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
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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.
 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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