of the options above. They promote what I believe to be the most balanced relationship between the game maker and end user. Option one in particular minimises the potential real world harm to the ‘whales‘ (big spenders in the vast sea of gamers) the video game industry allegedly contends for. Making the desired items available through in-game quests may immediately reduce the incentive to pay for loot boxes (and therefore cut overall profits), but I presume there would still be a portion of the player base willing to spend their hard earned cash for the possibility of a shortcut.
Sadly, I don’t believe that the community has much power to influence the trends towards randomised rewards packages and microtransactions in contemporary gaming. From Twitter to developers’ own forums, there are plenty of ways in which individuals can voice their concerns over profitable systems that possibly – or blatantly – look to bleed players dry, but the bottom line is that the bottom line wins. Whilst money is rolling in from those caught in the loot box cycle I can’t see things changing to protect them.
Perhaps this sense of fatalism is what drew me so strongly to Heather Alexandra’s article in the first place, and I take heart in the simple fact that hers isn’t the only call for change.
*My personal challenge is less financial and more organisational. Sensibly extricating myself from MMO’s such as Clash Of Clans, Transformers: Earth Wars, Utopia or Destiny with their fictional worlds that keep on turning 24/7 becomes so much harder once you get established. This has become more problematic as gameplay features which could be viewed as means of classical conditioning – daily tasks, flash sales, timed event-specific random rewards – become more commonplace and reinforce the message that I should be online ALL the time or resign myself to failure. It reminds me of the dangerous “Every minute in which you’re not practising, your competition is” mindset instilled during my music degree. This was legitimate advice for developing fanatical zeal and musical prowess, but less useful for crafting a balanced and healthy human being.