Locked Boxes

So yesterday Massively did what they should have done instead of their pseudo-news post regarding STO developer Borticus’  comments on lock boxes, and published an editorial in their regular Perfect Ten column and that focused on lock boxes. While I’m not a fan of lock boxes myself, I can see where market realities make them a necessary evil, but it’s most definitely a slippery slope.

Anyway, as Justin says in his article, lock boxes are gambling. You are paying real and/or in-game (varying by MMO) money for a chance to win a prize. That’s no different from a slot machine in Vegas, buying a state lottery ticket, or buying a raffle ticket at a school fundraiser. But like many other activities, gambling itself isn’t wrong, it’s that it can be abused.

I take issue with Justin’s second point though, where he mentions that the house always wins. This is the point where I think lock boxes diverge from other examples of gambling, since it’s not costing the developer anything to “pay out” like it is a casino. I also don’t see any sinister intentions behind not publishing odds. Truthfully, I don’t think developers know with any certainty what the odds are on winning a particular item from a lock box. Random number generators can be a little goofy at times, and I guarantee if they did post odds that there would be lot’s of players double checking those odds and raising a ruckus if their results were at all different.

I also disagree with his comment about feeling like deleting a lock box was a waste. I have the opposite reaction. I enjoy deleting lock boxes in Star Trek Online because I know I won’t be opening them, the Exchange is saturated with them so they don’t sell, and they take up valuable inventory space.

I do agree that the legality issue is in its early days, and hopefully the practice doesn’t get any games banned from some countries. Like F2P itself, I think lock boxes are a trend that’s going to be around for a while and if you can’t ignore or tolerate them, then you’ll need to take a break and wait for the direction of the industry to shift again.

Lock boxes are tacky, but in my opinion they are more jarring to see in Lord of the Rings Online than STO. Fair or not, Middle-earth is a more serious setting in my mind and I have less tolerance for commercialism in it than I do with STO or any other MMO. But even as tacky as they are, I don’t see lock boxes as tarnishing the F2P model. Personally, I find Turbine’s habit of putting items in their store to fix not-fun gameplay mechanics rather than actually fixing them much more tarnishing than lock box keys. I can ignore and delete boxes after all, but it’s much harder to ignore the progressively ridiculous number X of monsters I have to slay for deed Y.

As far as public sentiment and private actions, I think it’s really a wash. It’s the same reason why no one can really gauge the overall reaction to the end of Mass Effect 3. Unhappy people are motivated to be vocal, and happy people have moved on. Lot’s of MMO players claim to hate lock boxes and post daily on forums about how much they hate them. But forum goers are a small percentage of players in any game, and I would bet money that a size-able number of those haters still buy keys and open boxes. In the end, all a developer has to go on is their metrics. They know how many accounts they have, how many players that have on a nightly basis, how many boxes are dropping, how many keys are being purchased, and how many boxes are being opened. Apparently those numbers point to lock boxes being worthwhile, otherwise they’d be gone.

Honestly, I’ve gotten bored with the entire topic and its surrounding drama. It’s been beaten to death and nothing new’s been added to the conversation recently except for one thing. Lock boxes are only one step removed from RMT. So far MMO developers have been pretty careful to make sure that money only flows into the system, and I assume that’s to avoid government regulation and taxation (not/never been/don’t want to be a lawyer so I could be wrong). Blizzard though has started to experiment with that in Diablo 3, and I’m sure if that goes well then we’ll see the practice tried out in MMOs as well.

11 Comments

  1. seanNo Gravatar says:

    The real problem – or risk, rather – with lockboxes is not that they’re one step removed from RMT; but that they’re one step removed from gambling. Just last week the Japanese Govt announced it was going to step in and regulate some of the more egregious forms of lottery tickets systems (because that’s what lockboxes are) in the social game space; Korea currently has an active investigation into lotteries in Korean MMOs – because while RMT makes regulators twitchy (all that untaxed revenue left on the table); gambling makes them incandescent – there’s not a government I can think of, at least in the OECD countries, that doesn’t strictly regulate lotteries and gambling.

    At the moment the lockbox phenomena (I know it via LOTRO) – is small beer; but it doesn’t take much for moral panics over gambling to break out and governments to start wielding the ban-hammer. *That* is the real risk of lockboxes, and the reason why developers must be very careful with them, regardless of their profitabilty. The one thing probably saving the MMO space is that action in the West is probably likely to be taken first against lotteries in social games (ie, facebook-hosted gaming), rather than the more-niche MMO market.

    and regarding the juggernaut that is Blizzard: Blizz removed the RMT AH from Korean versions of D3 because it broke the law their regarding gambling.

    • BrianNo Gravatar says:

      See I don’t believe they’re one step removed from gambling. I suppose if you define it as gambling only when you can win money or something directly worth money, but in my opinion there’s no difference between getting something worth money and something you’d be willing to pay money for. People are buying lock box keys because they want a specific item, which they would’ve spent the same money for directly in the game’s store. It’s only technicality that players can’t convert in-game resources into real money that keeps developers off government radar. But it’s becoming so widespread and so lucrative, that I don’t think that’ll make much difference. Like what you mentioned with Japan and Korea. It actually makes a lot of sense that Asian governments will be the first to get into this since the F2P market is a lot more mature there. I imagine that the US governments, both the federal and state levels, will not be too far behind.

      By the way, that’s really interesting about Blizzard removing the AH from Korean versions, I hadn’t followed D3 closely enough to read that. I wonder, in five years will the AH still be in the US version?

  2. “But forum goers are a small percentage of players in any game, and I would bet money that a size-able number of those haters still buy keys and open boxes. In the end, all a developer has to go on is their metrics. They know how many accounts they have, how many players that have on a nightly basis, how many boxes are dropping, how many keys are being purchased, and how many boxes are being opened. Apparently those numbers point to lock boxes being worthwhile, otherwise they’d be gone.”

    Only two numbers matter to the developer’s math in these situations.
    1. Is the revenue non-zero?
    2. Are players who dislike the practice NOT ONLY willing to boycott, but actually to reduce the amount they spend on the game (i.e. canceled subscriptions, fewer store purchases, etc)? Bear in mind that for a game like STO, that includes any participation in the dilithium exchange, or even the energy credit economy. If you give me energy credits in exchange for rare consoles or whatnot and I turn around and buy a D’Kora on the auction house, you just helped create demand for C-points, since the person who bought the keys would not have done so if I had not received the credits with which to pay them.

    I would bet that most players are indifferent to the practice, other than wishing for a way to shut off the server message spam. But beyond the numbers, I think that part of the discontent around these issues is that 99.99% can hate the system and it can still be a good business move so long as the 0.01% outspend them.

    And as for the analogy to slot machines, bear in mind that these are subject to regulation by whomever regulates the local casinos. There is zero oversight over lock boxes. Why not have a high drop rate on the first day to encourage player buzz and then lower the rate dramatically? Why not write a script for the next lock box that lowers the droprate for players who bought 50 keys last round, on the thinking that this player is clearly willing to pay? They’d never be caught, it may not be illegal if indeed this is not gambling, and they aren’t even saying that the “chance” is constant.

    • BrianNo Gravatar says:

      I totally agree that most players are indifferent outside of the server spam that Cryptic was doing for a while (so happy when that was gone).

      Those are some devious thoughts on adjusting the lock box drop rates that I hadn’t considered. I’m not sure that regulation is a good way to go, but I hear that word and start thinking more about banking rules when I should be thinking more like state gaming board. Definitely something new for me to think about.

  3. FelizNo Gravatar says:

    The developers most certainly know the odds for every single item in their lockboxes. If the RNGs were as goofy as you expect, nothing would work within the game. The game needs a predictable random number generator, predictable in a way that says if I want you to miss 5% of the time, after perhaps 1000 rolls you did miss somewhere between 45 and 55 times.

    Besides, it would be dangerous to not know the odds of a main payout, since all of a sudden, those payout items would be flooding the market, making the entire lottery useless for the “house”.

    • BrianNo Gravatar says:

      Except there’s two different things are work there. Developers know what’s on their loot tables and how the algorithm is weighted to pick from what’s available, but when a player’s getting assigned drops the RNG can still vary. Using Star Trek Online’s Special Task Forces, there are players who get a rare drop first time playing and players who don’t get a rare in the first fifty times playing. To the second guy the odds look a lot different than the first, and you can bet he’ll be on the forums complaining about it.

      I wasn’t clear enough above about it, but I think that developers know what the overall payout rate is for rare items across all players. That doesn’t mean those odds will match up with individual experiences, and posting odds will just lead to more forum drama. I’d say it’s more important to do something like Green mentions above and have some type of Vegas-style commission to make sure that developers aren’t tweaking results to generate more sales or adjusting drop rates for players based on how many or how few keys they buy.

  4. AnjinNo Gravatar says:

    I would hate to see any government interference in videogaming, but this is the most egregious, most cynical method of extracting money from players. As Sean said above, the Japanese government was forced to stop in against the worst practices over there. Maybe someone should be shining a light on it here.

    • BrianNo Gravatar says:

      It’s the worst for now, give it time. As much as I like/respect the developers, I’m pretty cynical about the business side of things, and I’m sure that there’s always a way for things to get worse. Like I said above, I’m not certain that major government regulation is a good way to go, but given that these games are on the Internet, I don’t see how states will be able to manage it. They still haven’t figured out online sales sites after all.

      Interesting times ahead, I think.

  5. PaiNo Gravatar says:

    Even though I don’t mind cash shop games at all, I LOATHE lottery boxes. Hate ‘em. I would much rather have the items I want available in the shop to buy (even at a higher cost) than to play the stupid blind lotto with a dozen ‘cheaper’ lockboxes (whose odds are never revealed and are probably atrociously rigged in general).

    I mean, sure they’re profitable. Lots of people have a weakness for gambling. But I think the tone of such items is more exploitative than anything else, which leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    • BrianNo Gravatar says:

      Agreed, and that’s basically what I said in a survey I got recently from Cryptic. I’m okay with spending money from a cash shop for items, but I’m not spending money on a chance to get something. Still, I’m long past the point where I can say I hate them. It’s kind of like reality TV. It’s there, there’s a lot of it, but I’m not interested so I’ll avoid it. I discard any boxes I get as loot and go on having fun with the game.

      • TeshNo Gravatar says:

        I answered the survey the same way, admitting that I’ll keep the Very Rare lockboxes and buy a key on the AH if I have spare EC. In STO, that EC isn’t doing much for me anyway, so it may as well go to someone who bought the key with money and maybe net me some special ship. …the two I opened didn’t have ships, but hey, that 2 million EC that I wasn’t using might be making someone else happy.