Loot Boxes Are Bad for Publishers, Too

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Sep 19, 2018

Filed under: Column 107 comments

My column this week is my attempt to do something different with the overdone topic of “loot boxes suck and I wish publishers would knock it off”.

Really, I think this entire topic just loops back to the point I was making a year and a half ago when I said that the people running these companies are not gamers, which makes them prone to expensive blunders that would be obvious to someone who knows the products and the culture. If the leadership at EA understood their customers, they could have introduced loot boxes in a way that didn’t make such a mess of things.

I obviously object to loot boxes because they tend to turn a game of system mastery into a slot machine. If a game has loot boxes, then the designer has a strong incentive to un-balance the game as a way to push you into using them. But let’s assume for a moment that I’m an amoral jackass that doesn’t care about videogames. All I want is piles of money. How would I expand the usage of loot boxes across the industry?

How to Infect the Industry With Loot Boxes

It seems easy to manipulate customers because people are stupid. However, the problem is that the people trying to manipulate them are ALSO stupid, so it sort of cancels out.
It seems easy to manipulate customers because people are stupid. However, the problem is that the people trying to manipulate them are ALSO stupid, so it sort of cancels out.

For this to work, we need to rewind to about three years ago, because the dual Battlefront / Shadow of War controversies have since poisoned the waters. Let’s assume this is a do-over of the attempt to put loot boxes in everything.

  1. Do it incrementally. Whatever we do, it needs to be slow. It’s the old how to boil a frog analogyIt turns out the experiment is useless for explaining the behavior of frogs, but REALLY good at explaining the behavior of humans.. People are bad at reacting to incrementalism. It’s hard to get people fired up to take action when there’s no single event to rally around.
  2. Keep it optional. (At first.) Put loot boxes in into alternate game modes, and then make sure those game modes get the most interesting content and updates. Make sure we don’t cut down on the amount of content going into the non-loot box modes, because our customers are not children and they are really good at remembering things. If loot boxes really are bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars, then it should be trivial to scare up some extra funding to make the optional game mode a little larger and more attractive. Over time that “optional” mode can gradually grow in importance to become the “real” mode.
  3. Stick to cosmetics. (At first.) Obviously our ultimate goal is to become virtual arms dealers and sell power to players, but that should be a long-term process. We should not introduce an entrenched player base to loot boxes by rolling out pay-to-win mechanics. Again, they’re not stupid. The best way to do this is to blur the line between power and cosmetics. One year we just offer “unlock new cosmetic outfits through grinding or by using the slot machine”. The year after that we make some outfits objectively better than others. Perhaps a few rare outfits have smaller hitboxes or blend into the levels a bit. The year after that we do the same with weapons. Mostly you’re unlocking paint jobs and flair for your guns, but a few rare items will speed up reload times or boost fire rate. The next year is the same, except we have a higher (rarer) tier of gear for them to chase after. And so on.
  4. Make them generous. (At first.) If a player puts down a few dollars for a handful of loot boxes / spins on our slot machine, we want them to get something good. That’s how you trap gambling addicts. You let them win quickly, and then you string them along, making them chase that initial high. Since we control the payout system on our servers, we can manipulate the system to work any way we want to. It doesn’t need to play “fair”. It can make sure new players are “lucky”, and that the odds of getting goodies will gradually decrease over time. This behavior of lowering the payout rate over time would be very hard for users to detect and prove. Someone investigating this would need to buy dozens of copies of the game and then spend money unlocking dozens of loot boxes for each account. That means it would take a serious financial investment to do the experiment. We’ll get caught eventually, because we’re up against millions of people who enjoy learning systems as a hobby. But as long as we make the gradient subtle enough we should be able to squeeze a lot of people for several years.
  5. Start with titles where it makes some kind of sense. It’s easy to add a loot box element to a multiplayer game. Blizzard already has a solid template for us to follow. It’s a lot more tricky to add loot boxes to a narrative game. If we can get a solid foundation of loot boxes in our other titles, and if millions of players get used to them, then we can claim that we’re simply responding to “demand”. We can claim that players have been asking us for loot boxes in Dragon Age or Mass Effect. (Fun fact: Mass Effect Andromeda actually has a loot box mechanic. It’s not tied to a system of microtransactions, which means you can’t buy them directly, but it’s possible EA was taking my advice here and giving the players the first hit for free, with plans to have paid loot boxes in later entries.)

This is Still a Terrible Idea

There's no way to add pay-to-win loot boxes to Batman without destroying the combat system, since this is a game where the PLAYER, not the player CHARACTER, grows in power. If you sell the player power, you're robbing them of the core reward the game has to offer.
There's no way to add pay-to-win loot boxes to Batman without destroying the combat system, since this is a game where the PLAYER, not the player CHARACTER, grows in power. If you sell the player power, you're robbing them of the core reward the game has to offer.

I still think loot boxes are a terrible idea because they run counter to the immersion we need in narrative games and the level playing field players are looking for in multiplayer games. We’d lose customers over time and come to depend more and more on whales for our income, which is a more precarious position to be in. But still, if we could show some basic cunning, patience, and understanding of how people play games, then we ought to be able to enjoy a few sweet years of exploiting whales before general audiences catch on. Then we can roll back some of the more problematic aspects and portray it as generosity on our part.

Lucky for us, EA is literally too stupid to get away with this. They’re clumsy in their approach, their lies are transparent, and their PR does more harm than good.

The actions of the last year makes it pretty clear that EA is in full-on retreat. No loot boxes in Anthem or Battlefront. They’re acting like they’re listening to the users, but what they’re really doing is trying to protect their sports-based cash cow. Their sports titles were filled with pay-to-win bullshit and nobody cared. Now they’re worried because this backlash might threaten those properties as well.

 

Footnotes:

[1] It turns out the experiment is useless for explaining the behavior of frogs, but REALLY good at explaining the behavior of humans.



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107 thoughts on “Loot Boxes Are Bad for Publishers, Too

  1. Redrock says:

    Thank you for pointing out what I’ve been saying for ages about the “think of the children” argument. It really irks me how a lot of people make the argument that gamers just can’t keep their wallets shut and have zero control over their spending habits. As for the future of loot boxes, well, the free market actually did its thing, didn’t it? Battlefront 2 failed, and as far as we can tell, so did Shadow of War. Once again, I’m led to believe that what we need most of all for the industry to really evolve and grow is more transparency when it comes to sales figures. Thr gaming industry needs to at least reach the film industry’s level of transparency (which isn’t quite as transparent as people think). Then we can have decent analysis which the publishers will benefit from too.

    1. Karma The Alligator says:

      It really irks me how a lot of people make the argument that gamers just can’t keep their wallets shut and have zero control over their spending habits.

      Why? It is a legitimate concern, some people are like that.

      1. Redrock says:

        Well, yeah. And some people who play video games end up shooting up schools. You shouldn’t apply the qualities of “some people” to a whole huge and diverse group. Making gamers out to be infantile idiots or actual infants with idiot parents is not something the gaming community should strive for, I’d say.

        1. Karma The Alligator says:

          Right, I get you. Just thought you were somehow denying that the problem exists, rather than be annoyed at the fact it’s seen as a blanket statement. Carry on.

    2. evilmrhenry says:

      On the other hand, the ESRB rating should reflect the presence of loot boxes. When you have an E rated game with loot boxes, (like, say, FIFA 18) arguing “think of the children” is actually reasonable.

      1. Redrock says:

        I agree that there should be a clear marking, although I don’t know of it should be reflected in the main grade. Like, if all games with loot boxes should be rated M. That would just make more people ignore them. The way I see it, keep the letter grade limited to actual content and add a separate icon for lootboxes and in-game purchases in general.

        That said, I would like some actual research on the psychological effects of loot boxes and possible correlation with gambling addiction. And I do mean research and not comments from alarmist “gambling psychologists” in the media.

        1. boz says:

          Sure:

          https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Gamingmicro-transactions/Public_Hearings

          September one has the research results. Among other things:

          “These results also suggest that there is a serious risk for loot boxes to cause gambling related harm. More specifically, they suggest that either:

          -Loot boxes act as a gateway to problem gambling amongst gamers.
          -Loot boxes provide games companies with an unregulated way of exploiting gambling disorders amongst their customers.”

          1. Redrock says:

            Took a look at the research and it kinda sucks. All it does is provide a correlation between already existing problem gambling and loot boxes spending, but also spending on other microtransactions. All that proves is that problem gamblers have trouble managing their spending, big surprise. That’s the same sort of bollocks approach that “scientists” have been using for “gateway drugs”, even though after-the-fact correlation doesn’t prove causality, and “gateway” implies exactly that. Furthermore, they kinda undermine their own sub-hypothesis by showing that non-lootbox microtransaction spending also correlates with problem gambling. Sigh. That’s the problem with made-to-order research specifically made to provide basis for government regulation. And like I said, I don’t oppose regulation when it comes to age ratings and advisory notes. But I’d still like to see actual decent studies.

            1. guy says:

              I think a correlation between problems with gambling and spending money on loot boxes is sufficent to justify regulating loot boxes like they’re gambling in order to protect problem gamblers like we do with gambling.

              Admittedly my starting viewpoint is that loot boxes just straight-up are gambling because, as was said in a clip about Daily Fantasy on John Oliver’s show:

              “Do you have to put in money?”
              “Yes”
              “And do you get something if you win?”
              “Yes”
              “Then it’s gambling”

              Legal definitions may not cover them, but legislators can revise the legal definition if appropriate so that’s not really relevant to whether or not they should be legislated.

              I would also back looking into legislation on microtransactions, but my initial assumption is that we’d not be able to effectively regulate them to reduce harmful impacts without inflicting collateral damage.

  2. Dev Null says:

    our customers are not children and they are really good at remembering things.

    I don’t even _have_ kids and I know that analogy doesn’t hold up. Kids are _astoundingly_ good at remembering things that you don’t want them to remember, such as curse words and promises – extracted under extreme psychological torture – to give them a thing that you don’t really want them to have. Also, all the details of That Thing Those Kids Are Into These Days. I dunno. For my niece it was Ranger’s Apprentice, not something wholesome and important like the Tolkien we obsessed about back in the Good Ole Days…

  3. Daimbert says:

    While I think that the sports franchises tying into something that sports fans were already familiar with — the trading card concept — helped, I also think that one of the main reasons there wasn’t a backlash there was that there was in general something you could get from those cards other than simply improving the ability of your team. If I’m not misremembering/misinterpreting it, the cards could be used to build the best team you could, but also to build a team of your favourite classic players, and was the best way to do that. Having it as a separate mode let people who didn’t want to deal with the skill differences ignore that part, but they might buy cards in order to be able to play as classic players that they loved but couldn’t play in the most recent versions. Thus, it gave something for everyone.

    The big grumbles over loot boxes, to me, really seemed to fall into two categories with the Star Wars game:

    1) Cool things that we want cost too much to try to acquire (Vader, Luke) either in or out of game.
    2) Without spending money on lootboxes the difference in skill and ability in the multiplayer was too wide.

    And, to be honest, I’m not even sure that any of that was true. I’m really starting to think that the big objection was that really cool things ended up at least seeming to be “locked” behind the lootboxes, which is something that didn’t really seem to happen for the other cases. In particular, I wonder if the issues around competitiveness were only added on by less casual/average gamers as an issue that bothered them once they were inspired into looking at the issue, since it was never really raised before about other games and only came to the fore after people noticed that getting Darth Vader was really, really hard or really, really expensive. How many people were really more concerned about getting curbstomped by someone with Vader than about not having any reasonable way to play as Vader in the game?

    To make lootboxes work, you really need to keep the average gamer engaged and interested in them. This requires you to provide things that the average gamer would want and make it seem like it won’t cost them too much to get what they want. The excessive randomness of at least the later lootboxes worked against that, since there ended up being too many cases where opening a lootbox gave them nothing of interest and to get another one, especially after you’d been playing for a while and already earned the easy to earn points — or spent your first initial extra money trying to get them — seemed to be too much of an investment to bother, especially if you might only get something you didn’t want again. So cosmetic as opposed to absolute skill items are actually the key here, because it’s easier to make a number of those things so that everyone gets something interesting most of the time, or at least stuff they can “sell” to get money to get something they want. The later games failed at that, it seems to me, locking really cool stuff behind the lootboxes, and so getting average gamers complaining, which they got lots of people to look into how it all worked and so triggering the backlash and complaints about gambling and children and so on and so forth.

    Lootboxes can be fun. There’s an inherent thrill in getting a box that contains stuff you might want and opening it to see what you got. That’s the entire thrill of Christmas and birthday presents. But if pretty much every time you opened one it contained socks, you very quickly would lose interest in Christmas and birthday presents. The same thing applies here. If most of the time you open a lootbox you don’t get anything interesting, you’ll stop finding lootboxes interesting, and if there are things that you’ve been hoping for but never get but instead get things you aren’t interested in you’ll just get frustrated. This progression happened to me with Injustice 2, since I only played a couple of characters — Black Canary, Supergirl, and maybe one or two others — what I really wanted were costume options for them, and the number of lootboxes that gave me nothing for them made me less interested in earning and opening lootboxes.

    1. Fizban says:

      How many people were really more concerned about getting curbstomped by someone with Vader than about not having any reasonable way to play as Vader in the game?

      People get reeeeaaaaly mad when they perceive someone else as getting something they want “unfairly,” whether their perception is correct or not. Anyone who isn’t buying the lootboxes is most likely going to rage as soon as they notice a difference, all the more when it’s provably true.

      And most of the players are not buying tons of lootboxes, so most of the players are going to rage as soon as they notice. The fact that it took a few minutes for word to spread does not mean that the outrage was blown out of proportion.

      1. Mephane says:

        The real outrage was not at the lootboxes themselves, but at EA’s smug and arrogant attitude about it and towards the players, leading to the most downvoted post in the history of Reddit at that time, coining the now sarcastic phrase “pride and accomplishment”.

    2. Gethsemani says:

      As someone who sort of liked the Battlefront 2 beta (and eventually got the game heavily discounted) it was really crushing for morale to know you played well, but still get killed by someone because they had lucked out on better star cards. Imagine the situation (quite common as it is) that you are in the initial jousting meeting of a Starfighter match. You are new to the game and have no star cards, you come up against me, who have managed to luck out on getting the best versions of the hull points, weapon rate of fire and weapon strength upgrades (+15% hull, 15% rate of fire and 20% weapon damage). So we both start shooting at max range and run at each other. Guess who wins? Every single time. Not because I am the better player, but because I was ridiculously lucky in my drops.

      The kicker for BF2 was that you couldn’t do anything about this at first. You just had to hope the loot box rng favored you, because upgrading with credits (which you got from duplicate drops and the occasional credit drop) meant having to wade through dozens of duplicate cards (or about 3 credit drops) to be able to upgrade one card one time. If you wanted the best versions, we are talking hundreds of duplicates to get a card from tier 1 to max tier. It was especially bad since the boxes randomized between power-ups and cosmetics. Meaning that you could get really unlucky and unlock all the victory poses, while the next guy over kept unlocking actually useful star cards.

      So yeah, the outrage at BF2 initially was that it was, literally, pay to win and the player had very little control over their own progression. Having more health, dealing more damage or getting quicker cooldowns were all things you got from the star cards in the loot boxes. Or you could get a victory pose for a hero you hadn’t even unlocked yet.

  4. Jack V says:

    This is basically what I think.

    But I’m worried that I’m wrong. Look at actual bookmakers shops or casinos. There were lots of problems, but at some point, people made exploit-addiction machines called slot machines that were so much better than almost anything else at getting money out of people. They almost always take the maximum % allowed by law, and if the law didn’t restrict them, they’d almost certainly take more, maybe not from most people, but from people susceptible to them.

    Something similar very sadly happened to mobile games. The “make a fun game people pay for” model seems to have been eclipsed by the “find vulnerable people and manipulate as much money out of them as possible” model. If that’s allowed to run rampant, I don’t know if the market will eventually crash, or if that will just stay the normal, with actual fun games squeezing in around the sides where they can.

    The same may happen to AAA games. Some publishers are apparently throwing away their existing market by making games impossible to play without loot-box-like-shit (after all, they could just make a “pay X and unlock everything” mode if they cared about their original audience). Even if it’s worth it, that seems really freaking stupid. But maybe the gains from “exploiting addicted people” are in fact larger, if they only care about money.

    Maybe trading twenty customers for one customer who spends 100x the amount on the game is a good deal for them :(

    1. Decius says:

      That evolution is inevitable. Anyone who makes a slot machine that is objectively “more fun”, but that makes lower profit over the long term (even though it is more fun!) is at a competitive disadvantage vs. someone who makes a more profitable slot machine.

      Since the business world can’t select for companies that make better games, but they can select for companies that make more money, the only reasonable solution for gamers who want good games is to vote loudly with their wallets. Make waves in the media about how the lootbox model is bad for gaming and won’t get our money.

      But also make waves in the media by making good games actually more profitable. Buy them, buy the OST, buy the collector’s edition, buy copies for your friends. Because money talks, and if gamers consistently make good games make good money, the business world will figure out how to create executive producers who make that type of game- because the business world can figure out anything, if figuring it out makes them make more money.

      1. Jack V says:

        “That evolution is inevitable.”

        Well, companies definitely will move in that direction. But, with slot machines, we curbed it by making legal restrictions (which IMO should be better thought through but also stronger). The same should probably apply to games, assuming it’s possible, if difficult, to define the difference between the crappy sort of loot boxes and other random elements.

        But I’m also puzzled — other games USED to be profitable. Surely there’s some niche in selling actually fun games, even if they can’t afford to be The Highest Production Values In History every year. But maybe not?

        1. guy says:

          Companies are to profit as Orks are to dakka. There is no such thing as enough, far less too much. There is no incentive to not add lootboxes inherently; they only cause problems for the company when the game design is actively distorted to push them and results in a less-fun game without buying them.

          Which I think happened to Shadow Of War; it had a large number of changes from its predecessor that made lootbox contents more valuable. The one that really got to me was the pit fights system; there were a number of things, most particularly getting a branded Warchief or Bodyguard, that required your chosen captain to go in against an enemy, not always a known one, and kill them without any outside assistance whatsoever. That outright killed a favorite pasttime of players, namely finding an objectively terrible captain and getting them to warchief by doing their missions for them, and I am convinced it was to make it more important to have high captain quality. And captains were harder to recruit; I think they patched it pretty early but originally Iron Will was just everywhere at higher levels. The net effect is that it created a specific need for a way to get high-powered captains and made them much more difficult, while introducing a way to buy captains.

          1. Asdasd says:

            This made me wonder if there’s a canon explanation as to why all or most Orks haven’t gone deaf from exposure to dakka.

            1. guy says:

              Orks are really, really tough and their eardrums are too.

            2. Droid says:

              Why do you think they’re always shouting that much? It’s because they all ARE deaf, they just don’t care.

                1. Droid says:

                  I SAAYZ WE ORKZ DUN’NEED NO EEERS! *shoots guns into sky via gun-gun*

            3. Decius says:

              Orks believe that hearing loss from gunfire is temporary.

            4. Sartharina says:

              Because they’re Tough Fungi.

    2. guy says:

      I’d point out that apparently Japan has actual laws about mobile game lootboxes, and they all have their odds laid out in a table of apparently standard formatting. And the ones I played were pretty good about providing a free play experience; you’d get lootbox resources at a reasonable clip such that you’d want more but still be reasonably supplied and with very limited exceptions the rolls would be on the same well-formatted table. And they’re non-competitive, so there isn’t that pressure.

      I’d be more inclined to spend money on them if they let me buy things specifically, though; the only times I’ve spent money were when I wanted something specific that had boosted odds or a single guaranteed pick from the highest (0.5%) tier.

      1. Jack V says:

        That’d make sense

      2. Felblood says:

        There’s always a way to exploit someone’s ego for profit.

        I think you’ll find that even PvE focused gatcha games will have some kind of PvP ladder that dispenses rewards based on ranking at regular intervals. The highest ranks will be filled with big spenders with optimal party compositions made from all the rarest drops. It’s like a sneaky way to give your whales extra prizes for spending the most.

        This does leave the devs with a Sophie’s choice when it comes to how to reward the highest ranked players. The juicy rewards at the top tiers can either be a large amount of resources, or some kind of exclusive reward.

        If the reward is an exclusive item, it creates the kind of whales-only content that can get your mid and free tier players upset. If your just shower the winners with the resources to get even further ahead of the other whales, you risk your other whales feeling like they can no longer keep up with the leaders and wandering off to a new game.

        You can mitigate some of these problems by constantly opening new servers, so the whales can race for that top spot, but this can spread your players too thin, and force your to merge older servers.

        1. Droid says:

          Isn’t that what Path of Exile is doing with its Leagues?

    3. Chris says:

      “Maybe trading twenty customers for one customer who spends 100x the amount on the game is a good deal for them :(”

      It is. With mobile gaming 10% of the people generate 90% of the money. Milking whales is much more profitable than taking a bit from a lot of people. I cannot find the video. But a few months ago on youtube someone did a pretty good review of free to play over the years. Basically it was done as a last ditch effort to milk some money out of a waning MMO. But then it ended up making them a lot more money than subscriptions. Nexon then started to try it on some more stuff and found it extremely effective. Combination of people being sucked in easily (no 60 dollar gate), people wanting progress and addictive behavior it makes far more money.

      I think the big breakthrough in the west was with LoL. I was a free player but then you had people that spend like 30+ bucks every months when they got their income. Thats like 2x a WOW subscription.

      1. Shamus says:

        Counterpoint: It’s only fun to buy power in an online shooter if there’s someone to shoot. If they lose too many customers chasing whales, then they end up with a smaller community, which means the game itself is less attractive to everyone, including whales.

        Not saying that’s 100% guaranteed, but it’s another reason a scheming executive ought to try to boil the frog slowly.

        1. Xeorm says:

          Well yeah. That’s why those types of games counter with massive advertisements. Just look at the pay to win mobile games. They’ve got huge marketing budgets compared to more regular games, expressly for that purpose of keeping people to be shot around.

        2. guy says:

          I think the trick is to meter out power such that free players are at a disadvantage but not a crippling one, so there’s room to sell power but a free player doesn’t feel like they can’t compete. Planetside 2 seemed to have struck that balance; it’s not hard for a free player to match a paid player in one particular area of gameplay and get a satisfactory experience.

          1. Karma The Alligator says:

            Yup, it’s when the gap gets too big that the free players start complaining and quitting (they probably just complained before).

            1. guy says:

              Planetside 2 free-to-players mostly just shrugged, so far as I recall. There’s an enormous number of little widgets and gun upgrades and alternate guns that made players measurably better, but you just needed one gun and a couple upgrades and you could shoot people effectively. It’d take a very long time or an awful lot of money to get ALL THE THINGS, but if you just wanted to snipe people from a long way away you could get the good sniper rifle of your choice and snipe effectively in pretty short order. It would be a very long time indeed to be able to snipe, shoot up close, pilot a mech suit, fly a strike fight or a transport, drive a light vehicle, heavy tank, or “battle bus”, heal people, repair things, etc. at peak efficiency, but most everyone only really wanted to do two of those things apiece anyway.

              1. Karma The Alligator says:

                My experience was with some Asian MMOs, and free to play mobile games, where they introduced premium items and cosmetics that really boosted your effectiveness, and then balanced the new game content around the OP gear, to the point where you needed the stuff to get anywhere. At that point people starting really complaining and leaving when their complaints did nothing.

                1. guy says:

                  Sounds like they tried the Planetside 2 thing and screwed up.

                  Mind, my Planetside 2 experience was a long time ago and the person I know who plays it has been at it for a long time; they’ve been adding new things to get and I don’t know how that’s impacted new players.

        3. Jack V says:

          That’s what I’m wondering. Solo games don’t have this problem. Will multiplayer games reach a new equilibrium, or fix themselves, or get destroyed, or what?

          1. Redrock says:

            Most multiplayer games just don’t do that. It would seem that pretty much anyone who’d spend money on “power” in a multiplayer game would also spend it on cosmetics.

            1. guy says:

              Buying power in a multiplayer game introduces pressure to keep up for everyone else, driving them to spend more.

              Downside: players see that and absolutely loathe it. The tipping point for actual mass player outrage on lootboxes was granting an edge in competitive multiplayer so they directly negatively impacted the play experience of non-buyers. They’re easy to ignore in solo games and in limited coop it’s actually kinda fun to summon in help from a whale, but in competitive multiplayer it can make the experience miserable if it provides a significant enough edge to induce buying pressure. Especially if there’s enough variance in quality that you can’t just buy a couple and compete by focusing on the shiny you happened to draw.

              Naturally many companies knew this before loot boxes became a thing and knew to keep them cosmetic in competitive play* from the start. Naturally EA just saw a way to pressure people into buying more stuff and took it.

              *Valve, at least until I stopped playing for only mildly related reasons, got away with this in TF2 by being really good at producing sidegrades rather than upgrades. The various items were all cool, useful, and fun, but going in 100% stock gear was not actually a terrible plan. I liked a lot of the special stuff more but it had very clear tradeoffs.

    4. John says:

      I’m no expert on mobile gaming, but isn’t it also true that microtransactions are a way for developers to make up for the fact that people are mostly unwilling to pay very much for mobile apps or games? I’m not trying to defend microtransactions, but my recollection is that “make a fun game people pay for” mostly didn’t work.

      1. Jack V says:

        I’m no expert either, but yes, I think blaming “microtransactions” is blaming the wrong thing. I’ve played lots of great games that have been “here’s the game, pay to remove ads” or “here’s the game, pay for another batch of levels”. Or “here’s the game, but you only get three lives every hour, pay to bypass the limit”. And now I’m reasonably well off I might pay £10 or more for a mobile game I actually like, if I’ve played it for a while first, but when I was younger, even $1 would put me off. Getting people to pay for things is indeed hard. But microtransactions, while not themselves horrible, are a big foundation of pay-to-win type games.

      2. guy says:

        I think that’s partially circular; they’ve become so common that users mentally append microtransaction costs to the price when they see a low one.

      3. Redrock says:

        It’s not as simple as that. In the early days of the App Store people absolutely would make and buy decent single-payment games. And they would be hugely popular at times. The first Angry Birds was like that, for instance, as were its unnumbered sequels. But then, as the publishers started pushing freemium, the consumers’ behavior started changing. These days people hardly look at an app that has an upfront price in the store. Which is why the quality of mobile games dipped so much. Used to be some really great creative stuff in there. Wayward Souls, Papa Sangre, friggin Superbrothers Sword and Sworcery, Infinity Blade. Not any more.

        1. guy says:

          I think there’s still a market for $7+ games, but anything cheaper means people expect microtransactions and keep scrolling until they find freemium.

  5. Decius says:

    Here’s the line I tried for the Pathfinder Adventures PC/Tablet game that exists in a strange FTP/PTP/PTW superposition:
    “How much will I have to pay to get the entire game?”

    With Magic:The Gathering, I can actually almost answer that question: X cases, plus a few singles, gets you a playset of every card (and a ton of duplicates that have roughly zero value, plus maybe a few duplicates with enough value to get the last few singles from other people). That’s a lot of money, sure.

    With Fallout 4, I know how much it costs to buy each expansion, and roughly what’s in each one.

    How much does it cost to own all of the content locked behind Battlefront Lootboxes? If you wanted to buy Battlefront with cash, you can’t even make a good estimate of what the cost would be.

    If the only way to get the new Fallout 4 expansion was to buy a random loot box that had an 80% chance of having the DLC and cost 25% of what I am willing to pay for the DLC, I wouldn’t pay for the chance. Sure, on average I’d pay only 5/16 of what I’d otherwise pay, but the line between “I’m buying a known thing for a known price” and “I’m buying an unknown thing for a known price OR buying a known thing for an unknown price” is bigger than any price sensitivity.

    The way to market a game with loot boxes to be is the Heroes of the Storm model: Give the loot boxes away for playing, let people buy the loot boxes with (currency bought by) money, and also let people buy the contents of the loot boxes directly and specifically with (currency bought by) money. I wouldn’t buy HotS for a cash payment equal to what it would take to buy all the mechanical content, and I don’t buy any random boxes because I see the payout rate of the free ones, but I’m kinda comfortable throwing $10 every couple of months into getting some stuff unlocked.

    If I could buy specific Hearthstone cards, I probably wouldn’t because of the low value/cost ratio I get from Hearthstone. And there’s really no way to monetize it for people like me except by making it $40 per expansion to get everything; their core audience pays so much more per expansion that I don’t expect to ever be in that audience.

    1. Daimbert says:

      Yeah, I think that model is the one that works best: you can get it from random lootboxes that you earn by playing, you can get it from random lootboxes that you can buy with real money, and you can buy just the things you want directly (and maybe even earn them in game with some feats you can achieve in the game). Then the people who like lootboxes will earn or buy them and the people who want specific things will try to get them, and everyone stays happy.

      The only problem I can see with this is the likelihood that if you did that for the games that offered it few would actually pay money for random lootboxes unless buying the things directly was so expensive that the lootboxes were always effectively the only cost effective way to get them, getting us right back into the same situation we have now.

      1. guy says:

        I think it’d be functional if the loot boxes have good odds of having something you’d want and getting the stuff you want from what would be your perfect roll costs three lootboxes.

        The biggest barrier to me buying lootboxes at the rate I splurge on tiny DLC is that I don’t want a random thing badly enough to pay money for it; I want a specific thing badly enough to pay money for it. So I’m not satisfied with getting a random thing someone would want.

        1. Daimbert says:

          But then most people who are playing the game will generally be content with the in-game ones and won’t bother buying them, unless those are too hard to get which, again, leads back to the same issues we have now.

          1. guy says:

            The trick is basically to have an enormous quantity of content at a fairly even quality level per rarity tier. If there’s forty ultra-rare things and they’re all great, regular users who don’t buy loot boxes with real money will get one or two, people like me will drop a chunk of cash on the one or two they really want, and people who buy lootboxes will keep chasing getting all forty if the rewards from a roll that doesn’t yield an ultra-rare thing are still okay enough they’d rather buy 120 loot boxes than the forty ultra-rares.

            I’ll admit I don’t know how much money is in the overlap of willing to keep buying lootboxes chasing the one ultra-rare they want; under this system I’m pretty sure I’d spend money more frequently but in cases where I spend money I’d probably spend less.

    2. Chris_ANG says:

      I find HotS to be a supremely annoying model, because they mostly *will not* accept real money for anything but random lootboxes. They also sell a few lootbox-content-items directly for money each week, but I find the odds of anything that I actually *want* being on sale are pretty low. The in-game method for earning lootboxes is generous at first but trails off after you’ve been playing for a while (it’s tied to leveling up characters, and each level takes longer to earn). Of the three in-game currencies (one is bought by real money, one is earned by playing, and one comes out of lootboxes), only the one that comes out of lootboxes can be used to buy arbitrary lootbox contents directly, and the prices tend towards the absurd.

      Overall, I find HotS to be pushing lootboxes HARD in a really annoying and (to the extent is probably succeeds in addicting some vulnerable people) vile manner (though, I also drop $10 on the game every few months).

      1. Decius says:

        You can buy every hero with real money. Or at least, you could when I calculated the price.

    3. Nimrandir says:

      Here’s the line I tried for the Pathfinder Adventures PC/Tablet game that exists in a strange FTP/PTP/PTW superposition:
      “How much will I have to pay to get the entire game?”

      Not that this really affects the rest of your comment, but is the digital version of the Pathfinder ACG randomized? I’ve played a ton of the tabletop version, and its card sets are specifically laid out like living card game expansions.

      1. Decius says:

        The basic game has all of the cards “in the box” needed to play. The loot box expies add objectively better boons to the box, and also allow you to add those cards to character decks for free, without having to acquire them.

        I think the free version includes the first book of RotR, with the rest of the adventure path and other adventure paths being micro transactions for the bigger base game.

  6. Gargamel Le Noir says:

    EA may have fallen back on Battlefields 5 and Anthem but they’re not backing down on their other IPs. They’re trying to fight Belgium in court instead of simply blocking the boxes in the minuscule market that is Belgium, and hilariously it partially led to a 16 countries coalition to rise against them!

    1. Bubble181 says:

      The tricky thing is they can’t properly block it in just Belgium – they’d have to block it in all of the Schengen zone, which is a pretty big market.

    2. Matt Downie says:

      This closely resembles my experiences of what happens when you mess with Belgium in Europa Universalis IV.

      1. Droid says:

        Wilhelm II liked this.

  7. Fizban says:

    The year after that we make some outfits objectively better than others. Perhaps a few rare outfits have smaller hitboxes or blend into the levels a bit.

    I’m not convinced this would work, since it’s pretty much exactly what I remember TF2 doing. They had cosmetics for a while, super rare hats sprinkled among the item drops, and then one day there’s suddenly these new outfits where using the set of items gives you a bonus- and you have to wear the specific hat as part of the set. Suddenly there’s a bunch of “cosmetic” items that make specific builds explicitly more powerful, and I know I was fucking pissed. That mechanic was removed.

    1. guy says:

      TF2’s cosmetic stuff was fine; that mechanic was removed because it was a mistake.

      Though I played about a thousand hours of TF2 and pretty much stopped dead when it went free-to-play, but not because I couldn’t compete. No, it was because Valve was really good at making items that changed playstyles without making you definitively better, and when the content floodgates opened I just couldn’t keep track of all of them so I’d see something fancy and have no idea what that player could do. When there were like 3-4 variants of most items I could stay on top of things.

      1. Felblood says:

        I tried to get into TF2 after it went F2P, and the sheer volume of crap to learn was just too high.

        It was very, very different from the famously easy to grasp shooter I remembered playing on my brother’s copy.

  8. Asdasd says:

    It still bothers me that it was left to the users to push back on this stuff. For a couple of years leading up to Battlefront 2, all the major games sites were waving through first microtransactions and then loot boxes with a shrug and arguments that varied from ‘this is the future, you might as well get used to it’ to ‘it doesn’t meet the current legal definition of gambling so none of your concerns are legitimate kthx’.

    I even remember a few tentative op-eds probing the waters on a narrative along the lines of ‘this isn’t a consumer backlash, it’s a horde of Literal Nazis!’ that might tie the whole thing into the broader culture war. I would not have been amused to see a future where people were being exhorted to demonstrate their wokeness by buying loot boxes.

  9. Galad says:

    Re: Is Hearthstone gambling? – Yes, absolutely. Not only in terms of opening card packs, but also in terms of half the cards having the keyword ‘random’ in their text.

    What movie is the first screenshot with the board room from?

    1. Shamus says:

      Movie: The Hudsucker Proxy.

    2. Joshua says:

      I wondered that too. I must say, I’ve never worked in a company that had that many old executives in one place. Typically, there would be some kind of ageism in play that would push for “younger blood” in some of those roles (younger being ~50). That’s completely ignoring the rather …homogeneous demographic in that room.

      1. Echo Tango says:

        It is a comedy / satire, though. :)

        https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0110074/

    3. Phill says:

      Looks like it might be “The Hudsucker Proxy”

      EDIT: too slow

  10. eldomtom2 says:

    The problem isn’t the box itself, but the chance-based gameplay loop it represents.

    I think you underestimate the degree to which presentation matters in creating addiction.

    1. Vinsomer says:

      Absolutely. Boxes are like presents, and NFS had a full-blown slot machine. And slot machines are the way they are for a reason.

    2. Felblood says:

      I think you underestimate how good those other presentations have been made in F2P games.

      I’m not sure how aware Shamus is, but his examples are not hypothetical.

      Next time you see a F2P game with a daily “Raid Boss Pass” system. Know that the dragon is like a giant fire breathing pinata, which you get one free hit of per day. If you and your guildies want to bash some more pinatas, you’re going to need to take a trip to the Diamond Shop.

      Likewise, if you’ve played a F2P game that features the old Zelda combinations of cracked walls and bombs, or treasure chests and keys, you’ve probably been offered the chance to buy some extra bombs and keys, too.

  11. trevalyan says:

    Shadow of War had loot boxes that were so overpriced I was certain it was a developer plot to sabotage the experiment. I’ve paid for freemium content before, but I never felt the temptation to buy the loot boxes here. I have no idea what kind of whale would buy content for a single player game either.

    If the devs sold cosmetics, by contrast, which came with “extra lives” or even immortality to protect your investment, then they would have had me. New hats, updated voice packs, flash choppas, more hats, special party events, all the hats. That these were never developed makes me conclude the suits had no idea what players actually wanted from their loot boxes.

    1. guy says:

      I think the reason the loot boxes failed so hard for Shadow of War is that they’re literally paying to skip the most loved part of the game. People loved beating up captains and branding them and loot boxes skip that.

      1. Felblood says:

        I think it boils down to completely throwing what both of you wanted out of the game under the bus, chasing a single small section of their market.

        Imagine 3 hypothetical players, presenting their favorite orcs.

        Player 1: This is Gnashgash the Burned. His face is an iron mask because I burned off his face the day we met. He developed a fear of fire, which I used to humiliate him. As a result he overcame that phobia and started to carry a flaming sword, as a sign of overcoming his weakness. Finally, I managed to brand him in an epic duel, and he’s been my bodyguard ever since.

        Player 2: This is Shiny Blingtooth. He wears a purple party hat, because I think it’s funny. I’m not sure what his abilities are, but I gave his club a squeaky hammer skin, and made him wear a dress.

        Player 3: This is Buttstallion, my legendary orc that I just bought. I actually got him from a lootbox made of diamonds, because I’m so rich.

        EA has made it pretty clear that they were only interested in catering to the needs of player 3.

        1. guy says:

          Yeah, that’s how it ended up playing out. I would argue they should have been primarily concerned about category 1 because basically every review of either game had a story like that as the highlight, so it seemed to be a key selling point and what made it stand out. I think it’s still the only franchise to have the whole thing; XCOM 2 had a bit of it with War Of The Chosen giving you reoccurring and upgrading enemies but they weren’t recruitable and their upgrades weren’t reactive.

          Not that catering to group 2 isn’t valid, it’s just a much more crowded market.

  12. Mephane says:

    The best way to do this is to blur the line between power and cosmetics. One year we just offer “unlock new cosmetic outfits through grinding or by using the slot machine”. The year after that we make some outfits objectively better than others. Perhaps a few rare outfits have smaller hitboxes or blend into the levels a bit. The year after that we do the same with weapons. Mostly you’re unlocking paint jobs and flair for your guns, but a few rare items will speed up reload times or boost fire rate. The next year is the same, except we have a higher (rarer) tier of gear for them to chase after. And so on.

    Thanks for this section. This is often overlooked. Black Desert did exactly that, they launched in the west going all “no P2W, don’t worry” and then started going down the P2W route first with cosmetics that gave indirect advantages – a camouflage suit that disabled the name plate above your head, thus making you harder to see. A suit that lets you swim a lot faster (in a game where you have to build a boat that is effectively a consumable if you want to move across water at a decent speed). Eventually they ended up with directly selling items affecting the RNG-based gear upgraded system.

    As an aside, I think we focus too much on the box itself and not on the operant conditioning chamber mechanic it represents. For example, a game could throw away the entire box idea and have you pay real money to fight a pushover boss that drops random loot identical to what you’d get out of a loot box. Or you could pay real money for a single-use rocket launcher that can blow open an otherwise impassable door that gives you access to the items you’d normally get out of a loot box. Those sorts of things would be mechanically and financially identical to a loot box, but it wouldn’t be called a loot box because the user never opens a literal box to get their prizes. The problem isn’t the box itself, but the chance-based gameplay loop it represents.

    Thanks for that, also. Another point that is sometimes overlooked. It’s not about the box, it’s not about the loot, it’s about the fact that you pay money for a random outcome. Which I am categorically opposed to doing myself. As in, if you expect me to put down 10 bucks, then I expect you to tell me exactly what I would get for that, and give me that. I mean, the entire concept sounds ludicrous and outrageous to me. Imagine the inverse: I would go shopping and at the checkout, I’d roll dice to determine how much I would actually pay. “What do you mean, these shoes aren’t 90% off? I rolled a natural 20!”

    Instead, I am all for selling cosmetic items – peferrably, directly and not through an intermediate currency that you can only buy in bunches that never exactly match the stuff you want to buy – I always like to mention the Elite Dangerous cosmetics shop as an example how to do it right. Cash shop cosmetics have the extra benefit that they require some system to change the look of your character independently of your stats, and I just prefer to not have my character run around in random visually mismatching pieces of armor chosen solely for their stats.

    That said, I draw an almost-firm line at anything P2W. Almost because there is of course a narrow grey area where something is technically an advantage but not straight P2W, like that suit that hides your name plate in Black Desert, or a minor XP boost (e.g. 10%). The really annoying thing about P2W is not the P2W mechanics themselves, though, but the people who defend them on the basis of technicalities. Like, as long as you can theoretically earn anything in the game without using the cash shop if you just grind long enough, yeah, one could claim that “you can achieve anything without paying”, technically, hypothetically. But the thing is, P2W is not defined as “the only way to get an advantage is to pay”, but simply “money buys you an advantage”.

    1. Fizban says:

      Someone ought to be able to math up the cost/benefit or use ratio or whatever for how much you’re getting screwed by grinding vs the guy who pays to win. So you can grind 1, 10, 100 hours to get this thing? Sure, and that’s 1, 10, 100 hours you’re stuck playing the game without the thing you want, while the other guy just gets to buy it and play those same hours with the thing.

      Compare how much you have to grind to the actual life of the game for a given player, and you can see exactly how false the claim that “everything is available in-game” can be. This goes for cosmetics too, but is even more striking when you can put an exact value on how long it will be before you’re allowed to compete on an even field.

      And really it applies to any game with a grind even without pay to win- I love me some Dark Souls, but there are a number of items and spells I’ll basically never get to use because the grind is simply too long and I’m a couple hundred hours player rather than several thousand.

      1. Mephane says:

        This is why I generally prefer a clear separation. If a certain cosmetic item can be bought for real money, let that be the only way to get it. If something can be earned by playing, let that be the only way to acquire it. This avoids this murky area of “technically you can earn it but here are the actual numbers”, allows items earnable by playing to have reasonable requirements that do not have to compete with any cash shop incentives, and I think would even get more people to actually buy cash shop items instead of trying to – often in vain – grind for them.

        For Honor fell into that trap, for example. Technically, you can acquire everything by playing. But the cost of cosmetics is so high and the earnings by playing so low, it’s an open secret that it all is balanced around pushing people to buy steel (the ingame currency) for real money. When I played the last time (things might have changed in favour of the players, but I doubt that), for example, an emote would typically cost between 3000 and 10000 steel, with the newer ones leaning towards the upper end of that scale. A single match which might take ~10-20 minutes would yield ~20-40 steel, depending on various factors like game mode, victory/defeat etc. Even if you take the best case numbers there, 3000 steel price and 40 steel per match, that is 75 matches @ 10 minutes, 750 minutes or 12.5 hours. For a single emote!

        To offset that a bit, you had daily missions which awarded a couple of matches worth of steel, however these were not without problems themselves, railroading you into playing specific character classes, faction heroes, game modes, and in the worst case promoting outright toxic play styles. E.g. “revive 5 team mates” – so you need to hope someone in your team dies, does not get executed, and you get to revive them before they respawn or someone else revives them – and everyone has the same dailies so others in your team might be after those revives. too; sometimes I would end up running around avoiding all fights, just trying to stand by and ready to revive anyone who dies, even if that costs us the victory.

        By doing these you’d get steel at a bit more reasonable rate – until you have exhausted the dailies and it became near pointless to keep playing for that day – at the cost of spending most of your time playing characters and game modes you don’t like or chasing bullshit objectives mentioned above. The game effectively revolved around doing actual chores if you wanted to get anywhere.

        Or, of course, you just go and buy the steel directly, at prices that would fit your typical F2P mobile shovelware.

        I haven’t played in a while, but I keep wanting to go back to it now and then, but then I remind myself of that grind and the BS dailies before I get to even install it again. Shame really, because it is a really good game at its core.

  13. BlueHorus says:

    Wow, that seems like a pretty sensible way to get customers used to lootboxe-

    Holy shit Shamus, don’t give them ideas!. An EA that’s actually competent at their shit-eating marketing tactics would even worse!

    Ah, what am I saying. They won’t learn squat. Given the way they’ve behaved in the past, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone EA’s upper management genuinely thinks the Spanish translation of ‘customer’ is ‘piñata’.
    It’s the way they seem genuinely surprised at the controversies they create.

  14. omer says:

    wouldn’t them being gamers endanger their malice towards gamers and game design?

  15. wswordsmen says:

    Good thing no one studied Marvel Puzzle Quest for how to do loot boxes. That game does them very well. One of the major tricks is they actually prevent you from winning the loot lottery and making obvious P2W, despite the system obviously being P2W, by making it not enough to get lucky once. The general rule of thumb in that game is you need 10 of a higher tier character to make it better than a lower tier, which are much easier to get. Also it requires a lot of grinding to “activate” the power you paid for, so even though it is P2W unless you really want to do really stupid things with your money it still takes playing the game to actually make use of any of it. On top of that it is possible, with basically perfect, very time consuming, play, to keep up with all the whales for free.

    Hopefully, no one studies this F2P game or the loot box problem could get a lot worse. Or maybe the appeal coming form an IP as cool as Marvel lets them get away with a lot anything else wouldn’t be able to.

    Also I don’t recommend playing the game due to F2P BS that you already knew was there the moment you found out it is F2P. I just think it managed to “solve” a lot of P2W problems.

  16. Karma The Alligator says:

    then it should be trivial to scare up some extra funding

    Should that be ‘scrap up’, or is that an expression I never heard of?

    1. Chris_ANG says:

      It’s an expression. It probably originates from flushing game animals while hunting.

      1. Karma The Alligator says:

        Fair enough. I imagined the managers going around each cubicle and just holding their employees up, guess that wasn’t too far off the mark.

  17. Dustin says:

    Sorry, if this is the wrong place for this, but your column has a typo in the second to last paragraph.

    Let’s assume we don’t care about the games or the people who play them, and that the only thing we care about is making as much money as impossible.

    Impossible should possible, yes?

  18. TMC_Sherpa says:

    Isn’t this simply another example of publishers pulling an “easily” transferable mechanic from a popular (read: very profitable) game somewhere it doesn’t belong? QTE, two weapon inventory, cover based shooting, shooting in general, puzzle platforming, multiple endings, some sort of morality system, etc.

    There’s probably a really awful chess game in there somewhere. I start with no pawns, nine queens, I’m playing ULTRA MEGA SUPER WHITE so I get three turns before you go and my king has a sniper rifle. Press X to counter castling.

    1. Droid says:

      WH 40k: Regicide already has you covered!

    2. Karma The Alligator says:

      There *is* a chess game (or app, since I saw it on mobile) like that where you have challenges with weird rules and settings. One game I’ve seen you started with 4 or 6 queens and barely any pawns.

  19. baud says:

    I don’t know about Mass Effect Andromeda, but ME 3 had lootboxes in the multiplayer mode; the lootboxes contained new characters, weapons, weapons mods, upgrades to the characters, weapons and mods and one-use items. One could use either “money” won in matches or the same currency used to buy DLC (and most player having bought pieces of DLC would have some of those lying around, with the price of the DLC being what they were).

    1. Darker says:

      Yeah, same with Andromeda multiplayer.

      Also I must say I liked the way ME implemented lootboxes – you could spend real money if you were impatient and wanted better items right away or simply play and you would get the same items over time. I didn’t mind the grind since the gameplay was quite fun.

      1. shoeboxjeddy says:

        ME lootboxes were pretty cruel in a couple of ways. For example, whenever there was a new character, getting the character once unlocked that character for use (cool). But that did NOT remove that character from the lootpool. Instead, you could draw that character again to get an aspect of coloring the skin made available. It wasn’t anything as interesting as changing outfits that might have been worth a lootbox slot, merely the option to change the colors of the existing model. And not all at once, each character had a couple of these slots to “unlock” before they were finally removed from the pool. And each weapon had to be gained TEN times in order to have it removed. So you could repeatedly draw colors for your existing characters and upgrades to weapons you hated rather than getting fresh characters or weapons.

  20. Chris Robertson says:

    I don’t know if you can edit your submitted article, but the second to last paragraph has the following typo:

    and that the only thing we care about is making as much money as impossible.

  21. “It can make sure new players are “lucky”, and that the odds of getting goodies will gradually decrease over time.”

    You don’t even have to cheat to do this. Just make some things *substantially* rarer than others, as in collectible card games. When you’re starting out, everything is a prize, because you have nothing so everything is new. After you’ve collected for a while, the only thing that is any good is the stuff you don’t have yet, the ultra-rares that become prestige items.

    Let’s face it, collectible card games basically are “loot boxes, the game”.

    1. guy says:

      Fire Emblem Heroes is designed to avoid losing streaks so your odds get better the longer you go between max-rarity draws, which also helped with consistency.

      Because Japanese Mobile Game, it told you this to two decimal places.

      1. Droid says:

        Well, if it’s drop-based, 0.01% is probably something like the first or second significant digit, so there’s that.

        1. guy says:

          FEH started at 1.00% and went up after every set of five. If you wanted a particular five-star, that was a whole different story.

          1. guy says:

            Actually, the second sentence there might be key to making the buisness model work; in the ones I’ve played the five-stars* are generally solid across the board; they’ve got varying properties and arguable quality rankings but they’re pretty much all always worth having and if you get one you can make them a centerpiece of your play pretty much every time. But players want a couple in particular for whatever reason, and will chase them vigorously.

            In Fire Emblem Heroes my particular white whale was standard-issue Lucina. Mostly just because I liked her in her original game for a wide variety of reasons, she had solid stats, and the other characters from the franchise I liked were 3-4 stars and I got them pretty quick. I never spent money on the hunt, but it became steadily more annoying/hilarious as I kept getting alternate versions of Lucina. I got Lucina-pretending-to-be-Marth, I got Lucina-in-dad’s-outfit-with-spear, and I got spring-event-Lucina, but I’m not sure I ever did get just plain Lucina.

            I eventually dropped Fire Emblem Heroes in favor of Fate:Grand Order, where I am somehow having the exact same problem with Original Saber. Down to the alternate five-star version with a spear. I have pretty much only spent money on this particular mad quest, though by this point I’ve basically given up.

            *I don’t think this is required by law, but it’s always 1-5 stars.

    2. Vinsomer says:

      I’ve been thinking about CCGs/TCGs and what separates them from loot boxes, in no small part because I play a couple and potential regulation of loot boxes could end up drastically affecting or even destroying TCGs.

      I think there are more than a few important differences, at least with physical TCGs like Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon.

      The first is that the metagame rerquires players to have incomplete, varied collections. A TCG where everyone has access to all the same cards will be bad because, combined with perfect imbalance (i.e some cards being objectively more powerful than others, but also being weak to the effects and strategies of some weaker cards) you’ll just end up with far fewer strategies at pretty much every level. See, unlike FIFA Ultimate team, where Cristiano Ronaldo is simply the best attacker in the game and everyone else is basically just a worse version of him, cards have different effects regardless of rarity which is why the ’30 legendary deck’ never works. In other words, there’s a functional value that extends beyond rarity and market value that many loot boxes lack.

      The second is the secondary market is easily accessible. You don’t have to buy packs to build a deck and anyone wanting to be competitive is actually far better served by buying singles. It’s the casual players who open packs, and I think it’s because they honestly want to. Not that they’re being manipulated into it: if you ask most FIFA players, they’d much rather buy Ronaldo with real money and not have to buy packs to get coins to trade for him, or have to buy coins from dodgy third party sellers who can get you banned because they break the TOS. But most TCG players like opening packs: casuals would rather play in an environment where there’s strategic diversity and that doesn’t happen if there’s no random element in collecting.

      The third is that the cards are printed. There’s no possibility of the specific items you get being manipulated. Sure, they can tweak the ratios, but they’ll get caught easy (a lot of players buy boxes of boosters so if ratios are off, people will catch on) and they can’t specifically manipulate results in order to increase ‘engagement’ (if this isn’t already happening in gaming, it soon will be).

      1. guy says:

        I think the first point is key; the loot boxes people don’t hate are like that.

        1. Vinsomer says:

          True, but there needs to be a concrete reason why if TCGs are going to escape lootbox legislation unscathed.

          1. guy says:

            I would argue they basically are lootboxes but also that they’re more-or-less compliant with the Japanese mobile game system by having fixed knowable odds; cards have a rarity category and the odds of getting a card in a given rarity category in a booster are disclosed somewhere. Customers can make fully-informed purchasing decisions.

            They’re also less concerning because the logistics of obtaining a new pack tend to be more difficult; most especially it’s a lot less likely a kid would buy an excessively huge amount on a parent’s card without their knowledge and a lot more likely that scenario could be resolved in a straightforward manner by existing mechanisms for physical goods.

            1. Decius says:

              What ARE the existing methods for physical goods of uncertain value, like lottery tickets or booster packs? If someone’s child orders them off of Amazon or uses a credit card without their consent and determines their value by opening them, is the standard method uncheatable?

              1. guy says:

                In general when a kid orders a huge number of booster packs, several hundred dollars worth, the parents would become aware of this prior to the kid opening them and could return them unopened.

  22. Vinsomer says:

    It’s funny that you mentioned Bioware and Dragon Age, because one of Anthem’s leads just remarked that he wants the next Dragon Age to follow Anthem’s content delivery methods, that apparently being a near-constant stream of narrative content. Because the problem with a game based around progression is that putting progression up for sale undermines the thing players are trying to get out of the game, like charging extra to tell someone the end to a movie 10 minutes in, then adding a bunch of bloat to encourage them to capitulate. I think they’re trying to figure out a way to do the whole ‘live service’ thing while sidestepping this problem, and selling something they know players want while undermining the game’s appeal as little as possible, but I just can’t see it working.

  23. Olivier FAURE says:

    Do it incrementally. Whatever we do, it needs to be slow. It’s the old how to boil a frog analogy[1]. People are bad at reacting to incrementalism. It’s hard to get people fired up to take action when there’s no single event to rally around.

    I really don’t think that’s how studio executives think.

    First off, it’s debatable whether the “boil a frog” method works at all in these situations. Companies experiment, but often that experimentation is less “let’s see how big a jerk I can be before my consumers leave” and more “let’s try different revenue streams and see which one works best”. Video games are a super competitive market, where gamers almost always have the option to just buy something else, so people who don’t want to put up with abusive business practice won’t tolerate them more in the future than they do now.

    It feels like people “getting used” to DLC or PTW or loot boxes or whatever, but the reality is the market was always there, companies are just getting more into it.

    Second, let’s say you’re an amoral studio executive, you’re familiar with gaming, and you to maximize microtransaction profit. Your best bet isn’t to do “evil” microtransactions slowly enough that people don’t notice them. Your best bet is to psychoanalyze players, and account for their sense of fairness and community, or better, use it as a selling point.

    The most common model is the TF2 model: only sell cosmetics and stuff that isn’t a straight upgrade; or sell something that isn’t too hard to unlock.

    A better model, that is only seen anecdotally, would be to sell power, and do it in a way that doesn’t feel unfair. Sell the opportunity to play as the raid boss that everyone has to unite against. Or the opposite, sell an ultra-rare expensive sword, that can only be used when other players summon you to help them with their dungeon. Have one person buy magic gemstones that give their entire group a one-time access to the Forgotten World with special gear for everyone in the group.

    Sell things in a way that doesn’t separate whales, but makes them a core part of the player experience. Have the whales buy not just an advantage over regular players, but attention and gratitude from them, in a way that makes the spending infectious. (“Man, defeating that Superdemon was really fun! I’m gonna buy a Superdemon token, see what it’s like playing on the other side”)

  24. Paul Spooner says:

    At this point, I’d just be impressed if the studio execs had the decency to admit to your assumptions that they don’t care about gaming and are just trying to make money.

  25. oblivion437 says:

    If someone were to contact certain people, say FIFA and the investors on Wall Street who buy and sell EA stock, they might apprise the former of the damage to FIFA’s brand that’s a possible knock-on effect of their products being used to create a casino for children to empty their parents’ bank accounts while the latter might like to know that the entire revenue stream derived from the loot box system is getting closer to the legal guillotine by the day and in fact only avoids getting shut down in some places right now due to lax enforcement. A risk of losing their cash cow license combined with another massive stock price dip is enough to get the ring leader of the whole thing kicked by the board.

    1. guy says:

      I see you have limited familiarity with FIFA.

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