Former SWTOR dev talks about designing ethical lockboxes

An extensive Twitter thread from former Star Wars: The Old Republic lead systems designer Damion Schubert grappled with the timely and touchy topic of lockboxes and microtransactions from the perspective of one who designed them.

Schubert said that designers can make lockboxes that aren’t pure evil: “I’ve been working in free-to-play games for four years, and lootboxes are pretty crucial to that business model working. But it is possible to do them ethically, and they are super easy to f**k up.”

“Good [microtransactions] design is an art,” he continued. “It requires designers to be equal partners with product managers to come up with something that is perceived as fair and is celebrated […] MTX will fail if it doesn’t feel good to spend. It will fail if it creates a poisonous environment around the game instead of excitement.”

He went on to point out that 90% or more of a free-to-play game’s audience isn’t there to spend anything but are essential for getting the word out, providing a massive social environment, and making sure that queues pop. It’s why Schubert is happy with targeting big spenders: “I’m pretty fine with those guys paying a lot of money so that a whole bunch of kids without money or credit cards can play my games for free. I’ve compared it to the old patron system in Renaissance times, where kings and rich dudes would subsidize art so everyone could enjoy it. ”

Trion Worlds CEO Scott Hartsman highlighted the thread in agreement, adding, “The exact thinking that led to us naming our optional subs ‘Patron’ programs — server-based games are vastly more expensive to operate than single player/small group/async games. Someone needs to kick in for the bills. Enter, patrons.”

Source: Twitter
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42 Comments on "Former SWTOR dev talks about designing ethical lockboxes"

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Alex Malone

Schubert said that designers can make lockboxes that aren’t pure evil: “I’ve been working in free-to-play games for four years, and lootboxes are pretty crucial to that business model working.”

Lootboxes were crucial to the business model of SW:TOR because you made a shit game! Without being able to rip off your playerbase you would have made a massive loss. How about next time you just make a good game that we’re willing to pay for?

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Ukrutor

Thing is that targeting only big spenders robs you of money from small spenders.

Say, ESO. I want to support that game, I like it, but I simply can’t justify buying anything at those prices. An outfit for 2000 crowns? A mount for 3000 crowns? Come on. I could have an entire game for that kind of money. So, as a result, I buy nothing. Not because I couldn’t afford it, but because the price is far higher than the value for me (even though they are doing their best to conceal the fact by hiding real prices behind some imaginary “crowns”).

“Micro” is fifty cents, a dollar, three dollars, even five dollars. There’s nothing “micro” about godsdamn twenty bucks.

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rafael12104

Ok. Been busy today, so I missed this one.

*shakes head*

So, Schubert says some good things here. Things that I can agree with. There is nothing wrong with the quote cited. I believe he is right. Microtransactions can be done well if marketing, the product team, the community team and the devs work together to create a point of sale mechanism that is good for the game and makes players feel good about their purchases.

Where it falls apart is, first, in the equivalence he assumes with regard to microtransactions and loot boxes. That is, namely, to imply that if you have microtransactions you then have loot boxes. Not so. No. You can make a significant profits without loot boxes at all. People will buy and return to buy more if they are happy with there purchases. You don’t need rng to force them to come back. Good gravy! I thought this was obvious.

Mark Jacobs, down below, sees this correctly. Why can’t others in the industry understand this. Profit in microtransactions do not have too include loot boxes.

The other thing, about the Patrons? LOL. Sorry that is a load of shit. Justification for fleecing whales. And the thing about that is, that it doesn’t stop with the whales. Hey, if you have big bucks to spend on a game, more power to you. But that doesn’t mean you should be exploited for it. And if it works on a whale? It will work on a guppy. But then, that doesn’t seem to matter.

Give us, a shop where we can buy the cool stuff that makes our toons unique. Cosmetics and convenience items are fair. Mounts, pets, and premium stuff, yes please. Take the rng out of it and be transparent. It’s not hard. Really, it’s not. Think of it as a store front.

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Bruno Brito

> “An extensive Twitter thread from former Star Wars: The Old Republic lead systems designer Damion Schubert ”

> “Trion Worlds CEO Scott Hartsman highlighted the thread in agreement, adding”

It’s like there’s a rule in this world that crap should converge.

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Arktouros

So when people tell me I’m part of the problem in GW2 because I bought all 30 mounts I should just tell them they should be thanking me for paying for them and they’re welcome for my patronage?

I’m sure that’ll go over swell.

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Serrenity

I kinda feel like if F2P relies on gambling and exploiting a loophole in gambling laws to be successful, that maybe they should be re-evaluating the F2P practice, instead of just saying ‘ethical’ gambling boxes are the ones that inspire more people to gamble.

Call me old fashioned, but I feel like developers should focus on creating a game / experience that people want to pay for rather than making a game no one cares enough to pay for except for the whales

And as if somehow the successful lawyer who’s a whale is any more ethical than a minimum wage worker who’s a whale.

Reader
Utakata

Sorry…but what a load of flowery drivel. /sigh

Reader
Bruno Brito

Or in more brazilian terms: “That’s a bunch of crap.”

InfractionRQ
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InfractionRQ

Amazing how disconnected from things people are today from the statements they make.

I’m kind of over supporting games that spend more of their development resources on how to make me part with more money in their cash shop rather than making a fun game that I contribute to monthly.

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zeko_rena

“I’m pretty fine with those guys paying a lot of money so that a whole bunch of kids without money or credit cards can play my games for free. I’ve compared it to the old patron system in Renaissance times, where kings and rich dudes would subsidize art so everyone could enjoy it.”

Dumbest thing I have read in a very very long time, and I read a lot of stupid shit on the internet.

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Malcolm Swoboda

Its true to an extent, but what is also true is the gross elitism and inaccuracy about how much access people got.

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Loyal Patron
Armsbend

You never read a history lessons of lines and lines of peasants crawling through art galleries and listening to Beethoven’s latest piece live?

lol.

Reader
drgreenhoe

Ethical lockbox = oxymoron.

Reader
Utakata

…kinda up there with “reasonable racist” or “law abiding mobster”, isn’t it? o.O

Reader
Loyal Patron
Armsbend

Please just shut the fuck up.

Reader
Witches

IF you consider “working” making as much as the most profitable game in the genre, while also spending much less than that game.

Reader
Sunken Visions

I don’t think these people have the slightest clue as to what makes lockboxes unethical. Though I guess it doesn’t matter much. Our economy is riddled with lockboxes and P2W mechanics, so I really can’t blame anyone for thinking there’s nothing wrong with it.

Woetoo
Reader
Woetoo

Nope.

Anything that relies on manipulating people’s emotional reaction and exploiting people’s psychological weaknesses will never be on the right side of ethical in my book.

It’s not a sliding scale of evil from 0 to 10.
Just because a game’s lock boxes aren’t quite as bad as another games, doesn’t detract from their exploitative nature.

Let’s not fool ourselves. This is nothing to do with customers/players, beyond a perception that a more “traditional” pricing left some money on the table. Money the bean counters wanted and saw a way of getting.

Reader
Kelly Smith

So, any type of sales anywhere, for anything…

Reader
Bruno Brito

“Woetoo
Interesting perspective.

No.”

Woetoo
Reader
Woetoo

Interesting perspective.

No.

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NeoWolf

Like they would know about ETHICAL lockboxes pfft please don’t make me laugh. SWTORS lockboxes stopped being ethical a long time ago.

they had them in a sweet spot for a time but then they got greedy and changed it and now they are about as good as their whole f2p set up.. i.e NOT AT ALL.

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Jeff

I don’t buy the whole….

We can’t make games without whales and Rich kids buying tons of Gambling boxes.

It’s a insult to the intelligence of anyone with an IQ above 50.

This is what works and has worked until the venture capitalist screamed for more profit.

Subscription models in where you make a game worth subscribing to, as long as you do good work you get paid.

Buy to play with new pay for content every six months

That’s it.

I know this works because in my 25 years in the industry, I watched it work and work well, until the suits that held the money saw what EA was doing and demanded those profit margins.

This model will return, because developers will come along and realize they can do just as well in a free market economy providing quality content at a reasonable price than the evil shit that is happening now.

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Isarii

I’m willing to give him more of a pass than usual because he’s only talking about them being necessary in the context of the free-to-play model specifically.
My personal outrage-o-meter reacts a lot differently to lootboxes in a F2P game than it does when they show up in a $60-$80 AAA title – the entire point of paying full price for a game, to me, is to avoid the F2P chicanery. If AAA wants to bring F2P, mobile design monetization strategies to their full price titles, than I just won’t be buying them. If the game is going to be screwing me over with microtransactions, I may as well not be paying for it.

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Michael18

SWTOR was my biggest MMO disappointment – Hoth was the only planet that remotely felt like an outdoor area, for example – and I think it has its share of responsibility for the sudden death of the AAA MMO. So when it comes to game design advice I have to admit being a little hesitant to rely on someone who had a leading role in the design of SWTOR.

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Kickstarter Donor
thalendor

The only good lockbox? The one your in-game Rogue friend opens for you with his or her lockpicking skill.

Ardo Norrin
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Ardo Norrin

Can there be “ethical lockboxes”? Certainly. I don’t think the “feels good to spend” is what would make it ethical, though; that’s like saying dealing drugs is ethical because the buyer feels good from the result. Personally, I think that a system whose result was that 10,000 players each bought 2 or 3 lockboxes would be preferable to one where 20-30 players each bought 1000 lockboxes. Thus, you’re looking at something more like “Guaranteed X really cool exclusive item everyone wants (or 1 of a few with equal probability of drop), plus a random assortment of other stuff that is or was available in game.”

I don’t mind lockboxes that are free or purchasable with in-game currency (we call these “treasure chests” and they’ve been around since before there were video games). But I think encouraging “whale” behavior is unseemly, and building your business model around it is genuinely unethical and means you are beholden to only a very small number of players, which will mean your game will decline in overall quality over time.

Reader
Simon F

The most ethical would be to not have lockboxes at all. Guild Wars 2 has a good F2P model in my opinion. I don’t agree with all of it, but I think it’s quite good, all things considered.

Reader
Jacobin GW

Aka drink the kool-aid.

He is fine with whales paying a lot of money so kids can play for free? These kids are just plebs who get an inferior experience and make the whales feel important. Also, since lockboxes = gambling I guess he has no problem with turning minors into compulsive addicts.

Trion agrees?

Have these people played Archage? You get massive vertical stat gains in exchange for cash in a pvp game. Its the most blatant bait and switch p2w scam in the entire history of western MMOs.

F2P is for lowest common denominator bottom feeder studios who can’t make good enough games to sell on their own merit and need to rely on slot machine business models.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Greaterdivinity

I don’t think SWTOR’s lockboxes are too bad last I recall, but it’s kinda amusing that you’ve got SWTOR, one of the games that routinely gets savaged for it’s poor F2P model for non-subs, and Trion, who are regularly hammered for bad F2P practices, chiming in on how to do something like lockboxes right.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment though, Division added lockboxes a while back and while I haven’t played extensively since then (waiting for 1.8 with the improvements to Underground matchmaking and the new open world zone), but those lockboxed “felt” great. Solid audio-visual feedback during the opening “experience”, packed with optional cosmetic stuff that’s a good mixture of far more desirable cosmetic outfit pieces as well as more common but less desirable recolors for guns and the like. Earned in-game but also available for cash. I get that they’re a “necessary evil” for some developers, and while I’m probably never going to be a fan of them there are implementations that I can absolutely live with.

miol
Reader
miol

I think we shouldn’t, like him, mix up F2P business models with lockbox systems!

It’s one thing to nickel and dime bag space into infinity so whales can buy 1,000,000+ extra item slots, if they want to, but another if you’re manipulated into paying way more for a single thing, only for the hope of paying less!

Reader
Mark Jacobs

I like and respect Damion, and I’ve known and have had massive respect for Scott H. for literally decades but…

I still hate paid lockboxes, most RMT, and have no desire to do a FTP game that needs them and whales to survive.

Reader
Bruno Brito

A question:

Do you believe that f2p games need some kind of gambling method or tangible stats advantage to thrive? Or is it possible to be a successful f2p without any kind of p2w method whatsoever?

Reader
Mark Jacobs

No, I don’t think you need P2W to make a successful FTP game. I think it can be done “right” but it isn’t easy.

InfractionRQ
Reader
InfractionRQ

And thats why I continue to follow what you develop.

Reader
Mark Jacobs

Much appreciated!

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Vunak

I respect you for making a game we all want. But Scott H. and TRION are a plague on the MMO genre. His company has taken an amazing game that should have been a slam dunk and turned it into one of the worst P2W AAA games in a long time.

It is sad because ArcheAge when it first came out could have thrived as a B2P or Sub based game.

Reader
MrNude

Hartsman was a class act in my eye’s during the Rift beta. Owning problems, and providing insight. I jumped in on Archeage during the beta, and played a lot of it. It was fun, until it wasn’t. The Thunderstruck Tree fiasco literally shifted the economy overnight. It put the cash grab on display for all to see immediately, and I left never to return. Since then anything Trion has touched has been a huge turd in my opinion. I now avoid Trion at all costs.

Reader
Dug From The Earth

Well there’s an oxymoron if i ever saw one.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Darthbawl

Ethical lockbox? Is this really a thing? Sounds like an oxymoron. :P

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

does he name any examples of where he has done the thing he suggests? because from word of mouth swtor sure aint one. and niether are trino games mr hartsman. XD

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Loyal Patron
Stormwaltz

He specifically mentioned his current game, Dungeon Boss.

I’ve said in previous comment threads that SWTOR lockboxes were, at first, absolutely worth what you spent. That changed as time as gone on. (But do bear in mind, I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who always subscribes, never does F2P. I’ve never had to deal with the irritations of “buy a hotbar” or “buy raid passes.”)

It used to be that with SWTOR lockboxes you’d always get multiple things in each and every one — pieces of cosmetic armor, mounts, pets, emotes, titles, reputation items, companion gifts, dyes, and as a fallback, items you could trade for rare crafting materials. None of it was required to get through the game, or even to get through more quickly. It was just fun.

I’m not proud of the fact that I spent hundreds on SWTOR lockboxes in years past… but I don’t regret any of it either. I’d definitely say that, to borrow Schubert’s words, it “felt good to spend.”

Things changed, of course. About the time SWTOR started doing “lockboxes inside lockboxes,” the rewards in individual lockboxes dwindled, and continued to be reduced over time. I don’t buy them often anymore. In fact, I don’t think I’ve bought any at all in 2017, despite having accrued thousands of free “cartel coins” from my subscription.

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