This is how MMO lockboxes manipulate your mind

It is not going to shock you to hear that lockboxes are kind of evil. We here at Massively OP have been beating on that drum for years now. But studios keep selling them and players keep buying them, so on the drum beat goes.

If you’ve brushed off the insidious nature of lockboxes so far, it might behoove you to read this piece from PC Gamer that takes an unflinching look at how game designers use specific, targeted elements to prey upon players’ psychology and brain chemistry — and that many of these techniques are the same ones employed by gambling establishments.

Why do lockboxes work so well? Something called “variable rate reinforcement” factors into it, says Dr. Luke Clark of the Center for Gambling Research: “The player is basically working for reward by making a series of responses, but the rewards are delivered unpredictably. We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards. Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.”

Source: PC Gamer. Thanks Agemyth and Pierre!
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54 Comments on "This is how MMO lockboxes manipulate your mind"

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Mewmew
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Mewmew

I’m a lock box junkie. I am not a whale, I can’t afford the money I spend on them and hurt other parts of my life because of it. I don’t know what my problem is I just can’t stop buying them. Even on games that they’re just cosmetics, I want to buy that box and get a big win on a rare item. I should know that the amount of money I spend to get the wins is ridiculous and amounts to the same as the percentages anyway but I just keep doing it.

Honestly I wish I could stop. I need to transition into someone who spends far less money on virtual gaming goods than I do now. I spend $500+ on each game, games I will stop playing after a month, regularly, over and over. I realize I’m being taken advantage of but just keep doing it. I don’t know what my problem is. I know I shouldn’t do it but just do it anyway. It’s just a button press away.

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George

Sorry to hear that. No matter the form, gambling is a dependency, and as such should be treated and “cured”. So, maybe you should seek out for a little help.

amkosh
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amkosh

Fact: Every game has a finite amount of stuff you can buy.
Fact: A Lockbox gives the illusion that you may get something new.
Fact: If people didn’t pay for games, the companies would shut them down.

So do I:
a) Play politics, don’t buy lockboxes and let my favorite game die
or
b) Buy lockboxes, sell what I don’t want and keep the others and hope enough other people don’t want my favorite game dead so it doesn’t?

Example: Had City of Heroes a game which I know is near and dear to a lot of you massively OP peeps had a reliable and strong revenue stream (say 50% of the playerbase spending 40-50$ a month) then NCSoft would not have DARED sunset it. One way to get people to do that: Lockboxes.

So please excuse me if I’d rather see my fav games win rather than some political anti gambling crap (which really is crap)

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Sally Bowls

All the psychology, dopamine and VRR arguments apply to any variable reward, not just the rewards authors don’t like.

E.g., remember when posters on social media whinged about the variable nature of WoW legendaries? The claims that players preferred a sure thing over random rewards? The exact same “science” used in the lockboxes-are-evil arguments also says that the players prefer random over deterministic loot drops. Nowhere in “dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis.” does it say the dopamine is only triggered if the randomness comes from an evil purchased lockbox.

The only defense that the variable random reward that are drops have over lootboxes like Hearthstone and Overwatch is incompetence. I.e., a piece of random unidentified gear that drops from a PoF GW2 mob and a H/O lootbox are both looking for random-induced dopamine; it’s just Anet is not willing to spend the money to make the reveal of the random gear to be as exciting as some lockbox reveals. They are both casinos paying off in dopamine; I see no moral superiority for the one with less noise, flash and neon. A brothel with ugly prostitutes is still a brothel; dopamine manipulation is still the goal whether it is with the whoosh of a lockbox opening or a less pretty random loot drop.

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socontrariwise

I seem to be utterly immune to “upredictable result thrill”. My thrill comes from knowing what I get, that I can afford it and the thing is worth what I spend on it and that it is the lowest price necessary.

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Ket Viliano

You may as well complain about psychology in sales. These things are good to know about, but they are ubiquitous in most any modern society.

I don’t much like lockboxes, I never buy keys, but the people calling for legislation have gone mad.

PS: That stupid poorly coded PC gamer site ate 100% of the gpu from my 1080ti. Just a tad resource intensive, you know?

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Paragon Lost

Yeah wow, mine went from 10% to 10% here on Massively to upwards of 60% on PC Gamer’s website. I have MassivelyOp white listed for Adblock and Ghostery and yet PC Gamer I have all that crap blocked it and it still climbed. Sheesh, what a bunch of crap.

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Paragon Lost

Damn typo that was supposed to be 10% to 12% on MassivelyOp.

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Ket Viliano

Yea, most web developers are extra sloppy, and never QA test their own work, not even to the meager extent of checking to see how a site looks in a browser other than the one it was developed in.

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Maggie May

Eso has lock boxes that I never buy … Every now and then they have a free weekend with a few free boxes, I always get a few pets and some cosmetics which I gladly take and go on my way. I am not much of a gambler but if people want to spend their own money on them who am I to complain?

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Robert Mann

Meanwhile, there’s other responses including my personal favorite the “Yeah, go suck a rotten egg.” Which is saying “You know, I would have bought one of those things, but since it’s only in a lockbox you can forget about it!”

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Major Glitch

That reminds me, I need to buy some lockboxes. Why? Well apparently, it’s because I am being manipulated. It has nothing to do with the fact that I a) have disposable income, b) want to financially support the people that make the game I play, c) actually have use for the various items that drop in lockboxes, or d) just because I want to. Nope. It’s all because of dopamine. Free will and personal responsibility be damned.

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rafterman

You’re right, not everyone who buys them does so because they are manipulated…some people are just stupid.

Congratulations! Even if you have disposable income, want to support the company, and have use for the items you’re still being taken advantage of because they could just as easily sell the damn items themselves instead of putting them in a stupid gambling system. And by buying these boxes instead of letting developers know that they aren’t ok, you’re supporting a horrendously predatory practice that adds zero value to gaming.

I’m far from adverse to spending money on my games. Hell, I’ve multiple times gone on record that I want the subscription model back and I’ve easily spent five digits on MMOs over the years. But, this isn’t the way to support a developer and it’s sure as hell not the way to treat your customers. Lockboxes are greedy, evil, and a scummy way to milk your playerbase…end of story!

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Serrenity

Come on, you know that’s ridiculous. These things don’t force you to spend money, but they create the perfect environment for you to spend as much money as possible with as little cost to the company as possible.

I kind of think of it like if I were playing poker at the casino, except the dealer could see my hand, and I couldn’t. I trust the dealer, who has a vested interest in me losing, to tell me whether I won or not. Every time. And even if I caught the “dealer” lying to me, my agreed-to EULA makes sure I have absolutely no recourse to do anything about it.

This coming largely from companies who have histories of anti-consumer practices. And literally no oversight into what or how they are doing literally anything.

All this to say nothing of the addiction-enablement mentality, the fake currency so it doesn’t feel like real money when you buy it, etc etc etc

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Jeff

Yeah me too…..I actually got a couple death threats over the Wild Hunt horse I was tooling around with. I wonder what a skeletal bear will get me?

Seriously I worked my ass off for 30 years, If I want to blow my money on strippers and single malt or Crown Crates, it’s my business.

Cadaver
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Cadaver

Yeah, lockboxes are kind of evil. Tell us something we don’t know.

“Alternatively, Freud suggested that it’s rooted in a deep desire to reclaim the poo you excreted as a baby. “

Well I didn’t know that. I don’t believe that I ever hoarded my shit as an infant and I know that I’ve never bought a lockbox. But for those have and those that will, perhaps a lockbox full of baby shit could be both rewarding and therapeutic?

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Robert Mann

ROFL I must have missed that. Freud worked with a lot of farmers in need of fertilizer for their fields, I’m going to guess… that or a lot of perverts.

cambruin
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cambruin

Do you login for your daily reward? Do you run that same dungeon again and again and again? Do you feel compelled to go through all the daily quests?

I don’t, and I get there just the same. I’ll buy my rep with ingame gold, I’ll settle for that much more easily attainable medium armour chestpiece that adds only 5 dexterity less than the top-tier one locked behind mindnumbing, spiritcrushing raids. And as for that daily reward? I’ll not risk getting late to work, or having a fight with the wife because I ‘just quickly need to log in’.

Too many people suffer from OCD and that’s on them. Lockboxes are just another way to tap into that addiction factor, the only problem here is the actual cost is too obvious. I’m pretty sure many people have lost jobs, relationships, friends, … over ingame addictions, yet the genre has never before been so popular. But those losses aren’t as ‘obvious’. If the job were better I’d have stayed. If only she didn’t grow so **** she’d still be my wife. He’s into Juston Bieber, he can’t possibly be my friend!

How I wish it were still a niche.

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Serrenity

I gotta say, not much of your post makes sense … Im having trouble following it

styopa
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styopa

They work?
How?

I suppose, just like there are people who really believe there are Nigerian princes out there needing a place to send their $millions, there are real people out there who are willing to spend real life cash on a CHANCE of some virtual gewgaw.

I just didn’t think that many senior citizens played MMOs (yet).

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NeoWolf

The fact that companies would prey on people in this way is reprehensible as far as im concerned and makes them little better than drug pushers.

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rafael12104

Time to weigh in, I guess.

I’m no fan of lockboxes. But to leap and condemn them as amoral or immoral based on a PC gamer article is ridiculous. Guess what? A lot of things out there raise our dopamine levels and most of them are perfectly legal. People can feel good about all sorts of things without resorting to drug abuse or some nefarious plan for addiction.

Personal choice. That is where I come down on this. Gamers should be able to choose to participate using lockboxes and then take personal responsibility for doing so!

Oh, but what about the kiddies and those prone to addiction?

Well, IMO, the kiddies shouldn’t be playing MMOs unsupervised. And if they are older the shouldn’t be spending real money in games without parental permission. If your an adult, it’s all on you.

As for those prone to addiction, well, you have to take responsibility for that trait too. We are not animals. We can control ourselves. Self control is harder for some than for others but it is the norm. So, control yourself. If it becomes too hard, you stop playing.

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Serrenity

I won’t belabor the point here, but addiction isn’t fixed by just “controlling yourself” just like depression isn’t fixed by “just getting over it”

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rafael12104

Fair enough. I don’t disagree. But that is not what I was saying at all.

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Major Glitch

Personal responsibility? Never! Let’s blame gaming companies instead. And while we’re at it, let’s blame casino operators for people’s gambling addictions as well.

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Darthbawl

Very few things polarize the gaming community like lockbox discussion. If you can handle the language, Jim Sterling has many videos on YT talking about lockboxes, including the psychological issues with them. Yes, he is no psychologist but provides some great points.

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Jeff

Thanks for the caveat…..I personally try not to listen to psychology from non psychologist.

Just like I don’t get my investment advice from my Barber, or relationship advice from the six time divorced dude.

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Darthbawl

Still worth watching though. I don’t pay much stock in his psychological talk bits.

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Yuri Geinish

I spent hundreds of dollars on Art of Conquest following Kripp’s sponsored streams. I regret doing so, not because it made me poorer, but for it being a stupid thing to do. I spent thousands on World of Tanks throughout years. I started to regret it upon realising money is the only way I can control the devs, however weak that control is. I also realised the things they do don’t cost that much. Sure, they say Victor Kisliy is a dollar millionaire now, good for him. But I regret making him rich by throwing money on overpriced stuff.

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MesaSage

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loot.jpg
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rafael12104

comment image

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Don Nascimento
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odin valhalla

NVM, not worth the aggravation.

threeknee
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threeknee

Once you start (over)analyzing things, the whole MMORPG genre is like the worst thing ever and does nothing but abuse the players. I don’t wanna feel like a lab rat, I prefer ignorance.

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Jacobin GW

Its standard slot machine tactics which makes all the money in Vegas. Its been clear for a while now that the sub or SAAS model won’t make game devs rich so instead they create online slot machines with MMO GUIs.

They flush the user experience down the toilet in favor of quick low hanging profits from naive gamers, many of whom are probably not even legal gambling age. This is clearly the case with Asian port pump and dumps who seem to have a way younger demographic.

Best thing is that as soon as one games implodes and is labelled P2W or more correctly P2Gamble, a new one is just around the corner that for whatever reason gets the benefit of the doubt time and time again. These games are so cheaply made that they will never stop.

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Jeff

See I don’t think it has to be that way and in many cases it isn’t.

Neverwinter has very good questing story and dungeon system, the same can Be said for ESO. Both games are cranking out decent content hand over fist both games have a metric shit ton of players.

I think the games that will do well are going to be those that provide content fun and desirable items locked in a a loot crate. The Tera’s of the industry may do well in China but not so much in the west because Westerners need more than just the gotta catch em all payoff.

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Jeff

What I find equally fascinating is the almost homicidal rage some folks go into when they see someone with a very rare drop. Immediately the focus of that anger is hit with five to ten labels and assumptions.

Anyway

The bottom line is the drum beating that progressive gaming news sites like Massively are engaging in is going to do jack and Shit in changing the paradigm.

Lottery tickets could also be considered evil, as can MTG booster packs, and slot machines, shooting craps playing blackjack etc etc.

All of these also make developers Scrooge McDuck vaults of money (I have a couple friends at Zenimax and Christmas bonuses were incredible last year and are expected to be better this year) Nothing can bring in the type of profits that Loot boxes can and love them or hate them they are a hit.

You can argue the morality of it all day, but it is the same failed moral arguments that was used in Prohibition. In our society, Lottery Tickets, Loot boxes, alcohol, and Gambling are not going anywhere, because if you try and regulate one you have to go after the entire enchilada and good luck because we don’t and wont live in a nanny state, and the sheer legal power keeping these things profitable for their investors are supported with very well worded contracts that all participants agree to.

I don’t expect massively to ever stop beating the drum, or the hand wringing to stop (Think of the children!!!) but I hope you guys realize for every nod of agreement 10k players purchase a fat pack of loot crates or keys to open said crates…you can no more stop them than you can Grandpa buying the 100 dollar lottery ticket.

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Serrenity

In our society, Lottery Tickets, Loot boxes, alcohol, and Gambling are not going anywhere, because if you try and regulate one you have to go after the entire enchilada and good luck because we don’t and wont live in a nanny state,

I mean, all of those those are regulated. And not lightly –heavily regulated so I’m not sure what you are hoping to accomplish with this, but your argument falls flat here.

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camelotcrusade

I agree with you that profitability is the driver of lockboxes, and I also think any effective remedy to them lies in attacking what is basically free money for the practice.

A social responsibility movement that rewards companies for participating could work in theory — and by that I mean a situation where consumers don’t want it, companies listen, and then are rewarded by consumers choosing their product over competitors who don’t listen — but as we can see the foundation for that is not nearly strong enough yet. Massively and others can drumbeat to that end and I hope they succeed.

More plausible to me is alerting other nefarious forces (i.e., politicians) that free money is to be had and encouraging them to tax it. It wouldn’t stuff the genie back into the bottle but it might dampen some of the enthusiasm.

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Bruno Brito

Should we stop trying to fix everything wrong with the world just because it’s hopeless too?

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Bryan Correll

“You can’t give up hope just because it’s hopeless. You gotta hope even more, and cover your ears and go ‘bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla!'”
– Philip J. Fry

miol
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miol

Wanting the same responsible gambling boundaries outside of casinos is nothing unreasonable to ask! Comparing this “drumming” to an all out Prohibition is simply hyperbole!

And speaking of lotteries: Promoting state lotteries as something to help schools out, while at the same time and by the same amount school budgets are cut, shows very well that bounderies are needed without calling it automatically a nanny state! ;P

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Jeff

I’m not going to get into the sketchy minutia of how much of lottery dollars actually goes to schools (Hint not very much) You can also quote John Oliver all you want (Also hint…things are usually more complicated than his sanctimonious hyperbole) the reality is wanting and getting in this case are light years apart.

There is nothing wrong with wanting aunt Ida to stop blowing her Social security on scratch offs, but the reality is no one can actually stop her from doing it.

Just like you can’t stop Billy Bob, from buying those crown crates and even if you do the only thing you will achieve is Billy Bob will move on to something else to blow his money on and the the company will shut the game down over massive profit loss.

So no one really wins.

As Kissinger once said…”You just can’t legislate morality”

miol
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miol

Only seeing the Prohibiton in demands for reasonable boundaries already tested and proven for casinos is purely dismissive and hyperbole!

But thinking recruiting and preying on the young and weak to finance your personal entertainment would be a loss!?
That’s a new low!

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Jeff

Yes I’m a evil terrible person, that eats babies and wears the skins of my enemies.

I’m sure there is a protest waiting for you somewhere maybe the revolution will start today.

miol
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miol

…and the hyperbole goes on. …and on. …and on.

That’s why we can’t have nice things. -.-

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Jeff

I have very nice things.

And just pulled an apex mount from a crown crate whoo hoo

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Bruno Brito

Grats. You could avoid all that crap and just say you want to placate you need to win something effortlessly.

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kgptzac

I think the word “moral” should be put in quotes now, because nowadays complaining the existence of lockboxes is no different from beating a dead horse. Also we can derive all kinds of chemical reactions from the fact that people get entertained by video games, and anything else, and that fact alone doesn’t imply stuff being “insidious” or immoral.

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Armsbend

Forwarding the PC Gamer article to my state congressmen and women. Thank you for the link.

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Tobasco da Gama

In other words, lootboxes just monetise the addictive pathways that raid chests have always exploited.

dixa
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dixa

I don’t see the correlation. Raiding in a post WoW world the player has finite chances per week to try for loot. With lockboxes the only limit is your wallet and self control.

I’m actually on with lockboxes having purely cosmetic rewards. It’s the STO system where the best gear is in those boxes where that really is nothing more than gambling

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Serrenity

The thing that kills me about just the cosmetics argument– there were skins in GW2 I really really wanted. I would have paid a fair amount for, but I didn’t pay anything because they were locked inside lockboxes. I mean, so they refused guaranteed money.

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Bruno Brito

Solving the issue: Make cheap boxes with random cosmetics and sell the set directly for a decent amount.

Win-win.

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