Greedy Goblin

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Put a lockbox into your game and I'm out

There are few things that annoy players more than lockboxes, but they spread. Some say "just live with it", while my position is that a game which have non-cosmetic lockboxes is an absolute no-play, even if everything else is fine.

First, a short explanation: "lockbox" was named after actually locked chest that you had to pay to open without knowing its contents. It means purchasing a "lottery ticket"-type of item in the shop that reward one or another item based only on chance. It has various forms, recently no longer shaped visually as a box due to its extreme rejection, they are rather called "card packs" or "identify unknown sword" abilities.

Theoretically having 1% chance to get a drop is equal to get a token and the drop costs 100. Why do companies go with the random chance instead of the straightforward tokens, despite universal hate for the latter? Because it can be rigged, which in modern game design means "is rigged". What do I mean? When you gamble for an item, you can win or lose. For each outcome, people can react two ways:
  • Win: "I have what I wanted, I'm good now" or "Yay, I have shiny, gimme more!"
  • Lose: "damnit, I didn't get it, I must try again!" or "$#@# I'm done with this #@$!%"

The ultimate goal of the company is to take as much money as they can. If the game isn't subscription, this is disconnected from player satisfaction, their income is unrelated from you actually playing the game. So they analyze the behavior of their customers and identify which group they are in and respond accordingly:
  1. If an "I have what I wanted, I'm good now" person wins (finds meaningful upgrade in the lockbox), he stops purchasing. So the company has a good reason to give him nothing until the algorithms show that he is turning into a #4 customer.
  2. "Yay, I have shiny, gimme more!" guy keeps purchasing as long as he is rewarded. So the game will give him minor upgrade after minor upgrade to make him feel satisfied with every purchase, yet have a reason to buy more.
  3. "damnit, I didn't get it, I must try again!" is the typical gambling addict. He wants to "win it back" and refuses to leave the table with no wins. This customer gets nothing, because a minor upgrade could be used as an excuse for him to stop gambling. He wants to stop, but he cannot. This is the type who is capable of leaving his salary at the slot machine at the bar - or at a video game.
  4. "$#@# I'm done with this #@$!%" is pissed. It can be a situation (pissed now) or a personality. The game knows exactly when you are pissed from various clues like spamming buttons when a single click would be sufficient, jumping around when idle and so on. This is the only customer who gets big upgrade, because the game doesn't want him ragequiting.
For this to reach, there is no need for psychology research, simple datamining and correlation seeking is enough. They can find something bizarre like "those who stopped to /pet the rabbit on the road are 90% `I'm good now`". This can be later explained as "someone who is interested in roleplaying is not interested in improving his gear above the necessary minimum and only buys when he can't access content without gear"

Before you'd say "a video game company can't evaluate my personality", please remember the dad who learned that his daughter in high school is pregnant from an ad agency. They know you more than you'll ever know yourself and there is no way you can protect yourself from them any other way than cutting ties at the first sign of "it can be rigged". It always is.


Provi Miner said...

I am curious why wouldn't a game be built to take all that it can? Isn't that the point of games?

Games for fun... really you played checkers with your grandfather (or sig other) and when you won you didn't say "oh hum ok looks like I won" you stood up and made sure they heard you say "I won" competition is the drive behind all games, and all third party games are built to get you spend on them in some form or another: Time, money, watching add's. Doesn't matter everything you do in any game is done with the idea that the game is getting more from you than you are getting from it.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the people who are so upset with lootboxes but are OK with random boss drops. Who is so poor that they consider risking $2 to be a moral outrage but spending several hours for killing WoW bosses or Blood Raider pirates for a chance of a random drop is OK.

Every single thing you said about RNG lockboxes is true about Mob drops. If a company has the ability to adjust the lockbox contents, then why in the world would they not use the exact same tech to adjust the boss/mob drops? So you do not trust some game dev to not manipulate lockboxes but assume that CCP does not rig the DPS RNG and loot drops???? If you don't trust the dev, why assume that noob#117 and GoonAlt#5 get the same drop odds? Anything with opaque RNG, not just lockboxes, can be manipulated.

“A lot of research shows that fixed rewards are not as effective for getting people to change behaviours, learn a new behaviour, or form a habit as random rewards are. Our brains are wired to try to make sense of unexpected things. When you have a random number determining what loot you get, by definition, you’re going to get an unexpected result, or an unexpected predictable result every time. Whether you get that by playing the game for so many hours or winning so many matches, or whether you get a roll of that random number generator from spending five dollars to buy a pack of cards or a loot chest, it’s still the same rush, the same experience, the same hopeful anticipation to try

Lockboxes and random drops both work because of people and their personalities.

Cathfaern said...

@Provi Miner:
In the "old" subscription modell (no cash shop) the company can only get you your monhtly subscription. So it's only interest is that you pay it every month which can be achieved by giving you interesting content so you won't say that you don't have anything to do and cancel subscription, neither you say that you have content be it's too boring / grindy so you're not interested anymore and cancel subscription. I think this is a pure win from the player's perspective.
But as soon as it have any kind of cash shop you're right.

Gevlon said...

@Anon: in case of random boss drops the company has no reason to rig the RNG. I mean if they'd rig it to make addicts grind more, than they'd get ... more grinding. They don't want grinding, they want money. Also, bosses are usually group effort, so the random drop serves as a drama free loot distribution (if rogue item drops, the priest can't get it)

For the same reason "CCP" has no reason to rig mob drops because it would provide no increased income to CCP. We can start argue if Falcon or some other dev would rig it, but unlikely, since it leaves logs and hard code-wise. Falcon has much stronger and simpler ways to help Goons: not banning them when they bot 24/7, exploit or commit real world crimes.

vv said...

Lockbox (or gatcha) rigging is outlawed in S. Korea at least. Developers must show real chances of getting item before you buy one and they can't affect it.

Gevlon said...

@vv: and how is it enforced? Do government agencies get the source code of the software?

Remember that car makers were mandated to provide accurate emission data in all countries, yet Volkswagen managed to provide rigged data for a decade to every government.

Anonymous said...

They have to publish the probability.

Like so.

The problem with lockboxes is not RNG or rigging, it is that they are gambling.

Antze said...

You are slightly overestimating the ability of an current average game development company to create correlation seeking expert systems.

This is surely possible (and I expect being true) for big established game development companies. This will be possible for most of game development companies in some not-so-distant future.

Anyway, lockboxes are unfair (= profitable) even with no rigging, so even a small company with no engineers capable of proper rigging has a reason to do such a dirty thing. You explained it yourself earlier, a guy who wins a 1% chance item from a 100 coin lottery ticket usually values it less than it costs mathematically (less than 10K coins). Therefore, for 10K coins the company sells less than 10K coins of subjective gaming value, which is profitable for them (in the long run players spend more money than they would if that item just costed 10K coins).

Gevlon said...

@Anon: OK, they publish "1%". Then what? How do you test that it's really 1%?

Or more importantly, even if it's 1% on the large (out of 1000000M lockboxes sold to all players, somewhere between 9900 and 10100 contain the item), is it unrigged (each players have equal chance to win, as opposed to only those win who are identified as "pissed as hell")?

How do you enforce this law then, when WV got away with rigging their cars for a decade?!

vv said...

Risk is too big. Getting some more money from players isn't worth losing all the money.

@Antze: Games like Clash Of Clans or Candy Crush Saga (and most sucessful f2p gamers) are build around those systems. There's entire profession called "game analytic" and 3rd party software to do it.

Tithian said...

Wall of text warning:

You test that 1% chance by aggregate data. You make the results of all lockboxes available to an observer and over thousands of results, unless there is 'rigging', the chances verified should be pretty accurate. When Gwent launched people in the Reddit did their own 'pack opening' statistics where literally hundreads of people posted their data, and the end results on rarity breakdowns was pretty much as expected. No one can say that 'legendary drops are rigged' after that, even though one might open 100 packs and only get 4 legendaries.

You can also further reinforce the probabilities by calculating appropriate pity timers: i.e. when you open X amount of packs/lockboxes and haven't gotten a high rarity item, then next one is guarranteed a good drop. Or alternatively F2P games have some sort of currency attached to lockboxes, so you can eventually get what you wanted by collecting the currency over time.

In the end, the reality is people are voting for lockboxes, with their wallets. It doesn't matter if it's just the 'whales' or any other small percentage of the playerbase buying them, they are simply too good to ignore from a monetization perspective. TSW was in a downward spiral until they introduced lockboxes, which outsold all DLC packs and cosmetics they had made so far, making up for almost 80-90% of their revenue. Some say it's gambling, but for a lot of people that grew up with games and are now adults, it is simply seen as 'throwing 5$ at the screen' for their favorite hobby.

In the end you'll have to live with it, or quit online gaming. Evemtually even sub games will start selling 'crates' in their shop, because why the hell wouldn't you want to double your revenue overnight? The age of "all-inclusive subscription" games has been over for a while now.

Gevlon said...

@vv: World of Tanks got caught with rigging matchmaking. CCP got caught protecting criminals. Nothing happened besides bad PR.

@Tithian: you avoided the question. I never said that "1%" isn't true on the big average. I'm saying that some players have much better chances than others based on their psychology. If Adam gets 10 loot in 500 boxes and Betty get nothing in 500, that's still "1%".

I have no fear of (power item containing) lockboxes will happen everywhere. Just because porn sells, it doesn't mean that every movie is porn. Or even that they are all Michael Bay-like pointless explosions. Or superheros. There are still different films, as there are audience. They don't put in "just an extra porn to double revenues" because they'd lose their original audience.

I have money and I'm ready to spend it on a fair, competitive game. I'm not alone. It would be crazy to assume that there won't be a developer saying "hey, I go for that empty niche instead of being the 1531th lockbox + lingerie D-cup avatar game developer"

Anonymous said...

Star Trek Online is a game where lockboxes made me quit it.
And the reason for that is the fact their currency is locked.

You can make all the dilithium in the world, but you can only refine 8k per day, and that refined dil is connected to their cash shop currency, which is tied to Lockboxes mostly.

vv said...

If World of Tanks try to rig lockboxes in South Korea then they'll have serious problems in that country. As far as I know lockboxes in games were invented in Asia and nothing you can see in western games didn't come close to asian level. Only narrative-driven single-player games can be free from them. You can expect laws like this in other countries soon. Most people are absolutely OK with selling in-game power for real money, sadly. But it isn't game developers job to teach their customers. Most successful developers are some kind of ultimate goblins in their way of thinking.

Slawomir Chmielewski said...

They don't put in "just an extra porn to double revenues" because they'd lose their original audience.

Actually, they do. Almost every movie has an attractive actress in the cast and somebody will have sex with her. Then there are the new superhero movies with female leads and they pick Scarlett Johansson by sheer accident, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

Even if you can prove than 1% of the lockboxes contained that 1% droprate item, that doesn't necessarily mean that those lockboxes weren't given to the 1% of players determined most likely to ragequit, and the other 99% had a dead cat shuffled into their box via quantum sleight of hand.

Gevlon's point is that you can't TRUST them. And I'll taking grinding over buying keys with IRL money any day, as long as grinding mobs is fun and makes me feel like I'm controlling my character effectively (I might be an M&S, but I won't tolerate being given a casino when I signed up for a video game).

NoGuff said...

I love the fact that after several years of debating the F2P model, we are still having discussions over what are considered bad elements/implementations.

Unless I am mistaken, wasn't the whole premise behind F2P, is that it was the great equalizer between the "time rich" and the "money rich" crowds? So I don't see the rationale behind saying that element "X" is a bad design or implementation, especially seeing that players of these games gladly spend money to get around the time issue.

Gevlon said...

@Slawomir: Frozen didn't.

@NoGuff: I claim that lockboxes aren't a "pay-to-win" element, but a "pay-and-get-nothing" scam.

maxim said...

I recently dropped like 12 hours on an age-old PS1 game Tales of Phantasia (itself as SNES remake). It was easily the best gaming experience i had in years, completely outclassing all the recent fantasy RPGs, except maybe Dark Souls (and that only on the strength of being an entirely different niche).
Since i already paid for a copy decades long ago, nobody earned any money from this (except maybe electricity company).
I'm not sure what people earning money with games think they are for (despite having worked with those people for a while now), but i am damn sure they are not just for money-earning as far as i'm concerned

Tithian said...

I did not avoid the question, I simply think that such 'rigging' is impossible, because not everyone responds to streaks of bad luck the same way. Not everyone punches their keyboard when they are upset, or spam keys, or do anything other than curse at the screen. And anything similar to what you describe can easily backfire in multiple ways: people can game the system and prove the rigging, authorities can find out and impose heavy penalties etc. It's simply not worth it, because in the end gaming studios are not casinos, and the majority of people buying crates and such are not gambling addicts, but adults wasting 10$ to a lottery 'for fun'.

"I have no fear of (power item containing) lockboxes will happen everywhere."

They are everywhere. I think any MMO I've played in the recent years had some sort of "goodie crate" directly purchased at the store or the typical lockboxes where you'll have to buy keys, the only exceptions being WoW and, I guess, EVE.

Maybe it's just me attracted to 'trashy' games, but if the game is F2P then it almost certainly has lockboxes attached, from my experience. And almost everything releases as F2P nowdays.

If you want to steer clear of this kind of stuff you need to wait for an oldschool subscription MMO, maybe something along the lines of Camelot. Hopefully they won't screw it up.

Gevlon said...

@Tithian: outliers don't destroy the scheme. Yes, they misclassify people and lose income, they always upgrade their scans. But catching a single idiot who is ready to blow $10000 on boxes over a night of not winning anything pays for losing the $15 of a dozen mistakenly classified guys ragequitting.

"The only exception being WoW" is already the majority of the MMOs (as WoW has more players than all others combined)

Actually most games I know of (of course I'm not talking about mobile shit) are buy to play. Albion, Crowfall, Life is Feudal, Ark Survival. The scam of the year is kickstarter/early access and not lockboxes.

maxim said...

The size of WoW pales in comparison to some eastern MMOs, where microtransactions utterly dominate.

maxim said...

I guess the biggest problem i have with the message of this article is that an MMO having player-power-impacting mictortransations and MMO being good are not necessarily mutually exclusive
That being said, i am not aware of any MMO that has player-power-microtransations and is good. However, claiming my lack of knowledge as a universal trend is not a leap i'm comfortable making at this junction
So you please make it for me while i /popcorn :D

Gevlon said...

@maxim: I speak about Western market that I (and readers) know of.

How about LoL, WoT and EVE without rigging? All these games would be great with their item shops if they'd behave as they are advertised. I don't mind others buying gold tanks or even gold ammo, I only mind that the matchmaker gives me 50% winrate regardless of being consistently the best player on the team or purposefully playing as bad as I can.

Note: "great" =/= "profitable". I'm fully aware that LoL would probably go bankrupt if new champion users would face 5-10 defeats in a row until they learn their champion and WoT would lose its 20% winrate noobs fast. (EVE rigging isn't done by CCP, but devs on the take, it would be both more profitable and better without it)

I'm ready to make compromises with P2W, as after the skill injector results (showing that market prices accepted by players are so high for injectors that one can play for free after selling his subscription gained SP). I'm not a romantic purist who hopes the good old days back. But lockboxes are way out of the acceptable P2W, that's a flat out pay-for-nothing scam.