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.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

While reading through my RSS feeds this evening a title caught my eye from Massively:

Star Trek Online dev unconcerned with losing global playability for the sake of lock boxes

Uh, what? That sounded incredibly out of character for any of the developers from the STO team, so of course I clicked through to read the whole thing, and then I covered my face with my hand and sighed.

Basically, Jeremy Randall (Borticus) was chatting with some players on the Jupiter Force fleet forums (of which he’s a member as well, or was before he joined Cryptic, I assume he still is) about the lock boxes and what might happen if some countries decided they’re illegal. Jeremy’s opinion was that STO would become unplayable in those countries rather than lose the boxes, because the revenue from them is apparently that good.

It was immediately apparent to me that this is just Jeremy’s opinion being expressed in a discussion among friends. It’s not news. Were this in a press release or on the official forums, then it would be news. Had someone at Massively wanted to use this as fodder for an editorial that would’ve been valid. But it wasn’t posted in an editorial, it was posted as a news item, and that is crap in my opinion. Plus, the wording of the title and the flippant tone of the article (as well as the appended update) make the whole thing feel like link bait to me (and I really considered removing the link above at this point).

What really irritates me is now either the Jupiter Force forums will go closed for fleet members only, or Jeremy will no longer be able to take off his developer hat when chatting with friends. Both of those outcomes suck. The Star Trek Online team is among the most communicative of any MMO live team that I’ve seen, and I really hate to see events that make that seem like bad policy.

Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should, or that you have to.

Taking the bad with the good.

I’ve been thinking more about last week’s post on Star Trek Online, F2P, and lock boxes. I’ve looted a few lock boxes since then and left them sitting in my cargo bay. I’m still not planning on spending money or dilithium on keys, but I’m not as bothered by having them show up as drops as I expected.

Judging by the number of messages I’m seeing in game announcing when someone wins a Galor, there are a lot of players spending money or dilithium on keys. I’m sure that having lock boxes as drops and keys in the store generates more sales than just having the boxes in the store. A player might not think to buy a box from the store, but if their in the game and loot a lock box then they’re more likely to purchase a key.

I’m still not a fan of the practice but there are a lot of people in game having fun with it. Besides, the more money that Cryptic and Perfect World makes, the more they can reinvest in the game. More money means more content designers creating story missions, more programmers adding features to the game engine, and more systems designers working on new game features.

The cost of business?

Cryptic’s announced another round of lottery boxes for Star Trek Online. I was mildly interested in them as I was reading through the Dev Diary, until I got to the part at the end where I read you need a key from the C-store in order to open them.


I really don’t like this. For starters, I’m not a gambler. I don’t like going to casinos or race tracks or buying scratch offs.

Beyond the gambling aspect, I prefer to have the store ties in games as minimal as possible, since I’m a subscriber. I can develop selective blindness so I can ignore the C-store and D-store buttons on the UI, they’re much more subtle than the gold bordered boxes Turbine uses in Lord of the Rings Online. But I really don’t like the idea of getting a lockbox as a loot drop from regular play and then having to go to the store to get a key to open it. Suddenly there’s something that is coming into my inventory which is directly pushing me towards the C-store. That’s okay for non-subscribers, after all Cryptic needs to make money both to stay in business and to reinvest in the game, but not for a subscriber.

Before F2P, C-store items were always nice optional things to have, and I spent money on quite a few uniforms, bridge packs, and ships. But as far as I can remember, there was never an item or mission that I came across in the game that directed me to go make a purchase, I always had to go to the store to seek it out.

So, depending on what the market looks like, I’ll either be discarding any lockboxes I get or putting them on the Exchange (too bad there’s no way to sell them for dilithium). Despite this lockbox stuff, I’m still completely excited for the start of The 2800 Feature Episode Series 4 this weekend. It’s like Star Trek is back on television!