Lockboxes

Tyler over at MMOBro makes the case for “getting over” lockboxes in games. I found the post interesting for several reasons, which I will get into in a bit. However, I do want to point out in the beginning that I agree with the premise: lockboxes aren’t going anywhere.

Even though they should. Specifically, into the garbage bin of bad game design.

One of the first of Tyler’s points is that lockboxes don’t literally destroy games. To which I would reply: not directly. Was the first iteration of Diablo 3 unplayable? Nope. Plenty of people were able to play the game just fine… for given amounts of fine.

From my perspective, the game was essentially broken in half. ARPGs in general (and especially Diablo) revolve around killing crowds of bad guys and hoping for good loot to drop, and the dopamine feedback loop simply didn’t exist when you could straight-up buy way better gear from the in-game AH. I was killing monsters hoping to get gold to buy better gear, rather than having any illusion that a monster might drop gear for me.

Perhaps even more problematic in Diablo 3’s case were the endgame difficulties. Since players could shop around and directly buy the best possible gear from a million other players’ drops, the endgame was balanced around Resistances and other stats that would be all but impossible to get within your own game sans AH. In other words, since you could buy good gear, the game designers had to create challenges that required that gear for it to be worthwhile, thereby creating cash-required progression.

Now, you might say that Diablo 3’s system wasn’t technically lockboxes at all. Semantics, I say. The point is that if you can buy power for cash, the player incentives in the game change, as do developers’ ultimate design goals.

But what about non-power purchases? Tyler starts out in the post by saying:

It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?

Later on, however, he gets to this part:

I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lock[box] obsession is not so much the boxes themselves, but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale.

That is precisely why this business model is so pernicious. As Tyler notes, there are plenty of MMOs out there which have survived just fine almost entirely on the backs of their lockbox revenue. Tyler was making that point in context of refuting lockboxes as short-term cash grabs, but the fact that they are in fact long-term revenue streams is more damning, IMO.

Lockboxes are long-term revenue streams because designers devote significant time to adding more stuff in them at direct expense to the rest of the game. Which makes perfect, rational sense. Under a traditional Buy-2-Play model, you get more money by making a better game. Under anything else, you get more of that game-adjacent thing, which NEVER improves the gameplay experience itself. Because it is never a part of the actual game.

Later, game designers get this defense:

And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. […] They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society.

I mean… that kind of justifies anything, right? Mylan was just trying to turn a profit with the EpiPen hike in this capitalist society, Martin Shkreli was just trying to turn a profit with that AIDS drug gouge, and so on. Nothing nefarious about that; it’s all just business. “Business” being defined here as consequence-free personal enrichment and erosion of all consumer surplus, of course.

As I mentioned at the beginning, lockboxes aren’t going anywhere in spite of their abhorrent, exploitative, design-destroying influences, precisely because they work. And to be clear, lockboxes work the same way that cigarettes “work,” with similar (metaphorical) long-term effects. Lockboxes never, in any way, ADD anything of value to the game design itself; all of those cool mounts and skins could have been added for achievements, as rewards for skill, at the end of a long quest chain, or anywhere at all that reinforces the core gameplay loop.

At best, lockboxes funds game development in a roundabout way. Which sort of begs the question as to why these designers don’t just go full Konami and get into the Pachinko business to which they clearly aspire. Or, you know, perhaps make a product worth purchasing on its own merits.

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Posted on February 6, 2017, in Commentary and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Disclaimer : I never buy lockbox, and i would prefer their content to be in the direct shop if possible.

    There is contradiction in your text between twi points :
    – lockbox has such a bad effect on games it is destroying them from being good games
    – lockbox is an effective and sustainable way of bringing money to the dev

    If they were so much destructive on the game design, some months after their big impact on the game, most of the players would have left the game. If they are sustainable that means their destructive impact is not that big. Am i missing something ? Cobtrary to smoking that is very addictice, dxcept for a small subset of player the lockbox are not addictives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are a few distinctions to make here.

      First, as I mentioned with Diablo 3, even during it’s initial Real Money AH iteration: “Plenty of people were able to play the game just fine… for given amounts of fine.” The brokenness demonstrated itself later on, when the designers were basically forced to jack up the difficulty beyond what could be sustained within the game itself, e.g. without using the RMAH. That is broken game design, even if the first part is perfectly playable.

      Second, when it comes to lockboxes, the quality of the game isn’t necessarily important to their sustainability. This can be demonstrated by looking at pretty much the entirety of the F2P mobile app market these days. Better games make more, of course, but “sustainability” is an otherwise incredibly low bar to cross when you add straight-up gambling to your game.

      Contrary to smoking that is very addictive, except for a small subset of player the lockboxes are not addictive.

      I mean, cigarettes aren’t very addictive if you never start smoking in the first place. Beyond that, a lot of lockbox games rely on “whales” to pay the bills, and it’s tough to argue that someone dropping hundreds of dollars into (often) F2P games is doing it because the base game “deserves” it.

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  2. Or, you know, perhaps make a product worth purchasing on its own merits.

    They did; they made lockboxes!

    I think we can draw distinctions between profitability vs not (MMOs) and obcene profits vs less-obscene-yet-respectable profits (Rx drug scandals). Or maybe it’s not bare profitability, but rather a change in expectations: money people see League of Legends et al and say “do that”, a tall order for an MMO that gets 100,000 players in the best case.

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  3. This is a good example of what I mean when I say we’ve lost perspective. You’re comparing pixels in a video game to gouging on a life-saving medicine, to an addiction that causes cancer and death. Do you not see the inherent absurdity in that?

    I don’t like lockboxes, and I’d rather they go away, but at their absolute worst, they’re a mild irritant. A valid real word comparison would be something stuck in your teeth, not lung cancer.

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    • The comparison is not to pixels, it is the “just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society” justification for a payment model predicated on exploiting addiction. A payment model that also happens to undermine the very design of any game that utilizes it.

      Do lockboxes really matter in the scheme of things? No more than anything else. We pick and choose what’s important. In the context of a gaming blog talking about game design though, I’d suggest that lockboxes and their deleterious effects are pretty damn important.

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  4. “Lockboxes never, in any way, ADD anything of value to the game design itself”

    Really? Are you sure about that? I never, ever buy lockboxes but I’m not sure I see the difference in design terms between ones you pay for and ones you get for free and most MMOs I play are stuffed to bursting with FREE lockboxes and I love those. They add a huge amount of excitement and motivation to my gameplay.

    I don’t play MMOs to go shopping. I don’t much like buying always-available items from always-available vendors. it’s dull and meaningless. I would far rather get an item I desire by opening a box and finding it inside, especially if I’ve already opened fifty such boxes hoping to get it. In most MMOs I play I routinely forego the option of buying tradeable items that others have found and put up for sale because the value in those items to me is in the finding of them. If I never get them then that doesn’t matter.

    I don’t support paid-for lockboxes as a revenue stream. i agree with you that its disruptive of the kind of development that would otherwise benefit most MMOs. I do entirely support the presence of free lockboxes though. They are as welcome as unexpected presents dropping on the doormat in real life, even if when you open them they do only contain a badly-knitted scarf from Great Aunt Emmeline.

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    • Well… I’d say that a “free lockbox” is more akin to a lootbox than anything else, which are fine. I am not against random rewards either, such as gear or whatever from defeating an enemy (etc). That sort of thing is actually good design, as it reinforces the gameplay loop of overcoming challenges and furthering character progression.

      Regular lockboxes that are limited by cash, conversely, add nothing to the game experience itself, as they are not a part of the game itself.

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  5. “They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society.”

    I hope that while writing that blog post, he was interrupted by multiple phone calls from “the Windows company” telling him that they had detected that his PC had a virus, and that he needed to give them his credit card number so they could remote in and fix it.

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    • It’s the most insidious and banal argument you can possibly make. Hope the dude never complains about the price of anything – after all, profit is key in our beloved free market ;’)

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  6. I feel like you’re kind of conflating lockboxes with cash shops in general by the end there, saying that all developer efforts should go into making new playable content instead.

    As an aside, do you think the same people who buy lots of lockboxes to always get that new outfit/mount/whatever would actually go to the length of chasing down those same items via gameplay if they required a lengthy quest chain, achievement or similar? I’m not really very much into buying lockboxes myself, but just from observation my impression is that the recent years have “bred” a type of MMO player who is more interested in playing dress-up than in wading through virtual swamps just to acquire those new clothes, which is simply a different type of gameplay I suppose…

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    • Ultimately, yeah, I do believe that all developer effort should be spent on game development. Anything else – be it lockbox or cash shop – necessarily diminishes that. Cash shops are less directly exploitative though.

      As for dress-up… I’m actually receptive to these sort of non-power rewards. Hell, Blizzard got another ~2ish months of subscription out of me precisely because I was interested in farming transmog gear. I was doing all sorts of daily quests for housing gear in Wildstar, back when that was a thing. While I’m absolutely certain that some of the whales out there wouldn’t bother with clothing rewards at the end of a raid tier or whatever, I’m sure there would be just as many normal players actually out in the world generating (group) content if they had but the opportunity to actually get something worthwhile.

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  7. Can we talk about how utterly repugnant the name “MMOBro” is? Bloody hell.

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  8. Lockboxes are just a subset of the F2P model and the basic decision pattern around it.

    Is your game good? Yes = not F2P.
    Not really = F2P (lockboxes) might save/delay its death if you can hook a subset of high spenders.

    As you say, no game is really better because instead of in-game content, dev time is focused instead on finding the best way to get someone to pay for something rather than just play the game. Now there are ways to still do F2P without hurting your game (LoL), where the fluff sales more than fund the lost dev time it takes to create said fluff. But most devs aren’t Riot, and can’t sustain themselves on good game + fluff sales, and have to resort to tricking people with stuff like lockboxes.

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  9. Just to say I agree with yours and Syn’s commentary, but imho the bigger problem is here:

    “Tyler over at MMOBro makes the case for “getting over” lockboxes in games.”

    You know, I think the use of “getting over” is really indicative of the gaming community’s absolute apathy and myopia as a consumer group – especially in MMOs, where players (in virtue of being virtual world denizens, however blurred and confused the idea of a virtual world has become). Imagine something akin to lockboxes in any developed country with a politically conscious citizenry – there’d literally be riots. I mean, I’m not sure what it’d be, maybe something along the lines of “thanks for the tax, by the way we actually might not open a hospital in your area, it’s a lucky draw! haha!”. But you’d get protest (in the loosest sense) at literally every step of implementation and in every way. Gamers seem uniquely unable (along with maybe Apple fetishists) to resist things with any sort of cooperation and completely unwilling to stop a slippery slope. It’s honestly maddening – can you imagine how many poor design decisions we now have to deal with in most games being gone if people weren’t just willing to “get over” terrible, exploitative game design?

    I’d wager that with Gamergate having revealed the sensitivity of the most vocal of “gamers” to anything approaching a considered worldview (i.e. none at all) it’s never likely to change, but just imagine if the mentality was different, eh? No more suck it up, instead suck the devs dry of money until they release polished, worthwhile products that aren’t ridiculously inane.

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    • We do have lockboxes in the real world. It’s called the lottery, and most people are fine with it.

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      • You’ve completely missed the point. Lotteries and other gambling distribute a cash sum (or some other prize) that you voluntarily enter and would never be able to get anyway. You go in knowing the odds are atrocious. You voluntarily choose to engage in something that is completely irrelevant to the rest of your life.

        Gaming lockboxes can be exclusive content gating mechanisms (bad), but when combined with the fact that the devs have absolute control over them and are only cynically exploiting them because the margins are ridiculous it becomes really bad imho.They’re the most cynical cash grab possible.

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