“Pay-to-win” is old news now — game designers’ new plan for hoovering all the cash out of our wallets is “pay-to-loot.”
According to IGN’s Nathan Lawrence, who dives into the topic today, that’s the term game psychologists are using to describe what online gamers have been derisively referring to as gambleboxes and lockboxes for years: You’re essentially buying chances at a thing, paying to roll the dice and let the RNG gods determine your reward, padding the game’s coffers all the while.
The gambling references aren’t accidental; one expert calls lootboxes a “poker machine-like experience,” while another points to the phenomenon as an exploitation of human nature:
“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 and figure out, ‘Well, did I figure it out this time?’ Even though, in the front part of your brain – in the rational slow-moving part of your brain – you know that it’s completely random and, no, you haven’t cracked the code or figured it out. But those circuits are hardwired in our brain, and they’re very effective and very powerful.”
The same psychologist argues for more transparency from developers, too, but we all know it’s the rare studio that will undertake transparency of its own volition while the money’s easy.
Please stop buying lockboxes.