Massively Overthinking: How should MMOs make money in a world without lockboxes?


Earlier this week, MOP’s Justin expressed frustration over lockboxes, feeling especially provoked. “As both a player and a journalist, I find it insulting when an MMO studio wants me to get excited about its lockboxes,” he tweeted. “They are poison.”

MOP reader and gamer Iain (@ossianos) wants to hear more about poison! “I’d be interested to read an article on your thoughts, and those of the MassivelyOP staff, on how MMOs could otherwise make money,” he tweeted back.

Challenge accepted! And perfectly timed for this week’s Massively Overthinking topic. Imagine (or just remember) a world without lockboxes. How would MMOs and other online games survive without lockboxes here in 2017? What should they be doing instead, and what might they have to do when the inevitable gachapon regulation comes westward?

Everything comes around again.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think you can make lockboxes work, but it’s hard. I think Blizzard’s starting to figure it out. Skins, instanced housing, non-combat pets, and story-based DLC seem like fair game. It’s not an MMO, but look at Overwatch. It adds new characters, maps, gameplay options, and there’s no subscription.

But let’s say we scrap boxes entirely. Skins, instanced housing, and DLC are still pretty good. Guild advertising space in game might be interesting, as the high-end raiding guilds could still make a name for themselves through established communities and progression, but people wanting to start something new could boost themselves with a little cash instead of elbow grease. I’m not saying guild perks or something social should involve a paywall, just have the game selling space to advertise. The same could go for PvP ladder teams, raid groups, or alliances.

These may not make the same kind of cash as lockboxes, but they’d bring more goodwill. Again noting Overwatch, one of the things it really has going for it is personality. If developers actually make a good game before monetizing, it makes it easier for people to appreciate the game, and that makes moving merchandise easier. What’s great about merch is that it also works as advertising, which helps give you more customers.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I am of a mind that if the only way a studio can imagine to convince people to give it money is by tricking the dumbest, laziest, or richest among us with lockboxes designed to exploit their desires and math-incompetence by granting mere chances at digital loot in a video game, then it doesn’t deserve to exist anyway, both because its purveyors are awful and because it must not be that great a game to start with.

I get that the market has squeezed every penny it can out of subscriptions and free-to-play and microtransactions and early access and moved on to triple- and quadruple-dipping and now actual literal gambling, and it will keep doing these things until it’s forced to stop, either by your refusing to participate or your government’s intervention. Maybe I’d forgive lockboxes as a necessary evil if they were keeping great games online or creating great new MMORPGs for all of us. But they aren’t. They’re just padding the pockets of mega-corporations, from Blizzard and Bethsoft to Tencent and NCsoft. You want to feel sorry for indies? I do too, but indies aren’t at all the worst offenders. Supporting this model is just helping the rich get richer at your expense and the expense of the health and reputation of the genre.

So how do you make money without being unethical grossness? Make games that don’t suck and sell those games. Sell access, sell content, work your DLC and expansion magic — all the things games already do, without the lockboxes. Raise the sub to what it should be in 2017. Sell the cosmetics in the lockboxes directly without gamblebox shenanigans — in limited batches, or by auction, if need be.

A lot of games will never be made if they can’t exploit lockboxes. And dammit, that might actually be for the best if we really want a revolution in how these games are made and how we pay for them. If not, then we deserve exactly the garbage we get.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Part of me wants to be a little snippy at having to solve a studio’s problem for them. I mean, it’s not my problem. It’s not my business. I just call them out on their bad business practices and urge them to figure out a better way.

But I’ll take this topic head-on and give it some serious thought. First of all, I fully acknowledge that lockboxes are a proven revenue stream, a massive money maker, and a relatively easy way to generate repeat sales. And while there is some strong sentiment against them, there’s also a lot of acquiescence about their presence with phrases like “necessary evil” and “they finance the game for the other free players.” So studios don’t have a lot of incentive to stop making money when they’re not getting unified pushback from the community.

I stand by my words, though. They are poison, they are insulting, and they are gambling. I wasted enough money as a kid buying packs of trading cards hoping I’d get the ones I wanted before I realized that it was a losing proposition and that it was preying on people who didn’t know better. I think that’s why I get the most upset out of lockboxes, because they exploit weaknesses in human psychology and prey upon the most vulnerable. For profit.

So what should they be doing instead? Anything. Pretty much anything. They already have been. Lockboxes might be the most profitable revenue stream in an MMO, but they’re usually just one of many, and most of the rest of those streams are not as gross. Subscriptions, real money transfers, dungeon keys, cosmetics, rentals, housing, unlocks, classes, races, boosters, mounts, dyes, exclusive areas, pets, purchasable content, and so on. Free-to-play is most vulnerable to the lockbox invasion, while subscription-only is the most resilient. An “easy” solution to lockboxes would be to create a premium MMO that is popular, contains a lot of value and entertainment, and rests upon a subscription model.

In F2P games, I think that the key to eliminating lockboxes is to come up with something to sell that is repeatable and doesn’t cost the studio too much in time and resources to develop. Something small enough to tempt players into indulging without too much guilt and something they’ll want to purchase more often than not. And that thing is… I honestly don’t know. But just because I don’t have a perfect solution that has never been thought up before doesn’t mean lockboxes are OK as a fallback.

Perhaps a game needs to be created around a business model instead of having one foisted on it for a solution to present itself. Maybe studios need to come up with faster and more efficient ways to get new sellable items out to players. I thought Daybreak’s idea of letting players design in-game skins for PlanetSide 2 and profit sharing an interesting way for both parties to make money and Daybreak to harness player creativity to make assets on its behalf. Trove does something a little similar to that too, and I know that virtual worlds such as Second Life have thrived for years with this concept. I could really see this sort of model taking off in other games if the studios gave players the tools to mod and submit their own cosmetics, mounts, pets, and housing decor.

Another great and more recent example is what ROBLOX is doing by roping in players and turning them into “indie devs” who can create content on a faster scale and then make money for themselves and for the game at the same time. I’d rather be a creator than a sucker any day of the week.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The usual fallback I hear here is “subscriptions,” neglecting the fact that as a revenue stream, it turns out subscriptions are not actually one of the most productive ways of getting money. They work, but not for every game, and we need to just accept that as a reality. A free-to-play or partially free-to-play game is going to need something else. And Justin has the right of it; random item packs are about as much fun as ripping open a new pack of Magic cards only to find yourself rewarded with utter garbage, most of which you can’t even do anything with; in games like Star Wars: The Old Republic you can resell it, except you really can’t because the markets are flooded with garbage no one wants.

Of course, the reason lockboxes serve as a big revenue stream is because they essentially combine the frustration of boss loot with a price tag. It’s like watching the boss drop without dropping your dang sword, except instead of having to run the dungeon again, you need to spend five bucks. But it’s pretty dang predatory, however good your odds might be to get the things you want. It’s why I like the various currency-conversion systems available in some games, as I can’t help but see many of them as occupying the same design “slot,” so to speak. They’re stuff for you to spend money on repeatedly because you’ll need them again.

However, I think that’s also part of the problem. Lockboxes are designed in such a way that you need to buy them over and over. Currency tokens or exchanges, same thing. It’s these elements designed to make you spend money over and over instead of just getting what you want, and at its heart that’s why nothing matches the allure of the lockbox. However high you price an item (say, a monocle), it’s always going to be something you buy a fixed number of times. You could buy that same lockbox seven dozen times and still wind up without the thing you want.

Thus, there’s no incentive not to have them except to avoid that predatory label. The problem isn’t that other means of making money don’t exist; we see them. Plenty of games, including ones that sell lockboxes, sell things directly so you can just buy what you want. It’s just that there’s no good way to make you buy the same thing over and over outside of making it be a limited-time addition (which feels kind of crappy) or making it a lockbox (far crappier). And the obvious solution is to just have a fixed fee where you get certain stuff on a regular basis, but… that’s just describing a subscription again.

So there are plenty of ways to make money without lockboxes, there are plenty of ways to make lockboxes less skeevy, and there are plenty of ways to make sure you’re spending money on a game on a regular basis. Is there a better way to make a specific item just sell to someone over and over ad infinitum? Not really.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Because I like the anticipation and surprise of “What did I get?!” when collecting shinies in EverQuest II, I also like opening lockboxes. But there’s a catch: I like opening these little gifts when getting them and the means to open them are both obtained in the game! Basically, it’s just opening a loot chest to me that took a little more work to get open. When it becomes a matter of having to buy keys with money, I am no longer interested in opening them. I appreciate how Secret World Legends gives a cache lockbox key to subscribers every day (if they claim it), so I have the chance to open one a day. Unfortunately, I can collect more than 10 a day, so these items sit in my inventory and bank, beckoning me to open them. Willpower is definitely needed! The desire to open them all (or at least enough to get the item I want) is pretty strong at times, especially since I have yet to get the top item, even with the so-called increased chances.

Lockboxes that can be acquired or opened for cash, however, are problematic to me. Yes, I want companies to make money, but this system really encourages gambling addictions! That hope to get lucky while sacrificing what you may or may not be able to afford can lead to serious troubles. Sadly, that problem of “just one more” crops up in SWL as well; I feel it and have to resist! I don’t know that I have the answer because I definitely want games to succeed and lockboxes do generate funds, but there are too many negatives to me — negatives that are truly damaging to people. I still prefer subscription models that give everything for one known monthly fee. Leave lockboxes as a special loot that isn’t tied to real money.

Your turn!

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